Suicide change will allow 'safe reporting'

00:28, May 22 2014

The Government will move to open up aspects of suicide reporting, in an effort to bring numbers of self-inflicted deaths down.

The bill comes after the Law Commission recommended changes to the way suicides were reported in the media.

The Government asked the commission to review the issue, including the role of social media in discussing suicide.

Courts Minister Chester Borrows and Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne announced today that the Government had agreed to all the recommendations in the Law Commission's report.

Among those recommendations was that the media could report a suicide or a suspected suicide had occurred, but talking about the method or the place in which it occurred, if they suggested a certain method, were still off limits.

However, the coroner presiding over cases of suicide could allow those details to be reported on a case-by-case basis.

Current rules were confusing, the commission said, especially with regards to the level of detail that could be reported.

In some cases, an overly conservative approach had inhibited positive, open discussion about suicide in New Zealand.

New Zealand suicide rates have been labelled a "scourge of New Zealand".

The most recent statistics from the Ministry of Justice showed that in the 12 months to June last year 541 suicides occurred in New Zealand.

That was six fewer than the previous year, but still represented more than 12 people per 100,000 population.

Chief Coroner Neil MacLean releases national provisional suicide statistics each year to inform and promote discussion toward prevention efforts.

However, some international research had shown reporting of the method of suicide was detrimental and encouraged copycat deaths.

The commission suggested media be allowed to immediately report a death as a suspected suicide where the facts supported that - on occasions before the coroner had ruled it as one.

While the method of death was initially prohibited, media could apply to the chief coroner for an exemption if there was a large public interest.

Those restrictions would apply to anyone reporting the details of a suicide death, including traditional media, blogs and members of the public using social media.

Borrows said suicide was a serious concern for New Zealand and how it was discussed could have risks and benefits.

"Being more open about this topic can help shed light on it, but that must be balanced against appropriate restrictions that reduce the risk of copycat behaviour."

Dunne welcomed the proposed legislative changes.

"Adopting these recommendations will contribute towards achieving our goal of low-risk suicide reporting.

"The proposals are based on sound evidence and would make the law clearer and easier to follow."

Media Freedom Committee chairwoman and editor of The Press Joanna Norris said the announcement to clarify the rules was welcome.

The changes would enable more appropriate and safe reporting of suicide than the previous restrictive legislation had.

"Suicide and self-inflicted harm are tragedies that afflict far too many New Zealanders and their families," Norris said.

"This is an issue that must be discussed appropriately by our communities and safe reporting enables this discussion."

"Responsible media organisations have no interest in reporting distressing or intimate details relating to suicide, rather we seek to enable a constructive and open discussion that reflects the reality of this problem."

The committee, which represents major New Zealand news organisations, was looking forward to seeing the finer details of the proposed legislation, she said.

Borrows said he planned to introduce a Coroners Amendment Bill in the coming months, which would implement the changes identified in the Government's recent review of the Coroners Act.

In addition to the suicide reporting amendments, the bill would include previously announced proposals and other minor changes already considered by Cabinet.