While I’m not a fan of the right in general, or the New Zealand National Party in particular, I believe in saying so when they do something right, however rare I think that is. This is one of those times.
The Prime Minister has announced that he believes it’s time to review the laws on reporting suicide. Section 71 of the Coroners Act makes it illegal to report that someone committed suicide, unless permission to report that has been granted by the Coroner and, even then, the manner of death cannot be reported.
This is why the New Zealand newsmedia will report certain deaths saying, “there are no suspicious circumstances” or “police are not seeking anyone else”. Very often this is code for the “the person committed suicide” (it would be impossible in New Zealand to report, as American newsmedia routinely does, that someone died of a “self-inflicted gunshot wound”). These restrictions apply when someone dies in New Zealand.
The laws were instituted with a kind of ultimate nanny state “we know what’s best” mindset. They felt that if the fact that someone committed suicide was withheld from publication, it would prevent copycats. And yet, New Zealand has the fifth highest suicide rate for males and the eighth highest for females among all developed countries. For youths, it’s even worse: Second-highest. Clearly censorship hasn’t prevented suicides.
John Key has noted that in the Internet Age, such restrictions are pointless. If a youth commits suicide, for example, youths will quickly start discussing it on Facebook, for example, and it isn’t subject to New Zealand law. An argument has been made—and I agree—that not discussing suicide, when everyone knows that’s what happened, actually makes it more alluring, in a strange way, and the phony silence could actually end up encouraging the very thing the censorship is supposed to prevent: More suicides.
I think it’s high time we started reporting death by suicide honestly, though I’m certain the ban on reporting the method will remain. If the total censorship ever made sense—and I don’t think it did—that time is long past.
So I think that Prime Minister John Key is right—about this one thing, anyway. I hope he succeeds in making the needed reforms.
See also The New Zealand Herald editorial, “Shine light into a dark corner”.