Opinionista Antoinette Muller 14 August 2014

Robin Williams’ death and the UK tabloids: How low can you go?

Robin Williams’ suicide has been reported on completely irresponsibly by some papers in the United Kingdom. The press have a responsibility to exercise caution and care when it comes to reporting on suicide. UK tabloids failed. Anyone surprised?

Whenever there is a celebrity death, it brings out the absolute worst in the tabloids across the world. They prey on people’s morbid fascination with the how and why and ignore the basic principles of being a decent human being. But with the death of Robin Williams, the UK tabloids have completely undone themselves. Three papers in particular, The Daily Mail, The Metro and The Daily Mirror, all ran grotesque headlines and front pages on Wednesday which completely ignored the impact of the reporting.

daily mail

The Metro was first and offered a more subdued front page compared to others. The Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror, however, took the cake for completely ignoring the impact such pages can have on others who are vulnerable.


The Samaritans, a charity that offers emotional support for people who are experiencing feelings of distress and suicidal thoughts, clearly advises avoiding headline splashes mentioning the method of suicide. This is because these headlines inadvertently promote and perpetuate common methods of suicide. The Metro failed at this, mentioning details in their strapline, but crucially, where all the papers failed was in their reporting of life circumstances suggesting what led to Williams’ ultimate end.

This could encourage copycat behaviour as people in similar situations might feel they relate to the person in question and put those who are already vulnerable at an increased risk. A few years ago, for example, an episode of Casualty showed someone taking an overdose of a particular drug. The next week there was a 17% increase in this kind of suicide attempt. The revealing of details is dangerous in many ways.

It is also of the utmost importance to add information on how to contact appropriate local and national sources of support. This is vital as it could encourage vulnerable people to seek help and reach out.

At the time of writing, The Mirror had nothing on their story about how to reach out if a reader might be struggling. The Mail and The Metro did, but it all seemed to be too little, too late after they completely ignored courteous conduct on their front pages.


Lastly and, perhaps most crucially, trivialising something as drastic as suicide as being simply down to money problems is the most foolish of all. This shows a complete and total ignorance about mental illness. Those who resort to suicide have, in the vast majority of cases, a mental illness at the time of their death, whether it be diagnosed or undiagnosed.

Simplifying the death to being down to a specific trigger fails to accurately report the complexity of suicide and does nothing for the continuous struggle of ignorance that comes with mental health.

That ignorance was clear in many ways when the news first broke, from well-meaning commentators wondering, “What did Williams have to feel depressed about?” to the appalling comments by Alan Brazil, a Talksport host who said he didn’t have much sympathy.

“He’s got a daughter, what’s she feeling this morning? I don’t have a lot of sympathy, I’m sorry,” Brazil said.

When his co-presenter responded by saying “I think that’s harsh, Alan,” Brazil continued with his attack, saying: “But that’s the way I feel, I’m sorry. What you leave behind is diabolical… I’m really annoyed about that.”

Brazil’s ignorance and insistence that he had done nothing wrong evoked much anger, but it should also come with pity. Considering one in four people in the UK struggle with some sort of mental health problem, it is not unlikely that Brazil might even know somebody who is suffering. Heaven forbid he should ever have somebody close to him go through these struggles and they should ever want to reach out. Yet his is a fairly common reaction to suicide and is often linked to the misunderstanding of depression and mental illness. Many others have called the act of suicide “cowardly” but that, too, is borne out of ignorance in understanding what lead to such drastic measures in the first place.

Suicide is a simply a terminal symptom of the illness of depression, but depression is what took Williams’ life in the end, not suicide. Mental illness and depression do not discriminate and don’t choose their victims based on race, religion, wealth, social status or anything else that is tangible. William’s death is another reminder of just how deeply mental illness can reach and how devastating its impact can be on those who suffer from it.

When it comes to reporting suicide, the media has the responsibility to highlight the severity of mental illness. This is a basic humanitarian responsibility, especially when considering around 6,000 people in the UK kill themselves while depressed every year. The majority of these, 77%, are men. People who are in such a dark place do not always have the knowledge of how to kill themselves, but the constant coverage by the press could severely impact on that, which is why it is crucial to change the agenda on how these things are made public.

The worst part is that these front pages would not be made if it didn’t sell any papers. What does that tell us about society? The most simplistic answer might be that it’s totally screwed and, if the Fox news anchor who called Williams a “coward” is anything to go by, then you might be right.

But, in response to this ignorance, Williams’ daughter responded beautifully and poignantly, both expressing her disbelief at the situation while also thanking those who have showed their support. Zelda Williams wrote:

“My family has always been private about our time spent together. It was our way of keeping one thing that was ours, with a man we shared with an entire world. But now that’s gone, and I feel stripped bare. My last day with him was his birthday, and I will be forever grateful that my brothers and I got to spend that time alone with him, sharing gifts and laughter. He was always warm, even in his darkest moments. While I’ll never, ever understand how he could be loved so deeply and not find it in his heart to stay, there’s minor comfort in knowing our grief and loss, in some small way, is shared with millions. It doesn’t help the pain, but at least it’s a burden countless others now know we carry, and so many have offered to help lighten the load. Thank you for that.

“To those he touched who are sending kind words, know that one of his favorite things in the world was to make you all laugh. As for those who are sending negativity, know that some small, giggling part of him is sending a flock of pigeons to your house to poop on your car. Right after you’ve had it washed. After all, he loved to laugh too.

“Dad was, is and always will be one of the kindest, most generous, gentlest souls I’ve ever known, and while there are few things I know for certain right now, one of them is that not just my world, but the entire world is forever a little darker, less colorful and less full of laughter in his absence. We’ll just have to work twice as hard to fill it back up again.”

Her words might be simple, but they shed some insight into just what it is like knowing somebody with depression. Somebody who has become so ill that their disease becomes terminal. If just one person might reach out because of it, then that will be a victory over all the tabloid codswallop. DM

If you need help in South Africa, contact the Suicide Crisis Line on 0800 567 567 or SMS 31393.

If you need a referral to a psychologist, psychiatrist or support group, contact The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) on 011 234 4837 or 0800 20 50 26 and speak to a trained counselor who can assist you further. Their offices are open 7 days a week from 8am – 8pm.

Their Substance Abuse line 0800 12 13 14 is available 24hrs.

Or alternatively email Zane on [email protected]


In other news...

July 18 marks Nelson Mandela day. All over the country, South African citizens devote 67 minutes to charitable causes in memory of Madiba. It's a great initiative and one of those few occasions in South Africa where we come together as a nation in pursuit of a common cause. An annual 67 minutes isn't going to cut it though.

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