The media have analysed the MP’s suicide from every angle except one – their own culpability. We look at the media’s coverage, and examine Wilton’s grieving sister’s claim that intrusive press coverage led to his death.

“I’m in the middle of nowhere,” he told his brother-in-law, close to the isolated national park where his life ended.

“I’ve just read today’s paper about the people fighting to take my job…I’m very tired. I’ll just rest here for a while. Don’t wait up for me.”

As Dr Leeanda Wilton spoke these words at her brother’s funeral last Tuesday, she named the living culprits: a “scandalous and biased” media, hard-nosed police, tearless lawyers and some of Greg Wilton’s own ALP colleagues.

Driven to his fate?

Vilified as a man who would kill his own children, buffeted by his second marriage breakdown and the subject of newspaper reports on who was likely to take his seat, “Greg felt powerless to turn the tide of public opinion.”

This was an issue of major public interest. Acres of newsprint had already been shed on the minute details of Wilton’s actions leading up to his death; much of the detail tasteless and banal.

Now the media had a chance to turn the eyeglass on itself, to assess its role in the tragedy. And did it? Of course not.

The media’s role in the Wilton affair began on Sunday 28 May, when the Sunday Herald Sun splashed with news of the arrest of a virtually unknown backbencher.

“FEDERAL MP ARRESTED”, screamed the headline.

How many of the paper’s readers would ever have heard of Wilton? A search of the News online archive could not find a single story written about the man in his four years in parliament. Certainly he was an effective local member, and the people of Isaacs would have recognised his name. But does this justify the World War III treatment on the front with a full page spill inside?

And who did the paper contact for comment? None other than “Mr Wilton’s elderly mother, Joy”, who, unsurprisingly, “was upset.”

“I am so devastated,” she told the paper’s ghoul. “I don’t think I should answer any questions.” What point, apart for prurience, could there be for such a callous call?

After this, the dogs were running, with coverage varying between the extremes of the Sunday Hun to the more sensitive analysis by the 7.30 Report and Lateline.

So why the fuss?

There are layers of media culpability here.

* First, the initial reporting, headed by the Sunday Herald Sun, which splashed an apparent murder-suicide attempt by an obscure backbencher all over the front page, against the accepted standard by major media outlets not to report individual suicides (much less suicide attempts). Health authorities have convinced even the thickest editor that the real risk of copy-cat event over-rides the need to report on individual suicides. * Second, when the issue of the media’s role was raised by Jeff Kennett while Greg Wilton was still alive, it was noted perfunctorily, then ignored. The media had decided that Wilton was guilty of attempted murder/suicide and his private agonies became fair fodder for public consumption. The scenario fitted the classic murder/suicide profile. But police investigations were continuing, and it appears the incident might not have been so clear cut.

* And third, after Wilton read the news and killed himself, the significant issue of the media’s role was buried beneath a load of defensive bluster by the likes of Brian Toohey.

“Two vie to replace MP”

The Herald Sun story Wilton read before his death reported that two advisers to Steve Bracks were being considered to replace Wilton in his seat of Isaacs. “Some Labor Party chiefs are keen for Mr Wilton to resign so a by-election can be called,” wrote Felicity Dargan.

But she buried the lead in the last par, quoting a Labor insider: “There is no hurry…Greg has gone through very traumatic circumstances and he and his family must come first. He’s not a piece of garbage, he’s a man.”

The previous day, Monday 12 June, he would have read Misha Shubert’s piece in the Australian, headed:

Leading Labor women tipped to do battle in brutal preselection

“The names of several women candidates are being mentioned in Labor circles ahead of what is likely to be a brutalising preselection for the federal seat of Isaacs. A ballot is expected, although not for some time yet, as it becomes increasingly certain that federal Labor MP Greg Wilton will resign.

Friends and factional colleagues say it is a matter of when rather than if Wilton will clear the decks and deal with the stress and family breakdown issues that led to his arrest last month after being found in a remote national park with his two young children.”

He chose to “clear the decks” in a very direct way. In the words of Cheryl Kernot: “When you think what the media says about you is all that matters, then you’re in strife”.

Jeff Kennett was the first to raise the issue, telling the 7.30 Report: “I am angry at the manner in which this matter was previously reported and which was the cause of further subjecting this young man to national humiliation in the way the media covered his depressive condition.”

Scandalous & biased

Leeanda Wilton’s scathing criticism of a “scandalous and biased” media, recorded for the Age and SMH by Gary Tippet, were a perfect platform for an intelligent debate on the media’s responsibilities. But all we got were lectures from the likes of Brian Toohey on the media’s rights.

The day after the funeral, Age opinion editor Paul Austin ran a thoughtful piece by former State Labor frontbencher, Neil Cole, who spoke through experience of his own bipolar disorder.

Cole wrote: “The media’s attention would not have been helpful. But equally we don’t know what effect it might have had. If there is any doubt about the effect of media coverage on a person who is known to be unwell to the extent Greg Wilton was, then such coverage should not have happened and should be prevented from happening again.”

None of which justified the misleading headline:

Blame the depression, and help find a cure Media coverage may not have helped, but it didn’t kill Greg Wilton

Cole expanded on this view that evening on ABC radio: “The media are not going to go away. And they have to modify their behaviour when it comes to reporting matters of depression…They should have really laid off him, and they didn’t. And they should really be brought to account.”

The Herald’s bar-room bore, Alan Ramsay, and Tony Wright, in one of his last columns for The Age before becoming the Bulletin’s final political correspondent, both had a go at the story, and came to similar conclusions.

Ramsay to the rescue

Wrote Ramsay: “Greg Wilton’s death was a sad waste, but it was no sadder and greater than the deaths of any other Australian by his or her own hand that occur day in and day out in our community…”

Taking on board Kennett’s criticism, Wright reflected, more serenely, a similar theme: “An ordinary person in crisis, crying out for help, fumed Kennett, would have received no coverage at all. Kennett is right. Yet Wilton’s exit from life, high-profile event that it has become, might serve to underline rarely discussed realities about the unfathomable that lurks in the broad community.”

Wright did take on board Kennett’s criticism: “Kennett is outraged by the media attention given to Wilton’s personal catastrophe – particularly the incident nearly three weeks ago when he was found distressed in a car with his two young children in the You Yang Ranges near Geelong.”

Toohey blows in

Brian Toohey, whose broad experience as a muckraking investigator and a pundit, won him a Walkley Award last year, was less humane.

He weighed in for the Fin Review on 17 June with comments as perverse as they were illogical: “It is not every day of the week that a member of parliament tries to kill his children and himself.” Was Toohey there in the You Yangs – did he see Wilton try to murder his children?

Taking up the defend-the-media-at-all-costs stance, Toohey sets up a straw man and attempts to blow it down. “Not surprisingly, the media reported the circumstances of Wilton’s arrest. The reports were met with a chorus of complaints…”

Well, hardly. There was Kennett, and…

Toohey continued: “No comment was broadcast about how comfortable the two children might have felt about being murdered by their father.” Now that’s an angle the Sunday Hun might have explored.

Suicides, murders, coups…?

“Nor was there any comment on whether more attempted murder/suicides might occur if the perpetrators were secure in the knowledge their crimes would never become public,” added Toohey, helpfully. Now, seriously, do you go into a murder/suicide with one eye on the headlines – monitoring the news from beyond the grave?

But has Toohey thought much about the issue before throwing himself into the debate? Apparently not. “Whether media reporting of public figures killing themselves increases the incidence of suicide is unclear. Perhaps it does. But where do the media draw the line? Should they not report murders, or coups, in case others are tempted down the same track?”

Grim news from the Thin Review 7:03 PM Overall, the Thin Review wasn’t far behind when it came to grotesque reporting of Greg Wilton’s demise. The day after his death, beneath the headline: “Labor MP’s death forces test of GST”, Louise Dodson came up with this effort:

“The Federal Government faces its first GST electoral litmus test following the suicide of Labor backbencher Mr Greg Wilton, who held the seat of Isaacs in Melbourne’s outer south-east.”

Emblematic of the worst of the Wilton reporting, and of repeated attempts to wring an angle out of every pathetic detail of this sad case

From Southbank with crocodile tears

Three weeks after its initial messy splash, the Sunday Herald Sun, crying crocodile tears, ran a self-serving leader absolving itself of any responsibility in Wilton’s demise, under the headline: Wise Beasley

“We grieve for his children,” ran the leader. “But the attempt by former premier Jeff Kennett to lay some blame at the feet of the media is astonishing and wrong.” (Our emphasis)

“Mr Kennett misses the point when he suggests Mr Wilton’s suicide was perhaps partly the result of “universal humiliation” suffered through the reporting of an earlier incident.”

“The incident in question was of considerable interest because Mr Wilton, a public figure, had been arrested after what appeared to be a failed murder-suicide involving his two children.”

Presumptions, assumptions

But was Greg Wilton’s earlier episode in the You Yangs “a failed murder-suicide”? In remarks that were reported by AAP, but not picked up by a major newspaper, one of Wilton’s friends, the Labor member for Hunter, Joel Fitzgibbon told Parliament that police had evidence Greg Wilton never intended to harm his kids.

“Greg assures me that he did not attempt to harm them in any way,” he said. “While he readily conceded there was an incident, I believe him when he told me that in his own mind he knew he would never have proceeded with any action that would have brought any harm to them.”

Said Fitzgibbon: “I believe that the police may have a statement from a third party which will confirm this to be the case and I only hope that legal procedure allows them to make those facts known to the family at some point.”

Nick Sherry, who survived his own suicide attempt in 1997, made this point clear on Lateline last Thursday: (22 June) “It’s not clear if he was intending to take his children with him. There’s been some media speculation about that. It’s not clear whether that’s correct or not, and I think that was a very unfortunate aspect of the coverage of the initial incident.”.

Who’s to blame?

Apportioning blame for a suicide is never easy. How complex are the factors involved in pushing a man to the brink? The same day the Sunday Hun was washing its hands of responsibility, the Sunday Age explored the mental health resources available to the public, under the headline:

Unheeded cries shame the system “Obviously tormented about his private life, Mr Wilton, 44, discharged himself from a psychiatric facility after a fortnight and was then left to fall through the cracks of a mental-health system that is itself dangerously frayed at the edges,” reported Brendan Nicholson.

But then there were his former colleagues, whose ambitious posturing was the subject of the reports that added to Wilton’s pain. Gabrielle Chan reported in the Australian “a story floating around the Labor Party” that he was advised by colleagues to discharge himself from Geelong hospital and “recover” at his sister’s house instead.

Who will take responsibility?

Last Tuesday’s six-hour Parliamentary condolences was a touching, rare, insight into the sensitive sides of our federal politicians. Mike Seccombe summed it up in the Herald:

“It was remarkable because the speakers talked as much about themselves as about Mr Wilton. His family tragedy was a catalyst for a general outpouring about the inhumanity of the process in which they are all players.

About Mr Wilton we learned a little: he was a bit of a loner, he was well liked across the political divide, he was dedicated to his community… More than 3000 Australians kill themselves each year; perhaps now our politicians, personally touched by it, will do more.”

The question is for the media is; who will take responsibility for their actions in the way this issues has been reported?

Crikey is not arguing for a blanket ban on reporting individual suicides, although this is one option in the voluntary guidelines released recently by the Federal Government. This would formalise the tacit decision by most major media outlets not to report suicides.

We believe the Government’s voluntary guidelines need to be debated openly by a media that has shirked its responsibilities. Suicide is a dreadful thing. Less dreadful, only, than a suicide that could have been prevented.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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