Anti-euthanasia backlash hits BBC after 900 viewers complain about Terry Pratchett documentary showing death at Dignitas

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

By Liz Thomas

-Almost 900 people contact the BBC to complain over programme
-Former bishop of Rochester says the documentary was 'propaganda on one side'

Hundreds of viewers have complained about the BBC broadcasting the final moments of a man's 'assisted death' on screen - warning it would lead to copycat suicides.

Many viewers took to social networks and online message boards after watching Peter Smedley, 71, beg for water and take his last gasp before slipping out of consciousness on the programme, Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die.

The former bishop of Rochester stepped into the argument this morning by saying that he felt the corporation had missed an opportunity and that the documentary was one-sided.

The BBC had already been branded a ‘cheerleader’ for the practice of euthanasia after announcing that it would show the final days and death of Mr Smedley in the programme.

Final moments: Peter Smedley is held by a doctor at the Swiss assisted suicide clinic after he has taken a fatal drug. Looking on is the retired hotelier's wife of 40 years, Christine. Programme makers have been accused of 'romanticising' and 'normalising' assisted death

The retired hotelier, who suffered motor neurone disease, gulps down the glass of deadly barbituates. The BBC has already been branded a 'cheerleader' for the practice

A spokesman for the corporation said that there had been a total of 898 complaints about the show while broadcasting watchdog Ofcom received 'barely a handful'.

Fantasy novelist Sir Terry Pratchett, who was diagnosed with a rare form of early onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2008, has been vocal in his calls for assisted death to be made legal in the UK and many felt his authored documentary provided little balance.

In the programme Sir Terry accompanies Mr Smedley, who suffered from motor neurone disease, and his wife Christine to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland.

Anti-euthanasia campaigners claimed the BBC had painted an idealised picture of assisted death rather than an ‘honest debate’ on the increasingly public issue, and warned it would lead to an increase in the number of people wanting to die in a similar way – without knowing all the facts.

The Care Not Killing charity called for the Health and Culture Secretaries to carry out an urgent investigation into the way assisted suicide is covered by the BBC and its link to British suicide rates.

It said the programme posed a ‘significant risk’ to vulnerable people and warned it was ‘highly likely that copycat suicides will follow’.

In the hour-long documentary the renowned author talked to others suffering from debilitating illnesses who choose to die.

Sir Terry also considered how he might choose to end his own life as his condition degenerates.

Millionaire hotel owner Mr Smedley, from the canned food family, gave Sir Terry and his camera crew permission to film the moment that he drank poison to end his life shortly before Christmas last year.

Mr Smedley, pictured with his wife Christine, furthest from the camera. The controversial programme sparked heated debate on Twitter

Millionaire hotel owner Mr Smedley gave Sir Terry and his crew permission to film the moment that he drank poison to end his life shortly before Christmas last year

A last goodbye: Christine Smedley kisses her husband as he tells her to 'be strong, my darling'

As he prepared to do so Mr Smedley’s wife Christine, 60, hesitated over whether to sit with her husband, saying she did not want to be ‘appearing to assist him’.

The film shows Mr Smedley drinking toxins before declaring: ‘That was fairly innocuous.’ But then he is shown gasping for breath, his face turns red and he chokes as he pleads for water.

His final words as he convulses on a sofa are: 'Be strong my darling.'

He is seen choking and gasping for water after he swallows the barbiturate-based drink, while his wife of 40 years holds his hand.

Viewers were left stunned by the scenes, which were a first for terrestrial television.

One said: ‘Seems the BBC have an obsession with assisted suicide.’ Another said: ‘This was too one-sided. It made it all sound so easy.’

Nola Leach, chief executive of CARE, said: ‘I rather thought that we had moved on from the days when people gathered in crowds to watch other people die.

'That the BBC should facilitate this is deeply disturbing. One wonders whether the BBC has any interest in treating this subject impartially.

‘This is compounded by the fact that, rather than fronting tonight’s programme with someone neutral, the task has been given to a well-known assisted suicide campaigner.’

A BBC spokeswoman said: 'Following the programme, we had 82 appreciations and 162 complaints, bringing the total number of complaints up to 898.

'The aim of the programme was to create discussion and this is clearly a subject that resonates.'

Former bishop of Rochester, the Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, claimed the programme was 'propaganda on one side'.

'I think an opportunity had been bypassed of having a balanced programme - the thousands of people who use the hospice movement and who have a good and peaceful death, there was very little about them,' he told BBC Radio 5 Live.

'This was really propaganda on one side.

'Life is a gift and it has infinite value and we are not competent to take it, we do not have the right to take it, except perhaps in the most extreme circumstances of protecting the weak.

Final moments: Mr Smedley (left) shakes hands with Sir Terry Pratchett at the Swiss clinic

Holding his hand, Mr Smedley's wife watches as he passes away at the Dignitas clinic

'What we do have the right to expect is a good, caring, pain-free, peaceful death and, of course, in this century, in the last 100 years, there have been tremendous strides made in providing just that.

'That was simply not there.'

Mr Nazir-Ali added: ‘The BBC also has some hard questions to address; its own guidelines state that the portrayal of suicide has the potential to make this appear possible, and even appropriate, to the vulnerable.’

BBC executive Emma Swain said: ‘The film does show some other perspectives, but it is not critical that every film we make is completely impartial and balanced.

‘It is across our output that we need to provide [balance].’


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