The BBC's decision to screen a man's dying moments at the Dignitas suicide facility in a documentary fronted by Terry Pratchett have come in for heavy criticism. Over 900 complaints were received by the BBC and a group of five peers wrote to The Times complaining of BBC bias. (1)
A five-minute sequence in the BBC2 programme 'Choosing to die', screened on 13 June, showed fantasy novelist Pratchett witnessing a British man in his early 70s who had motor neurone disease, taking his own life at the controversial Swiss location. A second man with multiple sclerosis, who was interviewed but whose actual death was not filmed, apparently took 90 minutes to die. 2 It was strikingly obvious to viewers that neither of the two men was imminently dying, and the second almost certainly had a life expectancy of decades. Neither was typical either of the 60,000 MS and 5,000 MND patients in this country, the vast majority of whom want support in living, and not assisted suicide.
By putting their extensive public resources behind this campaign and by giving Terry Pratchett, who is both a patron of DID and key funder of the controversial Falconer Commission on Assisted Dying, (3) a platform to propagate his views, the BBC flouted its of legalisation which have convinced own guidelines on both suicide portrayal parliaments in Australia, France, Canada, and impartiality. (4)
The BBC's own editorial guidelines on portrayal of suicide (5) are very clear and call for ' great sensitivity'... 'Factual reporting and fictional portrayal of suicide, attempted suicide and self-harm have the potential to make such actions appear possible, and even appropriate, to the vulnerable.'
The WHO guidance on the media coverage of suicide (6) is equally unambiguous: 'Don't publish photographs or suicide notes. Don't report specific details of the method used. Don't give simplistic reasons. Don't glorify or sensationalise suicide.' The phenomenon of suicide contagion (otherwise termed copycat suicide, suicide cluster or the 'Werther effect') is well known and the BBC programme ticked all the boxes of what broadcasters should not do. The corporation has now produced five documentaries or docudramas (7) since 2008 portraying assisted suicide in a positive light. There have by contrast been no balancing documentaries showing the benefits of palliative care, promoting investment in social support for vulnerable people or highlighting ther great danger of legalisation which have conviced parliaments in Australia, France, Canada, Soctland and the US (8) to resist any change in the law in the last twelve months alone.
This latest move by the BBC was a gross misuse of licence-payers' money and further evidence of a campaigning stance.
CMF spokespeople took part in over 40 media interviews about the programme in the days preceding and follwing it. Whther the public backlash will bring about any change in behaviour from our national broadcaster is presently unclear. But regardless, Christian doctors have a continuing responsibility to speak out in order to safeguard the vulnerable and to ensure that all access to good palliative care.