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“Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die”: a shameful day for the BBC

Monday night’s BBC2 programme “Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die” was even more disgraceful than expected. It breached both the spirit and the letter of WHO guidance:

“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. Refer to suicide as a completed suicide, not a successful one. Present only relevant data, on the inside pages. Highlight alternatives to suicide. Provide information on help lines and community resources. Publicize risk indicators and warning signs.”

The programme contained emotive music (a composer was named in the credits), beautiful Alpine scenery with only a passing mention that Dignitas had been banished to an industrial estate after previous neighbours complained, picturesque snow falling.

The documentary breached the BBC’s own guidelines which call for ‘great sensitivity’ about suicide: “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.” It ignored, or did not care about, these well-known copycat suicide risks. It used words like “bravest”, “in the arms of his wife”, “he died singing” on the one side, and talked about unendurable suffering and “undignified ending” on the other. Even the taxi driver who had decided to go on living in a hospice was in favour of changing the law, though this is not at all representative of those in his condition. The whole programme was relentlessly pessimistic about the lives of those with debilitating conditions, which is as insulting to them as it is untruthful.

This was the fifth programme advertising suicide that the BBC has made recently: “I’ll Die When I Choose”, 8 December 2008; A Short Stay in Switzerland”, January 2009; “Shaking hands with death”, 1 February 2010; “Inside Out”, BBC West Midlands, 15 February 2010; these programmes are often shown more than once. Presenters consistently give a sympathetic platform to pro-suicide campaigners.

It was notable that the BBC, as the euthanasia activists want, used the term “assisted dying” instead of the accurate “suicide”. This reminds us of the Dutch habit of describing the unrequested intentional killing of patients, for which the ordinary word is “murder”, as “not necessarily voluntary end-of-life decisions”.

The other side of the picture was ignored. Where are the programmes showing the cogent arguments that have persuaded legislatures in the UK and internationally that the law cannot safely be changed? Where are the life-affirming stories of handicapped people who have battled suicidal thoughts and now live happy fulfilling lives? Recent research has shown that such stories have a positive influence.

This was a frightening programme for the vulnerable, and a shameful day for the BBC. Please complain via the BBC website, telephone BBC Audience Services on 03700 100 222 or write to BBC Complaints, PO Box 1922, Darlington, DL3 0UR.