23 May 2014

Support for suicide reporting change

12:51 pm on 23 May 2014

Minister for Courts Chester Borrows has said he supports a change to lift some restrictions on media reporting of suicide, on the basis that it strikes a good balance between encouraging frank discussion of the problem while minimising risk.

Chester Borrows.

Chester Borrows. Photo: NATIONAL PARTY

The Government has agreed to implement changes recommended by the Law Commission to limit restrictions to the reporting of those details most likely to cause harm, such as method and location.

Mr Borrows said the new law will include stronger penalties for breaking it - a $20,000 fine for a media organisation or $5000 dollars for an individual.

"I don't think it'll take too many prosecutions before people will sit up and take note. I think the other thing though is that society will quite quickly show its abhorence for breaches" he said.

The Media Freedom Committee said the move to clarify the rules on suicide reporting will enable more appropriate and safer reporting.

Committee chair Joanna Norris, editor of The Press newspaper in Christchurch, said responsible media organisations had no interest in reporting distressing or intimate details around suicide but wanted to enable open discussion of a major problem.

"Major media organisations, and the Media Freedom Committee in particular, are of the view that this is an important issue, deeply important, that affects many New Zealanders and that it warrants a more open discussion in the public domain" she said.

Joanna Norris said the committee was looking forward to seeing the fine detail of the legislation.

Concern about the law changes

About 500 New Zealanders commit suicide each year, and media organisations will be allowed to report more freely on them under the proposed changes.

Bedside pills.

Photo: PHOTO NZ (file)

But some in the mental health sector argue the Government should not relax restrictions without enforcing more specific guidelines for journalists at the same time.

Suicide Prevention Information New Zealand, which is run by the Mental Health Foundation, said the law change will make it easier to deal with black and white cases.

Its spokesperson, Moira Clunie, said the current law is not well understood.

"People think it's an attempt to gag the media or stop people talking about suicide but it's actually in place to manage the real public health risk in reporting suicide."

However Ms Clunie said the current law does not work because it is mostly ignored by media with no repercussions, and so changes were needed.

She said it was disappointing the Government was not following the Commission's recommendation to introduce more detailed media guidelines at the same time to deal with "the more nuanced issues".