From sensationalism to sensitivity

Bridgend: The BBC’s decision to pull a drama about the suicide of a teenage girl shows how little faith the authorities have in young people.

Tim Black

Tim Black
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Never, it seems, has the relationship between fact and fiction been so fraught. In the wake of Madeleine McCann’s disappearance in May 2007, the producers of the UK soap opera Coronation Street announced that they would have to rewrite a child abduction storyline. A spokesperson at the time said: ‘We have reviewed the story and decided to take it back to the writers because we did not want to add to the distress of the family.’ (1) Now, Dis/connected, a BBC3 youth drama depicting the suicide of a teenage girl, found itself faced with a similarly uneasy proximity to reality, namely the suicides of 17 teenagers and young adults in Bridgend, south Wales. ‘While the drama deals with the issue with sensitivity’, a BBC representative said, ‘after careful consideration we have decided, given the recent tragic events in Bridgend, to postpone the transmission of Dis/Connected until a later date.’ (2)

One can understand why such decisions are made. Just as you wouldn’t turn up at a stranger’s funeral and talk endlessly about their death to the bereaved family and friends, so you wouldn’t sit the parents of a Bridgend suicide in front of the TV and show them the film Heathers. It would be deemed, at best, as insensitive – which is precisely what the producers of Coronation Street and Dis/connected feared.

However, a public broadcast is not quite the same thing as a private interaction. It is not targeting a particular family, nor is it unwittingly intruding upon private grief. To see it as such is to see a relationship of the public sphere, that is, a mediated relationship between TV producers and the public, in terms of an immediate relationship between two people – for instance, between my fictional funeral interloper and the bereaved. As a result, the language of ‘sensitivity’, a lexicon that only really makes sense in the context of private relations, can now be applied to public relationships.

This becomes clearer when you consider that, according to the mental health charity the Samaritans, on average nearly two young people kill themselves everyday (3). If TV executives are worried about insensitivity to specific families, when exactly would be a good time to show a drama depicting the effects of suicide on a group of youngsters? The real concern for the makers of Dis/connected, it seems, is not actually being insensitive but being seen to be insensitive. Bridgend merely provides the spotlight.

However, it is not just fictional portrayals that have been thrown by real events; factual, news-based portrayals have also been problematised. Sharon Pritchard, the mother of one of the Bridgend suicides, said: ‘We feel [media] coverage put an idea into his head and is glamourising ways of taking your own life.’(4) Academics have also been quick to criticise the media. Sue Simkin, coordinator of the centre for suicide research at Oxford said: ‘There is clear evidence that reports in the media that give descriptions of the method of suicide and romanticise the deceased by giving descriptions of the attention they receive in the form of condolences and online obituaries give rise to other suicides.’ (5)

Some of the reporting around the Bridgend suicides has indeed teetered on the brink of sensationalism. An unremarkable south Wales town is now ‘a town tainted by suicide’ according to the Daily Telegraph. And while the Sun’s headline ‘Bridgend woe as cousins hang’ is merely tersely graphic, it’s the large photos of the two deceased, complete with plaintive smiles, that are a little too arresting. But to say that such portrayals, indeed, portraits, might inspire identification and imitative acts betrays something else, too: a profound lack of confidence in the way of life from which these young people can so easily, it is assumed, take leave.

This is not to underestimate the appeal the figure of suicide possesses, but to recognise that its resonance is tied up with the perception of a meaningless social world. Hence, from the Romantic poet Thomas Chatterton or Goethe’s young Werther, to rock stars Ian Curtis or Kurt Cobain, the rejection of the world as it is, in the absence of any way of realising how it ought to be, acquires a desperately heroic tenor. What’s striking about the Bridgend suicides is that far from feeling forlorn, family and friends frequently talk about how happy or content the young people seemed. To fear the reporting of suicide, or even a fictional portrayal, tells us as much about an anxious perception of the social world as it does about the individual suicides.

Ultimately, the fear of glorifying suicide, or of offending the sensitivities of the bereaved, is not about the Bridgend suicides and their bereaved families at all. The media’s anxiety draws not from moral scruples, but from a broader cultural uncertainty. So demoralised have we become, so unable, it seems, to offer a compelling vision of the good life, that we fear that the merest evocation of suicide, romanticised or not, will persuade people to choose death over life.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume argued that the really dangerous ‘epidemic’ is one of miserabilism, not suicide. Tiffany Jenkins said Channel 4’s morbid obsessions would not further the conversation about the purpose of life. Frank Furedi confronted the New Misanthropy. Kevin Yuill reviewed a book by Neil M Gorsuch which presented a killer argument against assisted suicide.Or read more at spiked issues Modern life and TV.

(1) Street rethinks child kidnap plot, BBC News, 9 May 2007

(2) BBC pulls suicide drama following Bridgend deaths, Guardian, 21 February 2008

(3) See the Samaritans’ media guidelines.

(4) Schools on alert after 17th Bridgend suicide, The Times, 21 February 2008

(5) Academics back Bridgend families in blaming media, Guardian 21 February 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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