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Press: Social-media firms taken to task over suicides

08 February 2019

WHEN I was 16 and very unhappy, I nearly killed myself without even realising: I simply swallowed all the painkillers I could get hold of, in the hope of a few hours of coma. Pure luck meant that these were aspirin rather than paracetamol; so I woke later feeling sick and sour, but without my liver destroyed. No one noticed or knew. I hadn’t written a note or anything, because I didn’t want to die. I just wanted oblivion, and only much later did I understand the risk that I’d run.

I thought of this story when looking at the latest outbreak of distress about suicide and social media. The thought of losing a child that way is almost unendurable, which means that it is a very good story when that pain is diluted almost homoeopathically across hundreds of thousands of viewers.

The Daily Mail is outraged at the thought that children might be driven to suicide by what they see on the internet. Writing about the dreadful case of Molly Russell, a 14-year-old girl whose father blames her suicide, in part, on Instagram, the columnist Liz Jones wrote: “ . . . when Molly was teetering on a cliff face of despair, the bosses at Instagram effectively stood beside her, dripping poison in her ear before giving her one almighty shove. . . The lack of safeguarding is tantamount to manslaughter in the name of profit.”

The same paper’s website, as I write, is displaying a video in which a man sits on a bed next to the corpse of a five-year-old child whom he has just shot and raises the gun to his own head, over and over again, on a loop. The captions explain that he is an American ex-soldier, who has also shot the child’s mother and is about to kill himself, filming it live on Facebook. And the Mail reproduces it. In other recent stories, it pours scorn on Nick Clegg for taking a job as Facebook’s global head of PR for a reported $1 million a year under the headline “Would you let your children look at images of self-harm, Mr Clegg?”.

The Telegraph splashed on Friday with the story that the Church of England had called for fines on harmful social media, again pegged to the Molly Russell case. “The bishop who has led the Church’s campaigns on social media said the Government should introduce regulations similar to Germany’s where firms face fines of up to 50m Euros (£44m) if they fail to delete posts within 24 hours of a complaint.

“The Church will also today unveil plans for new laws to stop gambling firms bombarding children with online advertising and impose a compulsory levy on them to pay for the treatment of addicts and education programmes to prevent an ‘epidemic of child gambling’.”

Of course, all this excellent publicity for a genuinely good cause was in the paper because “It is the first time the Church has thrown its weight behind a duty of care — a centrepiece of The Telegraph’s campaign [on] social media — that would give children the same protections online as they get in the real world.”

The newspapers’ rage against Facebook and the properties that it owns, such as Instagram and WhatsApp, is entirely real. But, I suspect, it arises, in part, from the way in which the online giants have not only cut the newspapers out of the advertising market, but cut them out of the distribution of shocking stories, carefully titrated to stimulate the reader without provoking any deeper thought. But it is pleasant to see the Bishop of Gloucester in a story which does not once mention her sex.


THE Telegraph also carried a memorable bellow from a distant swamp: a piece by the Revd Dr Richard Turnbull, a former Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, who is now “Director of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets, and Ethics” — rather in that order, one suspects.

“The real problem is the Church simply does not know how to engage in social, economic and political debate,” he wrote. “Rather like the Conservative Party, it has lost any vision for enterprise and entrepreneurship, for wealth creation before distribution, for the morality of a low-tax economy. Yet Christ worked in a profitable family construction company. He will have understood customer service, innovation, creativity, planning, accounting and profit, alongside the complexities of labour, wages and capital.”

As does, presumably, Dr Jeff Leiden, the chief executive of Vertex, a pharmaceutical company, who paid himself $17 million in 2017, but refuses to sell the NHS a drug that would save the lives of cystic fibrosis sufferers because the health service is willing to pay only £100 million a year for it, according to The Guardian. I can’t calculate how many children might still be alive if Dr Leiden could bring himself to scrape along on only $10 million a year.


THE GUARDIAN also carried the news that the Papal Nuncio to the UK has ignored repeated requests to submit any documents to the IICSA enquiry. So a lawyer for the victims has written to Theresa May urging her to expel him if he won’t co-operate. I do hope she finds the time to do so, although I know she is rather busy at the moment.

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