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Panpa Bulletin : March 2006
Media MatterS the Criminal Code Amend- ment (Suicide Related Ma- terials Offences) Bill makes it an offence to use a "carriage service" (the Internet, wire service or broadcast medium) to publish material which promotes or pro- vides instruction on a method of committing suicide. As with many publishing re- strictions, including the sedition laws, it does not appear that the legislators have set out to target the mainstream media. In fact, they have even inserted a qualify- ing provision allowing people to "engage in public discussion or de- bate about euthanasia or suicide" as long as they do not intend pro- viding instruction on a method of committing suicide. The law is clearly directed at or- ganisations like Exit International, headed by euthanasia campaigner Dr Philip Nitschke. Nevertheless, it is easy to en- visage situations where a narrow reading of the legislation could catch newspaper websites and wire services in its net. For example, the suicide death of prominent figures like Michael Hutchence or Paul Hester are such big stories that editors may be tempted to overstep the mark and publish details of the methods used. Perhaps even a photograph of a car with a hose strapped to its exhaust pipe and fed back through a window might be deemed "pro- viding instruction on a method". A Sydney Daily Telegraph front page lead on July 4, 2003, titled "Death at the mall", told of two sui- cides on the one day at the West- field Parramatta shopping centre. It featured artwork showing the exact locations of the death leaps, complete with arrows showing the launch and landing points. The story stated: "... he stood leaning with both arms on the rail as if 'meditating', looking down- wards. The heavily built man then climbed over the railing quickly, turned around and threw himself backwards into mid-air. He landed in front of a Norgen Vaaz ice cream stall to the horror of shoppers." There is little doubt this "directly or indirectly provides instruction on a particular method of com- mitting suicide", but the question of intent would be a moot point and, of course, the material would have had to be published on the newspaper's web site. Even a Brisbane Courier-Mail story about the new legislation contained some quotes from Dr Nitschke which might breach the section if published today. The ar- ticle stated: "Dr Nitschke said his organisa- tion was getting a number of in- quiries from people seeking advice on travelling to Mexico to 'pick up the best drugs' to drink and 'just go to sleep'. "'If you set off to Mexico you can come back and have the medica- tion in the cupboard when you need it,' he said." At a stretch this could be read as "providing instruction", although the newspaper's intent would be difficult to prove and one would hope it would be exempted as dis- cussion or debate. Of special concern to news- paper web hosts must be reader forums and chat lists where in- structional information might be posted. The Australian Press Council has for some time had guidelines on the reporting of suicide, includ- ing a recommendation that details of methods be excluded from such stories. Government-funded projects, including Mindframe Media and Mental Health (MMMH) and Re- sponsibility, have also issued re- porting guidelines for suicide and mental illness which discourage the detailing of methods. All this is welcome advice, squarely in the domain of industry self-regulation of its ethical prac- tices. However, it is disturbing to see ethical guidelines translate into legislative measures, particularly when the media get caught up in governments' attempts to catch other fish. Most concerning is that the Senate committee received only one submission from a media-re- lated body, and that was from the Australian Broadcasting Authority concerning its overlapping powers of Internet regulation -- nothing to do with the issues raised here. The other 31 submissions, four tabled documents and seven witnesses were almost all euthanasia or reli- gious representations. Where were the Press Council, MEAA and industry legal teams for this inquiry? The Responseability group in February issued an informa- tion sheet on the new laws which leaves unresolved the extent to which media organisations might get caught in the new net. It states: "The Attorney-General's Depart- ment is unable to provide specific legal advice as to whether particu- lar media outlets need to reconsid- er how they publish suicide-related material on the Internet. However, it is likely that these amendments would complement existing Codes ofPractice, whichensure that men- tioning specific methods of suicide is strongly discouraged, to avoid possible copycat behaviour." None of us wants to trigger a spate of copycat suicides among our readers. Nevertheless, some- times there might be extenuating circumstances where editors may be tempted to provide details of a suicide method for public inter- est reasons. Perhaps, for exam- ple, there is evidence of foul play or police ineptitude, perhaps the details are contained in a feature examining the rise of suicides as a social phenomenon, or perhaps the methods used were so bizarre that they are newsworthy in their own right. If editors came to such a deci- sion before 2006, the worst con- sequence they faced might have been an adverse Press Council decision. Now they can ponder a$110,000 fine and criminal record and, with- out a whisper of complaint from our own representatives, suicide reporting gets added to the litany of publishing restrictions we face every day. Professor Mark Pearson is the Head of Journalism at Bond university, Queensland. Suicide net may catch media new laws have put large fnes onto publishing material which promotes or provides instruction on committing suicide. Mark Pearson writes of his concern. it is easy to envisage situations where a narrow reading of the legislation could catch newspaper websites and wire services in its net March 2006 PaNPa bUlletiN | 15