Life, death, journalism, free speech and censorship

[I wrote this as a comment in response to a post on The Free Speech Blog : Official blog of Index on Censorship entitled “Let’s not make suicide a taboo“. Since it contained many links which the commenting system rejected as spam I posted a stripped version over there with the information that a linked version would be here. Apologies for the interruption to the usual service, whatever that might be.]

I am at a loss to understand what a post of this nature is doing on the blog of a reputable organisation campaigning against censorship. You conflate suggested media guidelines for reporting on an issue of – literally – life and death importance with censorship. It is misleading and profoundly irresponsible.

Within the first three paragraphs you link the “dangers in silence” to a suggestion by the Samaritans that coverage of a recent double suicide may have prompted a second, similar incident. The evidence linking copycat suicides and social contagion as a result of media reporting is compelling as documented in the Samaritans media guidelines “Copycat suicides and media reporting (to which you do not link).

You say it’s important for journalists to be reminded of the media guidelines produced by organisations such as MediaWise and the Samaritans. Neither organisation expresses the opinion or the aspiration that the issue of suicide should not be discussed. The Samaritans media guidelines on Reporting Suicide (to which you also do not link) include specific recommendations encouraging coverage (points 8, 9 and 12).

However, as you will no doubt be aware, both guidelines you mention cite clear research evidence of the direct and often substantial negative effects – an increase in deaths by suicide and the attendant suffering such events cause – should the discussion/reporting cover certain clearly defined territory, most importantly explicit details of the method used. Or, to quote the author of the CPA “Media Guidelines for Reporting Suicide” – “The take-home message is that there is solid evidence in the psychiatric literature that there are dangerous and safe ways of reporting suicide.”

Your central proposition appears to be that guidelines for journalists on the reporting of suicide pose “a risk to the public interest… What if it becomes the norm not to cover suicides?”

The substantiating evidence that this is not “fanciful” is what you call “strong hints” at the possibility of self-censorship in the MediaWise study and undocumented anecdotal evidence that there are some local papers which “sometimes never” mention suicide.

You then discuss “some peculiar modern perceptions of privacy” which you see as a potential bar to the reporting of suicide. And yet on page 4 of the MediaWise document “Sensitive Coverage Saves Lives” you will no doubt have noted the following:

As far back as 1841 doctor and statistician William Farr considered that:

“no fact is better established in science than that suicide (and murder may perhaps be added) is often committed from imitation . . . Do the advantages of publicity counterbalance the evils attendant on one such death? Why should cases of suicide be recorded at length in the papers any more than cases of fever?”

You will of course be aware that the provision in the draft Coroners and Justice Bill giving coroners power to ban publication of the name of the deceased in some cases of apparent suicide to protect bereaved relatives from unnecessary or gratuitous invasion of their privacy was withdrawn before the Bill became law in 2009. This was to be replaced by “consideration” of “how current codes of conduct for the media might be refined to ensure there is appropriate emphasis on the need for sensitive reporting” (p16). It seems, therefore, that your complaint about “some peculiar modern perceptions of privacy” has already been noted by the “officialdom” to whom “it is not satisfactory to leave important matters”.

If one is to deduce from your article that journalists, rather than “officialdom” would be best to sort out “important matters”, and further to deduce that these “important matters” are whether or not the news media report suicide, and/or how they do it, then I refer you again to the MediaWise report you cite. On pages 19-20 are the details of round-table (ie not “behind closed doors”) discussions designed to bring media practitioners and mental health agencies together. Not one single journalist turned up to any of them.

In your penultimate paragraph you describe suicides as “deaths which seem out of the ordinary”. According to the National Office of Statistics deaths on the roads in 2007 were 5.4 per 100,000 population. However in the same year the NOS says death by suicide among men in the UK was 16.8 per 100,000 and among women 5.0 per 100,000 population. In other words for every one person killed in a car accident there are five people who die as a result of suicide. This is not an “out of the ordinary” problem.

Suicide is a major public health challenge, so much so that government has put in place the National Suicide Prevention Strategy for England, chooselife in Scotland and Talk to me in Wales. Each of them contains, as a central plank of its strategy, working with the media towards responsible reporting of suicide.

And the danger to “public interest” if your “non-fanciful” self-censorship by the media of suicide coverage should come about? That the public would be “poorly informed” about suicide, “knowing considerably less”.

If the information you fear might be repressed by journalists is of the quality of that of your post the public will have been done a service – should journalists indeed be cowed into silence by guidelines. If the information in your post bears any relationship to that which students of journalism are provided with on their courses then we still have a very long way to go in tackling this very real, very complex and very important issue.

To do, without limits

The aspirations of a scientist, 300 years ago:

The Prolongation of Life.
The Recovery of Youth, or at least some of the Marks of it, as new Teeth, new Hair colour’d as in youth.
The Art of Flying.
The Art of Continuing long under water, and exercising functions freely there.
The Cure of Wounds at a Distance.
The Cure of Diseases at a distance or at least by Transplantation.
The Attaining Gigantick Dimensions.
The Emulating of Fish without Engines by Custome and Education only.
The Acceleration of the Production of things out of Seed.
The Transmutation of Metalls.
The makeing of Glass Malleable.
The Transmutation of Species in Mineralls, Animals, and Vegetables.
The Liquid Alkaest and Other dissolving Menstruums.
The making of Parabolicall and Hyperbolicall Glasses.
The making Armor light and extremely hard.
The practicable and certain way of finding Longitudes.
The use of Pendulums at Sea and in Journeys, and the Application of it to watches.
Potent Druggs to alter or Exalt Imagination, Waking, Memory, and other functions, and appease pain, procure innocent sleep, harmless dreams, etc.
A Ship to saile with All Winds, and A Ship not to be Sunk.
Freedom from Necessity of much Sleeping exemplify’d by the Operations of Tea and what happens in Mad-Men.
Pleasing Dreams and physicall Exercises exemplify’d by the Egyptian Electuary and by the Fungus mentioned by the French Author.
Great Strength and Agility of Body exemplify’d by that of Frantick Epileptick and Hystericall persons.
A perpetuall Light.
Varnishes perfumable by Rubbing.

Robert Boyle‘s to-do/wish list, most of which aspirations can now be ticked off. A pretty mind-blowing collection, and the inclusion of what amounts to “scratch-and-sniff” is just awesome.

An “alkaest” is apparently a universal solvent and was much sought after by alchemists. Quite how something which dissolved absolutely everything else would exist and be controlled is a problem which no doubt great minds spent great time mulling.

I wonder whether the Egyptian Electus (medicinal paste with sweeteners to hide the taste for the purposes of oral consumption) was nepenthe: 1580, nepenthes, from Gk., from ne- “no, not” (see un-) + penthos “grief” (related to pathos). A drug of Egypt mentioned in the “Odyssey” as capable of banishing grief or trouble from the mind. The -s is a proper part of the word, but was likely mistaken in Eng. as a plural affix and dropped.

There’s more, including a picture of the original handwritten list, here, at the Royal Society website. It’s their 350th anniversary this year I discover, very belatedly.

Most of the list is obviously the aspiration to improve on an existing technology like making Armor light and extremely hard, better drugs (medicinal and recreational) etc. But The Emulating of Fish without Engines by Custome and Education only? That’s pretty far out. It’s delightful that none of his desires involves more efficient weapons and this list is notable for what looks like, from here, its overall emphasis on the betterment of the human condition.

Of course Attaining Gigantick Dimensions is something many still unsuccessfully aspire to, judging by my spam folder.

Reasons to be cheerful!

Mood boosters from the New Scientist:

  • Write a diary. Simply writing about a positive experience has been shown to increase people’s life satisfaction, with the benefits lingering for two weeks after the task (Journal of Clinical Psychology, vol 62, p 1291). A further study found that a group of subjects who wrote about their emotions for just 2 minutes a day, over two days, reported fewer physical health complaints four weeks down the line (British Journal of Health Psychology, vol 13, p 9).
  • Dispute negative thinking. This is a technique borrowed from cognitive behavioural therapy, in which you catch negative thoughts as they arise and ask: “Is there really reason to think like this? Can I reframe this in a more positive way?”
  • Meditate. Barbara Fredrickson and colleagues have shown that meditation can relax both your body and your mind, with many beneficial effects for well-being and happiness (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol 95, p 1045). It’s not easy, however, and you may need some training before you get going.
  • Nurture meaningful relationships with family and friends. More than simply improving your well-being, it might just save your life. “Social resources and ties to groups are one of the key buffers protecting us against unhappiness,” says Fredrickson. A recent meta-analysis of 148 studies on links between the quantity and quality of social relationships and mortality suggests that being socially isolated is about as bad for your health as smoking or drinking excessively, and worse than being obese (PLoS Medicine, vol 7, p e10000316).
  • Beware consumerism. Buying more possessions won’t make you as happy as spending money on social activities or new and exciting experiences (The Journal of Positive Psychology, vol 4, p 511).
  • I’d add knitting and dogs.

    This post is brought to you by the letters i, P, a and d

    So the utterly unexpected happened and I have the uber gadget of extreme lustworthyness – as provided by work! (Although voluntary it is, of course, still work.)

    I shall not bore with attempting to reproduce the extraordinary levels of excitement this provokes. It’s awesomeness on a stick, not just because it’s a small object of extraordinary beauty but also (and mainly) because of what it can do.

    But let us start with the invention of which I am extremely proud. Obviously work provides the bottom of the range model without accessories and, it transpires, as with all Apple goods the accessories come at the usual exorbitant price. Protection was easy to provide – a padded envelope of suitable dimensions from the pile awaiting recycling.

    A stand looked like it might be rather more difficult, but inspiration struck. I took an old compact camera tripod (small, very light weight with extendible legs) and removed the head leaving only the three legs joined at the top with their feet encased in rubber “socks”. The addition of a rubber band at the top of each leg for added frictive stability and bob’s your aunty. A cheap, tiny, lightweight, highly adjustable and very stable stand. I’m sitting on an intercity train with the iPad on it’s stand on the flip-down tray and it hasn’t budged so far through any of the jolts and jouncings that it’s been subject to. I first called it the TRiPad, but maybe triPod would be better.

    triPod

    The triPod is so small it (or at least one of its legs) fits in my bag’s pencil sleeve.

    triPod

    The triPod ready for action on the table – note how the two “bottom” legs can be extended or retracted to provide optimum stability whether in landscape or portrait view and the “top” leg can be extended or retracted to provide the ideal viewing angle of choice.

    iPad on TRiPad with bluetooth keyboard on lap

    And here’s the iPad snugly on its stand, paired with the bluetooth keyboard (on my lap) and entirely ready for action.

    Since the iPad has wifi but no 3G working out how to get “stuff” onto the iPad from elsewhere and off the iPad and onto the iPhone (from where it can be uploaded via 3G if there’s no wifi available) is an ongoing subject of investigation. Obviously the ideal would be to have the pad tethered to the phone’s signal in some way, but I can’t see Apple allowing that any time soon. Certainly not without being able to make shed-loads of money from it.

    But a cursory search reveals an awesome app which twins the phone’s camera to the pad’s display via bluetooth, and the picture-taking and storage happen on the pad. Thus it is that one can achieve the mind-blowing (to me) recursive delight of ones reflected self pictured taking a picture of taking a picture using the phone and pad working in tandem.

    The bluetooth keyboard, which we already had, pairs beautifully with the pad despite not being the iPad-specific device the store recommends to use with it. However the experience isn’t entirely trouble free at present. I can’t tell whether it is the fact that the keyboard was rather vigorously cleaned with an unfortunately more-than-damp sponge or whether it’s just a dodgy connection. We are, after all, on a fast-moving vehicle surrounded by hundreds of other electronic devices which may or may not be interfering with the process. I tend to think it was water in the works since the very strange and intermittent phenomenon of the iPod (music player bit) randomly turning on and off again and blaring out music has ceased. Now what we have is the unpredictable arrival of the number 7 in varying numbers (usually around 30 or so) in the text. So the jury has still to be out on the keyboard connection due to a possibly self-administered spanner in the works.

    (We’ve just gone over an extended and very bumpy series of points outside Peterborough. I note that the screen of the MacBook belonging to the woman seated diagonally in front of me and on which she is watching old episodes of some non-House medical soap has been flapping backwards and forwards with the motion. The iPad has, by contrast, been rock steady on its fabulous triPod.)

    The other major discovery worthy of note has been the Opera mini browser. Lightening fast and – oh joy! – flash-enabled. This is particularly useful for work since the new web-based tools which I’m helping test and will be rolling out require flash.

    So what do I find myself using? Opera is the browser of choice for the reasons mentioned above, even though it’s half-size/pixelated on the iPad screen. Mail works like a dream, just as efficient as on the phone (once the difference is sorted out between one’s IMAP and ones elbow). This is being typed on Elements which syncs seamlessly with Dropbox. I’ve never been able to get to grips with Evernote, but that’s probably because Dropbox has done everything I’ve ever needed. Photos and videos move effortlessly between Dropbox and the photo library. And pdf files can now be opened (and thereby saved directly into) iBook. I’ve not listened to the iPod bit – that’s what my phone’s for, and why fill up the pad’s small disc? – but the interface is lovely.

    (Now involved in the aforementioned work, further adventures later no doubt.)

    Birthday boy

    Likes nothing better than an outing to the Apple store to play with, well, everything. Below, if this posting-from-the-phone gizmo works properly, is Labyrinth on an iPad.

    2ndSpawn’s birthdays are never entirely straightforward events. This year at least the tempests have not (so far) been sufficiently severe as to require the kicking down of a locked door as has been the case in the past. But still exhausting.

    Numbering (#1)

    Interesting. Having spent years as a journalist thinking about the importance of the audience before setting whorls to keys (who am I speaking to, how much do they already know, how interested are they, should they be, in the information to be conveyed, context-context-context etc) there’s now a touch of self-reflexive performance anxiety. A chosen audience, a newly-designed stage and then a lacuna with the curtain failing to rise. It’s the whole predictable “why and for whom” blogging rumination reframed in a miniature mostly self-circumscribed space. Broadcast and narrowcast.

    But that’s all I’m going to say on the subject. (At the moment. There can be no guarantee that it won’t enter, stage right, at some future date. Performance again, you see. Thank goodness I don’t have a dick.)

    I’m counting a lot, again. This is usually a bad sign. Stairs. Walking anywhere – paces. Turning on the tap – onethousand-twothousand-threethousand – while the water jug goes from empty to full. Or indeed whilst pouring out, from full to empty. Any activity is susceptible to this notation. Cycling. Typing. Breath-holding. Eating. You name it, I can count (to) it.

    This was in the past a self-soothing (anti-anxiety) strategy. Occupying the mind with the metronomic beat of passing numerals, instants of safety, moments when the badness is kept at bay. I shall count! Incant! (Surely there must be a verb to incant. But how disturbing its homophony with “in cant”. Perhaps it is better described as incounting I shall, I will, incount. Apparently whether I like it or not.)

    So there they are. The numbers, the grains of sand slipping through the constriction from the fear of now to the – could it be? – safety of then.

    The particularly perplexing paradox of this present presentation is that, on examination, that which is being held at bay is entirely opaque. Or, to attempt to be slightly more transparent, I can’t see the shit for the numbers. I don’t feel anxious. Nor depressed. Let alone desperate. What is it against which soothing is required?

    Perhaps awareness is enough, explication unnecessary.

    There’s no RSS feed

    There’s a rather unsatisfactory discussion of this lack here. Unsatisfactory because the late Vox allowed RSS subscription to private blogs with the clever addition of some form of verification in the feed URL.

    Subscription is possible via email (there should be a link in the comment box) or through the wordpress.com dashboard thusly:

    no rss

    But like I say the posts here will probably mostly be navel-gazing and navelless content will probably be cross-posted to twistedrib so there won’t be much to miss.

    And I’m annoyed now – having changed the notification email address from some random google account I have about my person to the recently acquired and (astonishingly to me) as yet unclaimed frizzyLogic version of the same I discover my comment avatar is no longer round, yellow, drugged-up and manically smiling with matching mad hair. It looks, at least the small version I see in the tool bar, like a puce pine tree with a tail. Humph.

    Hurrah!

    A walled garden! Frolic frolic.

    And while typing the above the door knocker rapped. A man who I thought was selling stuff assured me he was not. Instead he sorted out insulation for the loft space of the entire house – absolutely FREE!

    Never have I been as cold as last winter, what with the heating off and snow and ice and such.

    Hurrah, and again I say HURRAH!

    So much fab, so little time

    There has been so much to marvel at, a surf and foam and froth and bubble and deep rolling waves of turquoise-tinged depths shot through with slanting columns of sun’s gold.

    A prelude to a “what I’ve been doing recently which explains mostly off-lineness” post. Which may well lack links and illustrations initially since it’s being constructed on the phone on a train heading to what is the last scheduled highpoint of this long and glittering summer of peaks. (There are now links and illustrations because of course it didn’t get finished while away.)

    Perhaps first was You, Me, BumBum Train to which the wonderful C (of seed swaps and piranha-populated garden centres and cuttings and wisdom) produced tickets. I’m not sure whether the prohibition on saying what it’s “about” is still in force so I shall merely say that it was a unique experience, exhilarating and challenging and thought-provoking in equal measure.

    Then there was Latitude with the brother of my sons and my heart, A, and the chaos-promoting provocateurs Hg and the flock of murderbirds. So much to see and hear and do.

    wisdom and truth

    Three highlights. The sight of b2 dancing on A’s shoulders listening to and, more importantly, seeing, Vampire Weekend, his face split in a grin so wide I wonder his cheeks didn’t crack. The opportunity to ponder how much letting go is an expansion and enrichment prompted by the evening-to-early-morning antics of b1 with A&J. And watching a giant bubble of rainbow iridescence drift through a deep blue sky, split into smaller bubbles and eventually burst to a spray of drops showering other upturned faces as the incomparable Mumford & Sons sang one of their heartbreaking, electrically life-infused songs.

    Timshel

    Cold is the water
    It freezes your already cold mind
    Already cold, cold mind
    And death is at your doorstep
    And it will steal your innocence
    But it will not steal your substance

    But you are not alone in this
    And you are not alone in this
    As brothers we will stand and we’ll hold your hand
    Hold your hand

    And you are the mother
    The mother of your baby child
    The one to whom you gave life
    And you have your choices
    And these are what make man great
    His ladder to the stars

    But you are not alone in this
    And you are not alone in this
    As brothers we will stand and we’ll hold your hand
    Hold your hand

    And I will tell the night
    Whisper, “Lose your sight”
    But I can’t move the mountains for you.

    And turning to A to see my tears in his.

    high up

    Then, after seven years or so of delighting in the online presence of the Thinkery‘s thinker I got to meet “Dr Krista” (for thus she is known in these parts, because of the scarf of course) in person. A triumphant vindication of the ability of the internet to connect one with the profoundly simpatico and for that virtual friendship to be confirmed and enriched by an encounter IRL. She took me to bits of London I’ve never seen before

    07

    I took her to other bits I had (but hadn’t noticed)

    if you ever need the fur removed from a cherry

    and, best of all, my father took us both to Oxford to see bits neither of us had

    overcome by beauty

    That is not my father recovering from the strain. Just in case anyone was wondering. It might, however, be Christ Church Cathedral prompting Stendhal syndrome.

    It was in fact the summer of American Academics – Krista introduced me to the fascinating and delightful J who, I only later discovered, after not unearthing the fact despite 12 or so straight hours of gabbing, is the blogger I know as Momo. (See above re comment about bloggers IRL.) And the conductor of the Household Opera was in London too, wearing a handknit of such surpassing gorgeousness the pattern had immediately to be purchased and added to the lengthening queue of objects awaiting cooler, knitting-friendly, weather. Here are the three of us – K and A and I – on a London jaunt: two academics and an amateur (and it was too hot to keep the Pas de Valse on, if I’d thought I should have requested it. Bother.)

    two academics and an amateur

    Both Krista and Amanda have written about their UK tours – K here and A here, far more interestingly than I could. Particularly, of course, the parts of their trips for which – shock! horror! – I was not actually present. Suffice it to say we had a serendipitous city Sunday of varied delights.

    Then, at a brisk pace, the bs and I were off to catch up with more bloggers under the guise of having a beach holiday.  One, Lucy, I have known since the age of 10, so this hardly counted as a first IRL experience although since her move to France we’ve actually seen each other seldom.

    How heroic is it possible for one person (or rather two, since Tom was also central to the arrangements) to be? I merely announced the intention to camp and was, forthwith, presented with a shortlist of possible campsites. I chose. The one that it’s not possible to book in advance. So L&T arose at some ungodly hour on the day of our arrival, drove the considerable distance to the municipal site in question, prowled its purleius, located a group looking likely to leave the otherwise entirely chocka site, waited until they had fully departed and flung a pop-up tent onto the pitch in the apparently recognised and respected form of bagsie. Not content with this they then drove to the port to pick us up. Came back to the campsite. Helped put up the (ridiculously enormous) tent. Fed us. Watered us. Produced vital and enormous lengths of electrical cabling. Provided Molly as a Maizy substitute (she couldn’t come, I already missed her.) They only departed when it was too dark to do anything other than sleep.

    want

    What an idyllic holiday. The golden-sanded barely inhabited bay of a beach two minutes in one direction, chilled local cider two minutes in the other. And moules and gallettes and crêpes. We swam in the sea. We burnt in the sun. We ate – abundantly and deliciously. We chilled when and where  and how ever we felt like. We laughed. We slept. We did it all again. It was absolutely perfect.

    hows that for a beach

    And we got to hang out with Lucy and Molly for a whole day. Which she (the former) may well have recalled here, under St Michel (the îlot just visible in the picture above and accessible only by a causeway exposed at low tide) which made me gasp and smile in recognition. We, the adults, so entranced and excited by the real. live. hermit. crabs. in teeny tiny shells!! and the boys, busy with some complex digging-and-damming engineering project, casting a polite but cursory glance over our outstretched sandy palms and attempting, and failing, concomitant interest.

    We also got to do our washing in a proper machine see Lucy and Tom in their natural habitat and meet Gillian too! and Porridge, who confusingly goes by another name when not bounding the blogosphere. Both were even more delightful IRL, should such a thing be possible. We ate and drank (of course). And walked in the Breton not-rain which closely resembles British rain, stopping to shelter under a tree only when it was deemed to be raining, a meteorological condition which would be known elsewhere as a monsoon. But cold. We learnt that in Brezhoneg the sky is not just “grey” but can be described by a plethora of words covering, well, the colours of rain-bearing and rain-producing clouds. In addition there is, apparently, no word for “blue”, the nearest being a form of “green”. Fortunately back at the beach the rain held off until the exact moment we had the inner tent spread out on the ground when striking camp, at which moment the heavens opened several sluice-gates over our pitch.

    Once back, while the boys went off for yet another holiday I went to Dartmoor with friends. Walking, mirth, stones, myth, talking, wool.

    Finally now the run down towards the new school term – uniform, shoes, stationary, a certain amount of nagging about homework and revision. The weather is glowering and chilly. I wonder whether the 100 or so tomatoes on the plant by the back door will actually ever ripen. Leaves are flung off the trees. Cycling into the headwind feels like late autumn, not mid August. And so the wheel turns.

    Very cute moorit things

    1. Maizy. Of course. But particularly cute because her coat has been lovingly hand stripped. By me.

    She no longer resembles a miniature highland cow. She now has portions of sleek, shiny, subtly brindled terrier outer coat. That would be from her border terrier mother.

    Elsewhere about her person, however:

    there are peculiar golden silky wispy bits which just refuse to be pulled out. They, no doubt, are part of the “travelling man” father’s heritage. Oh, and her tail is disproportionately bulbous because she won’t let me tug at it, not even for the freeze-dried liver treats.

    2. The Manx Loaghtan sheep which may, so various sites inform me, occasionally grow six horns.

    These three good-looking boys have only four horns apiece. Where on earth would another pair of horns actually fit on? And why, despite spending almost every summer of my first 14 years with family on the Isle of Man, do I not remember seeing such a beast? It’s an at-risk breed, which is sad, and makes me immediately wish to remove to the planned coastal retirement home and grow them in quantities along with other so-called “primitive” breeds. Like the seaweed-eating North Ronaldsay, for example.

    3. The yarn of the above (Manx, not Orkadian):

    I have 500g and am currently sifting through thousands of possible patterns on ravelry. None has yet leaped out as deserving to be knitted in this.

    And moorit? According to

    (1825)

    I’m glad I know that.