Suicide does not come with easy answers

Ou Est Le Swimming PoolWell, that was another funny week. No, funny isn’t the word. I don’t even know what the word is.

It started shortly after last week’s Weekly went out. Reports started coming in that a man had killed himself on stage at a Swell Season gig in California. Hours later it was confirmed that, in an entirely separate turn of events, Ou Est Le Swimming Pool frontman Charles Haddon had committed suicide shortly after playing at the Pukkelpop festival in Belgium.

Add to that one pop type accused of punching his girlfriend, another convicted of sexual assault and one further death at Pukkelpop and by Monday morning you’ve got the most depressing edition of the CMU Daily ever.

Haddon’s suicide was probably the most depressing story of them all – it was an incident that was utterly devastating for all involved. Eddy Temple-Morris writes about this in his CMU column this week, and expresses things far better than I could. But there is something about Haddon’s death I do want to comment on: the way it was reported. And the way news stories can develop on the internet when few real facts are to hand.

When the first whispers of news started coming back from Belgium on Friday afternoon, it was claimed that another member of the band, Joe Hutchinson, had died. It was also noted that during the band’s set he had injured a woman in the audience when a stage dive went wrong. But once it was established that Hutchinson was still alive, this piece of information was dropped from most reports (including ours).

However, on Tuesday an Australian news outlet again reported this original rumour, but with one important difference: it was now Haddon who had injured the audience member. That report also included claims that Haddon had been overheard saying that he feared he’d crippled her, and that a “furious argument” with bandmates had occurred backstage after the show. Then there was the revelation that the woman is expected to fully recover from her injuries.

By Wednesday, this story had worked its way back to the UK and it was being reported widely that “new details have emerged” about Haddon’s death. Now, suddenly, this footnote to the original reports was being delivered as something separate, a story in its own right, a new ‘fact’ that could be used to aid speculation about what had caused Haddon to take his own life. Even though the fact was very possibly wrong and the speculation definitely baseless. Worse still, the speculation was soon reported as fact.

By Thursday one report distilled all this down to one sentence, telling us that the “inconsolable” Haddon cut the band’s set short after the stage dive incident and then killed himself. This is something that really doesn’t sit comfortably with me.

I understand that it’s natural to be curious about what happened, and it’s natural to connect events together to create a picture of what may have occurred. That’s how the human brain works.

Maybe it was Charlie, not Joe, who stage dived. Maybe he was genuinely fearful that the woman he landed on was permanently injured. Maybe instead of finding out, he went and killed himself. But maybe the two events were unrelated. Maybe, by suggesting a connection, someone’s more long standing pain and mental distress was completely belittled, condensing something awful down to nothing more than someone acting on a whim.

I’m not saying this news shouldn’t be reported. We report on rumours and speculation all the time. But if it is, such information needs to be treated very carefully. It needs to be acknowledged that the decision to end your own life is something complex and difficult for others to understand, and that rumours of events immediately before such shocking actions do not hold all the answers. In fact they almost certainly don’t. Claiming to have the story all sewn up in five days without having any of the real facts to hand helps no one.

This is taken from my editorial in the 27 Aug 2010 edition of CMU Weekly, which you can read in full here.

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