Independent on Sunday, 17 August 2014
Lurid coverage of suicides, police alerting media to a search of a celebrity’s home – all this was supposed to be behind us
One morning last week, I woke to the solemn tones of the right-wing commentator Anne Atkins on Radio 4, offering her reflections on the suicide of the actor Robin Williams. Atkins opened with an anecdote from 1806, describing how a man consulted a doctor in London and asked for help with depression. The doctor’s advice was simple: go and see the great clown Grimaldi, who was appearing in pantomime in Covent Garden. According to Atkins, the man’s reply – and I think we need to imagine violins here – was “I am Grimaldi”.
In other versions of this story, the clown’s name is given as Pagliacci, which is the title role in an opera by Leoncavallo. The fact that both versions were repeated last week is evidence of the power of stereotype, showing just how many people want to believe that comedians are inherently sad. Existential angst featured heavily in Russell Brand’s Guardian column on Williams’s suicide, which displayed the comedian’s usual species of sixth-form analysis: “Is it melancholy to think that a world that Robin Williams can’t live in must be broken? To tie this sad event to the overarching misery of our times?”
Williams was not the only celebrity who made headlines for the wrong reasons in recent days. Reporters and a BBC crew were already outside an apartment in Berkshire belonging to Sir Cliff Richard when it was searched by police on Thursday, following an allegation of historical sex abuse at a rally in Sheffield in 1985.
The singer, who was out of the country, denied the allegation and issued a statement which accused the police of tipping off the press in advance. This practice was criticised in the Leveson report, which said such leaks “are not in the public interest” and that briefings to the press should be handled “through open and transparent procedures”. A day later, South Yorkshire Police issued a curiously worded statement admitting it had decided to work with an unnamed “media outlet” on being told that news of the raid had leaked to journalists.
Not for the first time, some sections of the press are behaving as though the Leveson inquiry never happened. The former boxing promoter Kellie Maloney has revealed that she went public about her new life as a woman only after two newspapers threatened to expose her. And it is only five months since several national newspapers were roundly criticised for providing too much detail about the suicide of the designer L’Wren Scott, including a Daily Mail column which offered a macabre fashion detail about the method she used to kill herself. Scott’s death promoted a raft of speculation about why this glamorous woman had ended her own life, citing the state of her finances and supposed tensions in her relationship with Sir Mick Jagger.
The same thing happened after Williams’s death, despite advance warnings to newspapers from the mental-health charity Mind and the Samaritans. When celebrities kill themselves, there is an obvious risk that vulnerable people will draw comparisons with their own lives and make copycat attempts. Yet the Daily Mirror’s front page threw caution to the winds and announced that Williams “hanged himself when money worries pushed him to despair”. The Daily Mail’s front page declared that Williams was “facing bankruptcy” and asked whether “money troubles” tipped him over the edge. Both The Sun and the London free newspaper, Metro, described on their front pages how Williams killed himself.
This lurid coverage involved so many apparent breaches of the Editors’ Code of Practice that it was hard to keep track. The code says that publication should be handled “sensitively” in cases involving grief or shock, while a clause on reporting suicide expressly advises against “excessive detail about the method used”. The chief executive of Mind, Paul Farmer, condemned “salacious speculation” about the cause of Williams’s suicide and offered this succinct summary of why journalists need to exercise caution: “In short it’s to keep people, who may be struggling with their mental health, safe.” Someone else put it even more starkly, declaring that editors have a duty not to kill their readers.
It was only a matter of time before all these voices urging caution were vindicated in a particularly grim manner. What none of the amateur psychologists knew when they produced a slew of sensational headlines was that Williams had been told he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. The devastating diagnosis was revealed on Thursday by his wife, Susan Schneider, who said he was in the early stages of the degenerative condition. According to her statement, the actor was “not ready” to make the diagnosis public but his “sobriety was intact” at the time of his death, scotching rumours that he had starting drinking again.
Pictures then emerged of the actor at a reception at an art gallery in San Francisco last weekend, taken weeks after a widely published “last photo” of him posing with an employee at an ice-cream parlour in June. The Daily Mail described the photographs as “heartbreaking” even though one of them, taken from behind, simply showed the actor in a short-sleeved black shirt and trousers. A sculptor called Mark Jaeger, whose work was on display at the gallery, recalled that Williams was in high spirits, talking and laughing with other guests. Clearly, mental-health charities are right to warn that suicide has complex causes.
Williams’s premature death is tragic. He had suffered from depression in the past but a diagnosis of Parkinson’s would be hard for anyone to cope with, no matter how psychologically robust. Sadly, the revelation produced a fresh round of stereotypes, recasting Wednesday’s frail victim of addictions and money problems into Friday’s heroic patient “battling” a dreadful disease. Heartlessness and sentimentality go hand in hand, as sections of the British press never cease to remind us.
For confidential support call the Samaritans in the UK on 08457 90 90 90, visit a local Samaritans branch or click here for details
Joan Smith is executive director of ‘Hacked Off’