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Thursday, September 23, 2010 

Scum-watch: Dubious investigations into "suicide chat groups" and lying to the bereaved.

Is there anything more despicable than lying to those recently bereaved? Moreover, is there anything more despicable than telling a bereaved parent that other people were involved in "egging" their loved ones on, when it can be established in a matter of minutes that is simply not the case?

Yesterday the Sun splashed on the suicide pact between Steve Lumb and Joanne Lee, two people who met only a matter of hours before they killed themselves in a car on an industrial estate in Braintree. The case was notable not just because Lumb and Lee had made contact via the internet, but also due to the unusual method which was used, not to mention the warnings which the pair had put on the car's windows, warning of the poisonous gases that would be released should the car be opened without the use of specialist breathing equipment.

Before going any further, it should be noted that this post is going to link directly to the posts made by both Lumb and Lee, some of which contain discussion of the method which they used. It also links directly to the Usenet newsgroup where both Lumb and Lee posted, where the method they used is often freely discussed. While it's perfectly understandable that newspapers censor details which would allow easy access to sites such as those used by Lumb and Lee, and it is indeed required by the Press Complaints Commission's code that any descriptions of suicide be shorn of explicit details lest anyone attempt to copy them, that is no excuse whatsoever for inaccuracy. As someone who has suffered from severe depression in the past and has been suicidal, I admit to being somewhat conflicted over such websites. They can be used by those who simply have not experienced enough of life in order to be able to make a informed decision over ending theirs, yet at the same time I respect deeply the right of individuals who have suffered throughout their lives both from mental and physical illness to choose, if they so wish, to kill themselves. Suicide is not illegal. Assisting suicide is, yet providing information which is eminently available from a number of sources should also not be as long as it is not provided with active encouragement. Usenet groups such as those which Lumb and Lee used toe a very fine line between these two things.

If it wasn't clear enough from the above, the newspapers and media outlets variously describing the group used as either a website or a chat group are plain wrong, although as also stated they could be censoring the detail for good reasons. Alt.suicide.methods is a Usenet group, and so is not centrally hosted by any internet service provider by itself. Lumb and Lee it seems both used Google Groups to access it, although they could have just as easily used a separate newsgroup reader and their own ISP's Usenet stream, if they provide one (most still do).

How and who first established it is unclear, but it was soon discovered that Lumb and Lee had both posted to alt.suicide.methods, Lumb under the username "endthis" and Lee under the username "
*heavens*little*girl*". Whether they posted under different aliases is as yet unclear, and it could be possible. They could also have used the "x-no archive:yes" tag at the beginning of posts which prevents them from being archived, although this doesn't seem to be the case from the posts that have been archived.

Despite the claims from the Sun in particular that Lumb was egged on, the archive on Google simply doesn't support this version of events. The first post made by Lumb, who made relatively few, was back in November of 2008, asking for help, to which he received a sarcastic reply. Lumb responded by calling the poster a "funny cunt". He made a further 12 posts in July of this year, again asking for help, to which the replies were more cooperative. He responded to a request from someone else asking for help, telling them to search, and posted a thread asking about getting
"deliveries" sent somewhere other than home, to which again there were helpful replies. Finally, he posted the "goodbye" thread last Sunday, as reproduced by the Sun. 9 separate individuals responded, all wishing him luck and best wishes. None tried to dissuade him, but equally none did anything which admittedly in my subjective view could be construed as "egging him on", much less act like "perverted creatures [who] get their kicks encouraging others to end it all" as the Sun's leader column* has it.

Despite the Sun not focusing on Lee, perhaps because of the many separate posts which she made, it would have far more of a case for claiming that she was "egged on". A number of threads which she both started and contributed to were responded to by a troll going by the name of Colonel Edmund J. Burke, who the Google archive has as posting to a variety of groups, not just the ones dealing with suicide. She only however responded to him once, in a thread started by "him", in which he urged those in the group to get on with it. She replied saying that she wished that she could.

The Sun doesn't however seem satisfied with just potentially misleading the relatives of those who have just lost loved ones. It also launched an "investigation" into the group:

SINISTER internet chat forums that offer detailed advice on ways of committing suicide are alarmingly easy to find. Two of the most used are hosted by Google.

Posing as a 19-year-old girl called Jen, within 40 minutes we got detailed instructions on how to create the poison gas used by Joanne Lee and Steve Lumb.

And using a nickname that suggested an age of just 25, we were quickly asked to form a death pact with one member who said they were from the US.


The thread started by "Jen" is easy to find. Despite claiming to have posed as a 19-year-old girl, neither the username used, "Journey Jen" or her posts even begin to make clear that she was meant to be 19. Reading the thread it also becomes apparent that she wasn't given detailed instructions on how to create it; she was given advice on how to use it, which is what the journalist asked, and she in fact provided the names of the ingredients needed to make it herself, which were then confirmed and clarified by posters on the thread. For reasons known only to the Sun, the journo also posted in the RIP
*heavens*little*girl* thread. Another poster going by the name "John Done" has the exact same IP as Journey Jen, 143.252.80.100, which resolves to dormy.newsint.co.uk. The Google archive has him as making 4 posts, only one of which seems to be currently available, a contribution to the thread "Why prevent suicide?", a thread in which Lee had also posted. I can't at the moment find the posts supposedly made by the Sun under the nickname that suggested an age of just 25. As noted above, while Google provides access to these groups, it does not solely host them. Even if it was to stop hosting them, or disable access to them, they would still be easily available through Usenet services, or by using a proxy server.

Fundamentally, the whole issue comes down to personal responsibility. Both Lumb and Lee were adults in their mid-30s, not impressionable teenagers. No one forced them to do what they did; they chose to take their own lives, even if they needed the moral support of each other in order to do so. The Sun claims in its leader that they arranged "their deaths online, egged on by sickos". As hopefully shown above, the latter assertion is dubious at best and downright misleading at worst. It also claims that "online suicide pacts are increasing", something which it provides no evidence to back up. As also alluded to above, it states:

These sites are the virtual playgrounds of perverted creatures who get their kicks encouraging others to end it all.

It is harder to think of anything more callous or wantonly cruel.


How about telling the parent of a man who has just committed suicide easily disprovable lies? And how about this: in its previous article on Lee, it carried the plea from her family:

"We would ask the media to protect our privacy and let us grieve in peace."

In spite of this, the Sun contacted a poster who had been in contact with Lee and asked for them to share what they talked about, under this dubious justification:

Hi there,

I see from the records in Google chat that you asked Heavens Little Girl for her email address on Saturday September 18. To which she replied she had sent her email address to you.
As I'm sure you know, just over 24 hours later, Heavens Little Girl, whose real name is Joanne Lee, started on the road to committing suicide with a stranger she had met online.
Her death has caused a huge amount of agony and anguish to her distraught family who cared deeply about her.

I was wondering if you could be so kind as to reveal the nature of the conversation you had with Joanne in the short final hours before her death.

It would be of great consolation to her family if you were able to impart such information.

Many thanks

Alex West
The Sun
News Reporter
020 7782 4104

"Please consider the environment before printing this e-mail"

The Newspaper Marketing Agency: Opening Up Newspapers:

http://www.nmauk.co.uk/

This e-mail and any attachments are confidential, may be legally privileged and are the property of News International Limited (which is the holding company for the News International group, is registeredin England under number 81701 and whose registered office is 1 Virginia St, London E98 1XY), on whose systems they were generated. If you have received this e-mail in error, please notify the sender immediately and do not use, distribute, store or copy it in any way.

Statements or opinions in this e-mail or any attachment are those of the author and are not necessarily agreed or authorised by News International Limited or any member of its group. News International Limited may monitor outgoing or incoming emails as permitted by law.
It accepts no liability for viruses introduced by this e-mail or attachments.

Alex West was doubtless only going to use anything he was told to console or inform Lee's family of her actions in the last hours of her life. The Sun certainly wouldn't have published such information without her family's permission. Would they?

*The Sun's leaders disappear down the memory hole without being archived and easily searchable, so on this occasion I've reproduced in it full below.

SUICIDE by internet takes the world wide web into chilling new territory.

Joanne Lee and Steve Lumb had never met. But they arranged their deaths online, egged on by sickos.

They were even able to download technical advice on how to kill themselves using chemicals.

Online suicide pacts are increasing. So today The Sun calls on the Government to stop this becoming a horrifying new craze for the vulnerable and impressionable.

Our investigation uncovered scores of websites dedicated to suicide, from forums discussing detailed methods to chatrooms urging on those considering killing themselves.

These sites are the virtual playgrounds of perverted creatures who get their kicks encouraging others to end it all.

It is harder to think of anything more callous or wantonly cruel.

Grooming someone online for sex is illegal. Technically, so is grooming someone to kill themselves. But no prosecutions have been brought.

Action is needed, and we welcome Home Secretary Theresa May's pledge to review internet law on encouraging suicide.

It is out of date and urgently needs tightening.

Those driven to consider suicide are often despairing young people for whom life has gone wrong - perhaps because of a broken relationship, or, as in Joanne Lee's case, bullying.

But most suicide attempts are a cry for help.

Many suicide chatrooms are available not through shady online outfits but mighty Google.

If Google can video every street in Britain and map the surface of Mars, it is not beyond its wit to remove or block suicide sites available by a simple Google search.

The same goes for other search engines. And internet service providers must refuse to carry suicide sites.

It's no good these firms saying they are only gateways to someone else's site. They share responsibility.

The price of a free internet is eternal vigilance.

Not in the name of censorship. But in the name of saving lives.

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Very good post - a rather more serious and measured look at the issues than the Sun could manage.

Regarding the editorial, it's worth noting that the Sun has been told off by the PCC for publishing excessive details of suicide methods: http://bit.ly/csTLLC

Amazing research on such an emotive subject, well done

For some reason a comment left by Tom hasn't appeared here, despite Blogger emailing to me, so here it is:

This article has no place on the Internet and is simply not in keeping with mainstream reporting of this subject and the events. I’m hugely shocked how you could dare to even post it.

This is, you see, because it deals with the actual facts, and does not yield to sensationalism but rather intelligently looks at the newsgroup/postings in question rationally without an agenda. It also exposes some of the nastier traits of the press who don’t mind misleading the families of the deceased or the public at large. I was disappointed to see that even a BBC reporter gave the father of Steve Lumb the a very leading “these forums are sinister aren’t they” question. The poor father was trying to deal with the shock of losing his son and with no disrespect to him doesn’t know anything about the ASM newsgroup nor what the actual postings were.

I looked at the newsgroup archive the day the story broke and did not find that Joanne Lee nor Steve had been “egged on by sickos” to kill themselves. Rather they were people looking for a way out that did not put others at risk by jumping off buildings, in front of traffic or trains. They did not want to fail and end up permanently disabled in hospital nor did they want to die alone. I have huge sympathy with them and to a certain extent, though I’m not suicidal, empathise.

The right to die remains one of those subjects which is difficult to gain consensus on or even gain common ground on. It’s polarising more than almost any other topic. Many people for religious, moral or personal reasons can’t understand that for some people, ending their lives peacefully with respect for others is not only their right, but sometimes even the best thing for that person. Of course losing your girlfriend, job or some other painful but temporary life event isn’t a good reason to kill yourself (irrational suicide), and should be discouraged whilst offering support. But the right for an adult sane person to commit rational suicide should be understood and recognised, even if it’s something some people can never understand (and should perhaps be grateful they can’t). Our society seems to insist everyone lives as long as possible no matter how much suffering is involved. Encourage healthy, positive lives – don’t blindly encforce life against someone’s will irrespective of their situation.

I’ve become increasingly irritated at the misleading reports about this event and those involved. I’d post something to the Sun, Mirror or Daily Mail comment sections – but I know I’d be wasting my time. I’m glad Joanne nor Steve ever saw any of it and trust they are at peace.

Thanks for giving me a hysteria free but understanding place to post.

I agree this is an in depth comment and the person is to be congratulated for the concern and detail whilst discussing loss of life.My heartfelt sorrow goes out to those families as their pain will be for their lifetime.
I have a particular interest as my family has been affected by the threat of suicide for over a decade.This is no longer the case,help finally came unfortunately through crisis but we were "lucky".From my experience and now my involvement with prevention and awareness of quality mental health,I can look back and see gaping chasms where I as a carer(but unaware that I was one)did not get the support and enthusiastic mechanisms to use in order to stop that crisis level being arrived at.The story could have been tragic as for these families.We were ultimately given a diagnosis(not by Drs in the UK I might add)the correct medication and now all aspects of suicide have vanished.Life is vibrant,life is reasonably normal if there is such a thing!The member threatened by illness causing the depression and hence urging suicide syas it is a second chance at life.
Having to live with the media labelling victims of mental illness as all cheats and scroungers is hard but a small price to pay for NOT losing a loved one.More help,more awareness,less apathy,massive amounts of input from GPs would be not only saving lives but saving the governements money and after all,finance is their motivation to provide those affected with a safety net?Compassion is a word we must constantly ask ourselves to accept responsibility for when loving our fellow human and when addressing whether we could have done a small deed toward prevention of these sad acts.

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