Suicide and the media

Not so long ago suicide was something you rarely read about in the press, due to an informal agreement between the media and the “helping professions” not to overly publicise the how and where aspects of suicide, as it is believed to spark copycat suicides. The advent of online journalism, social media and the 24 hour news cycle has more or less consigned that gentlemen’s agreement to the too-hard basket. The Australian mentioned the word suicide in almost 4,000 articles in the past five years. While not to say all or any of these articles were reports of specific suicides, it means the subject is in the news on a fairly regular basis.
Apart from these instances when someone famous tops themselves (Aussie parlance), the media usually behaves itself and writes about suicide in a restrained way. But when it comes to celebrity suicide, the media feeding frenzy is awful to behold. Whenever someone as well-known as Robin Williams takes his own life, the media cannot ignore it and instead of the coy shorthand (“police say there are no suspicious circumstances”), which is even now used by the ABC or local newspapers, we get a detailed description of where and when, the method used and much speculation about the why of it all.
There is a view that some suicides are newsworthy, and coverage could raise awareness in the community about the need to seek help. But as a report this week in the Sydney Morning Herald observed, going into such detail about the circumstances of Williams’ death, including the means of his suicide, could have a negative impact on vulnerable members of the community. Releasing such detail could increase the likelihood of distressed individuals making similar attempts on their own lives, Lifeline chairman John Brogden said. And there has been a high degree of criticism on social media about the media’s careless reporting of the Williams’ death. A family spokesperson said that saying it was a suicide ought to have been enough.
Suicide remains the leading cause of death for Australians aged between 15 and 44. The Australian Bureau of Statistics Causes of Death, 2012, reported deaths due to suicide at 2,535. Men accounted for three out of every five deaths. The suicide rate was 2.5 times higher for those of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent.
But despite colourful claims in the media that suicide is “out of control”, the incidence remains in a band of between 9 and 11 people per 100,000. (By comparison, in 1963 the incidence of suicide was 17.5 in every 100,000 people and has never been surpassed).
Whatever the actual rate, it is a needless waste of life in any event. As the ABS observes, these preventable deaths point to individuals who may be less connected to support networks, less inclined to seek help or less intimately connected to people who might otherwise be aware of problems.
Whether the incidence of suicide is declining (and data from the past decade suggests it is), this is a notoriously difficult field for statisticians and one is advised that interpreting this data can be misleading. The fact remains that 1901 males and 634 females took their own lives in 2012. In the prosperous, first-world country that is Australian in 2014, we need to do more work on figuring out why.

Hold the front page

Knowing how newspapers work on the inside, and sometimes wishing that I didn’t, it is a fair bet that all newspapers had two versions of Page One ready to run after the second State of Origin. It’s a hell of a tight deadline, with commercial television stringing it out so they can catch the morning audiences in the UK and stack the broadcast with as many ads as possible. The game didn’t start until 8.15, so it would have been tight going for rugby league writers to file their finished match reports.
Mind you, they are all seasoned pros who file rugby league reports under these sorts of conditions every week from February to September. They write to a formula so it isn’t high art, but they can come up with a pithy summary like this one, in Thursday’s Sunshine Coast Daily: “High shots, late hits, forearms and facials figured in almost every tackle as each side tried to gain a physical edge,” wrote Wayne Heming. Nice, although I can imagine my Canadian friends puzzling over “facials”. I can imagine Media Watch having a jolly time panning The Courier Mail’s consecutive front page splashes this week – on Wednesday (a maroon wrap around with just one word “Believe.”) On Thursday, Page One morphed into a breezy tribute to the Sunshine State, saying that the Blues (that’s New South Wales if you come from somewhere else), might have won their first State of Origin series in nine years, but Queenslanders are winners because we have better weather, better food and better lifestyle (than where?). Who knows what they would have done had something truly newsworthy occurred overnight, prompting a late Page One makeover. (Military junta takes control in New Zealand – Abbot repeals Howard’s gun laws).
The Courier-Mail’s first State of Origin game day edition was printed arse-about, with sport on the front page and news on the back. I was curious, as I don’t think I’d ever seen it done, so I turned to what would have been page three and there was the infamous picture of Kate Middleton, accidently showing a fair bit of leg, along with a non-story about the photographer having a pang of conscience and (almost) not selling the paparazzi shot of the year.
Crikey, what tosh, as my mate Lyn says. For another dollar fifty, we could have a coffee in the UpFront Club and read The Range News for nothing. At least then I can find out why Council is digging holes in my street and whether our hinterland bus service will last another year. Now that’s worth Page One around here.

Mining the Keating Reserves

We discovered a bottomless pit of Australian political history while mining data for this week’s Friday on My Mind. I searched “Paul Keating opens McArthur River Mine” because I could not remember the year it happened. What I found was a Federal Government archive of all speeches made by Australian prime ministers. I asked my trusty ideologue and research assistant Little Brother to plough this fallow field. He remarked: “Mate, that’ll be like pushing a barrow load of bricks along the Canning Stock Route.”
Paul Keating flew in the RAAF VIP jet to a tiny private airstrip at McArthur River, one of the early fly-in fly-out operations, to officiate at the mine opening in September 1995. He was welcomed by the then owners, Mt Isa Mines and a Japanese consortium (Nippon, Mitsui and Marubeni). Keating was asked to open the McArthur River zinc mine because the Commonwealth had made it possible, buying Bauhinia Downs cattle station and giving it to the Gurdanji people as part of a compensation package that included mining jobs.
The Feds also spent $6 million diverting the road around the Borroloola Aboriginal Community “to make this a much more pleasant project for them”. Zinc concentrate from McArthur River is transported by road to the company’s Bing Bong loading facility where it is loaded onto barges and transported to ships in the Gulf of Carpentaria. When I attended the opening, scribbling away in my notebook, promises were made about ensuring the trucks making the 100 km road trip would have their loads of zinc/lead concentrate covered and fully secured.
These days McArthur River mine is owned by international mining giant Glencore which like all such companies focuses on maximising volume and keeping production costs down.
Paul Keating’s 1995 speech made much of Australia’s then still powerful commercial relationship with Japan and made comparisons between the egalitarianism which existed in both countries. (Comments in parenthesis are by Little Brother)
“I would say to our colleagues in Japan, I hope they understand that when they deal with an Australian business, and I’m sure they do, that it is real and it will be here in five years or 10 years or 15 years (right so far, Paul) and that when you do business with Australia, you don’t wake up in the morning, some morning, to find a general in charge of the country, that it is the solid democracy, that our word matters (semi-colon) that you can litigate your interests here in our courts and like you (comma) we are a democracy and also like you we don’t have a two-tiered society. We used to have the remnants of our failed upper class, they have disappeared (oh yeah?), thankfully, into obscurity.”
Little Brother sighs: “That bloke could talk under wet cement.”
No doubt the articulate, quick-thinking Keating would have ad libbed his way through the prepared text. I do recall he did not tarry long at McArthur River, jetting off to another in a series of ribbon snippings to promote One Nation, (not to be confused with the right wing political party launched by Pauline Hanson in 1997). Keating’s One Nation was a programme of infrastructure works carried out from 1991 to 1996, including the single gauge rail from Brisbane to Perth via Melbourne and the Brisbane Airport international terminal.
I’d like to thank Paul for unwittingly providing me with fodder for Deadly Diary, all these years later, and for unwittingly participating in my song Paul Who, which satirises the (male) cult of personality. You have to say he was one of our more colourful PMs. Political life in Australia must indeed be dreary when brief TV interviews with Keating, Malcolm Fraser and even John Howard seem vital and perspicacious by comparison with the present lot.



Zipline subject to council DA

The Obi Obi Gorge zip line proposal will ultimately be submitted to Sunshine Coast Regional Council for development approval, with opportunities for public comment. The Department of Tourism contacted Friday on My Mind this week to assure us that a high level of scrutiny would be applied to the proposal at local, state and federal level “because it is in a national park and it is the first time.” For those who just came in, the Queensland Government has opened up national parks to allow private commercial enterprises, in this case an “eco-tourism” zip line project. A zip line is akin to a flying fox. In this instance cables would be strung down the Obi Obi gorge to “cloud stations” anchored to the trunks of trees. Punters will pay $150 each to get kitted out in safety gear and speed 2 kms down the wires at up to 80 kmh. Last week Tourism Minister Jann Stuckey announced the state government had chosen a preferred tenderer, Australian Zip Line Canopy Tours. There was little information in the departmental press release about the approval process. Last week we drew attention to the lack of public input during the “expressions of interest” process and criticised the state government for adopting a “commercial-in-confidence” process.
A Department of Tourism spokesman told us the proposal would need various permissions from organisations and individuals including the Department of Natural Resources, SEQ Water and private landholders adjacent to the Kondalilla National Park. There would be a “robust” assessment by the Department of National Parks, which has made it clear the proponent would have to “tick all the boxes.” The department would also require the proponent to refer the proposal to the Commonwealth Department of the Environment which would then determine if the zip line project should be subject to an Environmental Impact Assessment. In any event, the community would have an opportunity to provide feedback during the development application process.
We appreciate the department taking us seriously and answering our questions thus far. This is not a new idea – it was first mooted in 2009, in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland Nature Based Tourism Plan, which contained an eight-page conceptual outline. This time around, the State government engaged engineering and environment consulting group GHD to prepare a preliminary environment risk assessment report. It runs to 73 pages, but here it is if you want to have a read.