In a one-hour TV programme called Choosing to Die, the BBC last night showed a British man taking his own life at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland.
The programme was presented by Sir Terry Pratchett, a patron of Dignity in Dying (formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society) and a campaigner for the legalisation of assisted suicide in the UK. It was totally biased: little more than propaganda for the campaign. It is likely to encourage others to commit suicide. The decision to show the programme was appalling.
Dr Peter Saunders, of Care Not Killing, wrote on his blog last week:
By putting their extensive public resources behind this campaign and by giving Terry Pratchett, who is both a patron on DID and key funder of the controversial Falconer Commission, a platform to propagate his views, the BBC is actively fuelling this move to impose assisted suicide on this country and runs the risk of pushing vulnerable people over the edge into taking their lives. It is also flouting both its own guidelines on suicide portrayal and impartiality.
The portrayal of suicide by the BBC, along with Pratchett's celebrity endorsement, breaches both international and BBC guidelines on suicide portrayal and risks encouraging further suicides amongst those who are sick, elderly or disabled. It is both a recipe for elder abuse and also a threat to vulnerable people, many of whom already feel under pressure at a time of financial crisis and threatened health cuts to end their lives for fear of being a burden on others. The dangers of portraying suicide on the media (Werther effect, suicide contagion, or copycat suicide) are well recognised in the medical literature.
The BBC's own editorial guidelines on portrayal of suicide 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 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 sensationalize suicide.'
The latest move by the BBC is a disgraceful use of licence-payers' money and further evidence of a blatant campaigning stance. The corporation has now produced five documentaries or docudramas since 2008 portraying assisted suicide in a positive light.
Where are the balancing programmes showing the benefits of palliative care, promoting investment on social support for vulnerable people or highlighting the great dangers of legalisation which have convinced parliaments in Australia, France, Canada, Scotland and the US to resist any change in the law in the last twelve months alone? One will not it seems, hear any of this from the BBC.
The BBC is in flagrant breach of both its own guidelines on suicide portrayal and also its public duty to remain impartial. This will inevitably lead to further criticism of bias and will only serve to place the lives of more vulnerable people at risk.
In a blog post published yesterday before the programme was shown, Peter Saunders prophesied that there were 20 things that would not be mentioned on the programme. He went on to list the 20 things. He was right on every one.
His full comments can be seen here and here.