By Steven | August 29, 2010
There’s much to ponder in James Hollings’ thoughtful opinion piece on suicide reporting in this week’s Sunday Star-Times. Why are NZ’s suicide statistics so high, though our reporting restrictions are so tight? How convincing is the social science research suggesting media reports can lead to copycat suicides? Is important reporting being headed off by the gag around things that look like suicides? Did the government really think hard enough about the Bill of Rights before imposing this ban?
But I think he goes too far in saying this:
We should be clear that this censorship is in fact self-censorship.
Hollings’ theory is that the restrictions in the Coroners Act do not actually stop the media from reporting that a death is (or may be) a suicide. I think he’s wrong.
Here’s the wording of the law:
(1) No person may, without a coroner’s authority, make public any particular relating to the manner in which a death occurred if—
(a) the death occurred in New Zealand after the commencement of this section; and
(b) there is reasonable cause to believe the death was self-inflicted; and
(c) no inquiry into the death has been completed.
(2) If a coroner has found a death to be self-inflicted, no person may, without a coroner’s authority or permission under section 72, make public a particular of the death other than—
(a) the name, address, and occupation of the person concerned; and
(b) the fact that the coroner has found the death to be self-inflicted.
(3) The only grounds on which a coroner may under this section authorise the making public of particulars of the death (other than those specified in subsection (2)(a) and (b)) are that the making public of particulars of that kind is unlikely to be detrimental to public safety.
(4) In determining whether the grounds specified in subsection (3) are made out, a coroner must have regard to—
(a) the characteristics of the person who is, or is suspected to be, the dead person concerned; and
(b) matters specified in any relevant practice notes issued under section 132 by the chief coroner; and
(c) any other matters the coroner considers relevant.
Hollings has a point: the wording of this section is ambiguous. What’s a “particular relating to the manner in which a death occurred”? Might it only include descriptions of the method used to commit suicide - jumped off a building, shot to the head, car-in-garage, etc? That would still leave the media free to report that it was - or may have been - a suicide. Such an interpretation may also be supported by the Bill of Rights, which requires statutes to be read consistently with rights such as free speech if possible. Burrows and Cheer in the leading text Media Law in NZ also note the ambiguity.
My first point: just because it’s ambiguous, that doesn’t mean everyone is self-censoring. There’s no guarantee that a court would adopt this interpretation. Burrows and Cheer certainly don’t say so.
My second point: I don’t think a court would adopt this interpretation. For a start, courts try to interpret statutes to fulfil the policy they’re aiming at. The policy here is to protect the privacy of families (something Hollings doesn’t mention), and to preserve public safety. I don’t know what the social science evidence says about copycat suicides where it’s only the fact of the suicide that’s reported and not the method, but I’m guessing that the reporting of (for example) celebrity suicides such as that of Kurt Cobain may produce more deaths even by those who don’t copy (or know of) the methods.
Both of these purposes are better advanced by a wider reading of the section than a narrow one. That’s likely to strongly influence a court.
Courts also construe sections against their context. When the coroner’s inquest is completed (but not before then), the Act lets the media report a finding that the death was self-inflicted. It seems that Parliament does not want this information to come out (without the consent of the coroner) until the inquest is over. But under Hollings’ interpretation, the media would be free to report the fact of suicide all the way through the inquest. This rather makes the second restriction a bit redundant.
There are arguments to the contrary. Hollings may argue that there’s a difference between the phrases in subsection (1) “any particular relating to the manner in which a death occurred” (which doesn’t include reporting that it’s a suicide) and subsection (2) “a particular of the death” (which does). That makes some sense to me, but I don’t think it overcomes the two arguments above.
Then there’s the Bill of Rights. The starting point for that argument is what the ordinary meaning of the section is. If I’m right, it’s the wide one. The next question is whether that’s demonstrably justified. That’s a complicated question, but I suspect a court would find that it is and stop there. The court would find some support in the (rather inadequate, I think) official vet on the Coroner’s Bill.
The upshot is that the section is most likely to be interpreted to include any mention of suicide, which rather undermines Hollings’ contention that the media’s interpretation of the section is … self-inflicted.
I think the really interesting issues here are:
1. Does the media’s habit of saying, as Hollings points out, that “the police are not seeking anyone in connection with the incident” break this law, by tacitly telling everyone it’s a suicide?
2. How often does the media seek consent from coroners to report details of suicides? How often is this granted and refused? That’s where I think the action in this section is. If coroners are unreasonably denying consent, then the mechanism that is put in the legislation to uphold free speech has broken down.
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