In their television coverage of the euthanasia debate, the BBC are being derided as the Biased Broadcasting Corporation – reduced to mere cheerleaders for a change in the law, producing five programmes in the past three years in favour of a change, while signally failing to present the other side of the argument. But this isn’t just about bias.
The BBC’s recent programmes celebrating assisted suicide not only break their own Code about providing balance when discussing ethical issues but, even more seriously, they also breach the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) guidelines, published in 2000.
The WHO clearly set out the responsibilities and duties of the media. Consider some of these strictures in the context of the recent programme featuring Terry Pratchett and the euthanasia centre in Switzerland.
The WHO begin by reminding the media of the incredible impact which it can have in informing attitudes and behaviour:
“Media play a significant role in today’s society by providing a very wide range of information in a variety of ways. They strongly influence community attitudes, beliefs and behaviour, and play a vital role in politics, economics and social practice. Because of that influence media can also play an active role in the prevention of suicide.”
Then they remind the media that people who may be disturbed, depressed or vulnerable can be influenced into taking their lives by the way in which suicide is portrayed in the media:
“Suicide is perhaps the most tragic way of ending one’s life. The majority of people who consider suicide are ambivalent. They are not sure that they want to die. One of the many factors that may lead a vulnerable individual to suicide could be publicity about suicides in the media. How the media report on suicide cases can influence other suicides.”
The WHO points to the way in which television can influence suicidal behaviour. One study showed an increase in the number of suicides for up to 10 days after television news reports of cases of suicide.
They also warn against publicising suicide stories where celebrities are involved and warn against sensational coverage – which they argue should be assiduously avoided. The coverage should be minimized to the greatest possible extent possible.
They say that photographs of the deceased, of the method used, and of the scene of the suicide are to be avoided. Front page headlines, they insist, are never the ideal location for suicide reports.
They warn against the danger of reporting suicide as inexplicable or in a simplistic way; that it is usually caused by a complex interaction of myriad factors such as mental and physical illness, substance abuse, family disturbances, interpersonal conflicts and life’s stresses. And they tell the media not to depict suicide as a method of coping with personal problems such as bankruptcy, failure to pass an examination, or sexual abuse.
Reports should take account of the impact of suicide on families and other survivors in terms of both stigma and psychological suffering; and that nothing should be done which appears to honour suicidal behaviour. Instead, they say, the emphasis should be on mourning the person’s death.
In line with these WHO guidelines I would expect to see is a sober and balanced assessment of the issues, not cheap voyeuristic programmes which could easily form part of the genre known as “snuff” movies. A person’s death should not be a form of prime time entertainment, part of the battle for programme ratings – dressed up in the name of a hollow compassion.
The BBC’s coverage of this issue has rarely mentioned the opposition of the British Medical Association, the Royal Colleges, the hospices and Disability Rights Organisations, or the care and attention which has been given to this issue in Parliament – and which, on three occasions (twice in the Lords, once in the Commons) has led to the rejection of proposals to change the law, on grounds of public safety and ethics.
The House of Lords has had two full Select Committee enquiries to examine the current law. On the last occasion, the enquiry covered some 246 Hansard columns and two volumes of 744 pages and 116 pages respectively, 15 oral sessions, 48 groups or individuals giving evidence, with 88 witnesses giving written evidence, 2,460 questions asked and the committee receiving 14,000 letters. After consideration of all the issues raised, as on the previous occasion, proposals to change the law were rejected by a wide margin. When the last vote took place in the House of Commons the proposal was defeated by 91 votes to 236. The Scottish Parliament recently reached the same conclusion.
And in failing to report any of this where was any examination of the motives and practices of those who run euthanasia centres like Dignitas?
Where, in their coverage, has been any analysis of the economic arguments that are now driving this debate, characterised by Lady Warnock’s remark that: “If you’re demented, you’re wasting people’s lives – your family’s lives – and you’re wasting the resources of the National Health Service.”
A recent edition of the BBC’s Radio Times claims that watching a man die in Switzerland is “5 minutes of television that will change our lives”.
The sub editor who chose that caption perhaps failed to appreciate its irony: that the 5 minutes it took to change our lives, irredeemably ended another’s life.
In this country 550,000 people die each year. Very rarely do any make the newspapers or the media. Why does one lethal cocktail – but not 549,999 deaths – warrant wall to wall campaigning coverage?
Macmillan nurses, hospices and palliative care give the overwhelming majority in Britain a dignified death which does not involve commissioning doctors and nurses as patient killers. By all means agitate for improvement where the provision or practice isn’t good enough but let the BBC end this one sided and relentless campaign. We’re all in favour of dignity in dying – but we don’t need a doctor to kill us to achieve a good death and we don’t need our minds to be made up by programme makers at the BBC.
But it isn’t only the BBC who are promoting euthanasia and assisted dying. On August 28th Martin Green, a dementia expert for the Department of Health, said patients who were too frail to take their own lives were being denied “choice” and “autonomy” because assisted suicide is illegal in the UK.
In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, he urged ministers to review the law and suggested that a referendum or a free vote in Parliament should be called to settle policy on the issue. In a letter to Health Minister, Earl Howe, I have challenged the idea that there has been no “settlement of this issue” and that there haven’t already been free votes in both Houses….
The newspaper statement by your Department’s advisor, Martin Green, on issues affecting the elderly ignores two House of Lords Select Committee Inquiries into assisted dying, along with two free votes: presumably because they reached a conclusion with which he disagrees.
On the last occasion, the inquiry covered some 246 Hansard columns and two volumes of 744 pages and 116 pages respectively, 15 oral sessions, 48 groups or individuals giving evidence, with 88 witnesses giving written evidence, 2,460 questions asked and the committee receiving 14,000 letters. After consideration of all the issues raised, as on the previous occasion, proposals to change the law were rejected by a wide margin. When the last vote took place in the House of Commons on a free vote the proposal was defeated by 91 votes to 236. The Scottish Parliament recently reached the same conclusion.
Would you please let me know whether Mr.Green’s view represents the Government’s position and whether there are any Departmental advisors who reflect Parliament’s view – one which is shared by the BMA, the hospice movement, disability rights groups and most of the Royal Colleges. Perhaps you would be good enough to let me know who they are and whether they will also be issuing statements to the media.