Internet Suicide Cult Redux

As the number of people dying from suicide in Bridgend continues to increase, so does the level of prurience in the media’s coverage of what they are still trying to claim is an “Internet Suicide Cult”. Despite the continued insistence from friends, family and police that social networking sites had precisely nothing to do with the latest case, the Sun yesterday adorned its front page headline with a ticker referring to Bridgend’s series of tragic deaths in the aforementioned terms. Aside from the unpalatable scapegoating – more on which later – it’s hard not to feel that the very suggestion that internet fame has anything to do with a teenager ending their life is somehow insulting.

Insulting in the sense that, when someone decides to end their life, it is not a decision that is entered into lightly. Whether from long-term depression or from developments in one’s life that drive them over the edge, suicide happens because a person is feeling such extreme pain that they feel they can no longer live with it. To suggest that a Bebo memorial page plays any part in the decision process is so misguided as to be infuriating – tantamount to suggesting that the suicide victim has considered minimal posthumous celebrity to be more important than the feelings of their nearest and dearest. That’s not the way it works.

Being blunt, a lot of the recent coverage of the supposed “suicide cult” has amounted to crocodile tears. Chiefly tabloid newspapers are dishing up entirely synthetic sympathy in order to wring the maximum coverage from events that are exclusively the business of the communities touched by the suicides. An angle is manufactured and tweaked to make these events more newsworthy. From much of this reporting, one could easily come to the conclusion that Bridgend itself was a smallish town, where the members of this “cult” lived side by side. It was interesting to learn from an article written by the press spokesman from the Bridgend branch of the Samaritans that only one of the seven victims originally linked was from the town itself. The others lived in outlying communities within a county whose population numbers 132,000. Also in this article, Philip Irwin mentions that the total (currently set by the press at 17) is significantly lower than the suicide count for Bridgend in 2006, when it reached 28.

These facts, however, don’t make it into most newspaper reports, as they interfere with the exciting angle that the press have chosen. Looking at this story in the Sun, it’s hard not to feel that they have a list of the “depressed dozen” (there’s a time and place for snappy alliteration, and I can’t help feeling an article about youth suicide is not it) and are waiting to tick the members off one by one.

The other angle, regarding the supposed Bebo link between the suicides, is perhaps more ghoulish.  Actively suggesting that a person has ended their life for 15 minutes of debatable fame is one thing.  Sticking it on the front page and linking to the stories via thumbnail pictures on your website is quite another.  Irony doesn’t seem to enter the mind of a tabloid editor.  Find me ten random teenagers, and I will show you eight people who have a Bebo account.  To imply that the site is in any way nourishing a suicidal mindset among youngsters is as cock-eyed as suggesting that the suicides are in some way attributable to playing pool or wearing trainers.

Simply put, all that links the suicides is as follows:  They all live in the same county, they’re all young and they are all dead.  And all their memories are being sullied by disreputable gung-ho tabloid bullshit.  Unfortunately, it’s gone too far to expect the press to display a modicum of restraint or journalistic integrity on this issue.  They’ve got their story that keeps on giving – why bother with anything that seems like hard work and research?


One Response to “Internet Suicide Cult Redux”

  1. The national media has made the usual assumptions, mistakes and failures to understand the wider community affected by this – just as a side point, Bridgend is a town of 40,000 people, Bridgend council area covers a much larger area and takes in some of the valleys of South Wales and the cases are spread wider than one town.
    As the local Samaritans have pointed out, the figures for suicides and attempted suicides have remained constant for a number of years now, so why are they only now making national headlines?
    Having previously worked as a journalist in South Wales for a number of years, the story that angered and alarmed me the most was from one of the local evening papers. Carrying the story about the £5k reward was a shocking decision on so many levels – the reward is to prove the social network link despite all the evidence pointing otherwise and the article itself is more a piece of self-publicising by the person offering the reward.

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