BBC Receives Heavy Complaints Over Airing of Assisted Suicide

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Jun 15, 2011   |   7:03PM   |   London, England

The BBC has received hundreds of complaints from views over a program it aired Monday night showing an assisted suicide of a person killing himself at a suicide tourism facility in Switzerland.

The program featured footage of a man dying at a Dignitas suicide tourism clinic in Switzerland and it was hosted by Sir Terry Pratchett and it showed millionaire Peter Smedley taking a lethal cocktail of drugs that resulted in his death. Almost 900 people contacted the BBC to complain while just 82 supported the showing of the program.

Four senior peers complained abotu the program and accused the BBC of conspiring with euthanasia advocates who want to change Britain’s laws against assisted suicides. The London daily Mail indicates they wrote to director-general Mark Thompson and BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten to complain about the program

“Setting aside our repugnance that the death of a patient with motor neurone disease should be turned into a form of voyeuristic entertainment, the BBC has a duty to provide balanced debate,” they said. “It is not the job of the Corporation to become a lobbying organization or a cheerleader for those who wish to change the law.”

“From the BBC’s coverage few viewers would realize that Parliament has had three votes in the House of Lords, following two full Select Committee inquiries, and that on all three occasions, attempts to change the law have been lost by a significant margin,” they continued. “The BBC, however, seems indifferent to parliamentary opposition, or the views of those who oppose a change in the law on grounds of public safety or for ethical reasons.”

Baroness Campbell of Surbiton, Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, Lord Alton of Liverpool and Lord Carlile of Berriew were behind the letter.

The former Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, also criticized the program, saying, “I think an opportunity has 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. This was really propaganda on one side.”

The newspaper indicated Charlotte Moore, the BBC’s commissioning editor for documentaries, responded to the criticism, saying, “The BBC doesn’t have a stance on assisted suicide, but we do think that this is an important matter of debate. Across all BBC output, we have looked at assisted death, hospice care and  palliative care in a variety of different ways including documentaries and news debates.”

Geoff Morris, a terminally ill multiple sclerosis sufferer, writes in the London Daily Mail he is very upset by the program.

“As a piece of shameless propaganda, Terry Pratchett’s film is brilliant,” he said. “But as an analysis of the truth behind so-called ‘assisted suicide’, it is grossly misleading and unbalanced.”

“The program, which will be screened on BBC2 on Monday, shows best-selling author and Alzheimer’s sufferer Sir Terry discussing his campaign to legalize this type of suicide in Britain, and reflecting on the possibility of ending his own life,” Morris explained. “In a crucial segment, he accompanies 71-year-old British millionaire Peter Smedley to Switzerland’s Dignitas clinic – which has become notorious as a center for lawfully-sanctioned assisted suicide.”

“And in an unprecedented move for a terrestrial broadcaster, the film covers the actual moment of his death, the camera capturing Mr Smedley’s final cries for water, rasping breaths and involuntary convulsions,” Morris says.

“In their eagerness to back the campaign to change the law, Sir Terry and the producers have presented this type of suicide as an enriching, even uplifting choice,’ the disabled man complains. “And particularly regrettable is the role  of the BBC. As the nation’s public service broadcaster, the Corporation has a duty  to give both sides of the argument, not  to act as a mouthpiece for a highly partisan cause. But the film fails to acknowledge any of the serious concerns about assisted suicide.”

“There is no recognition that legalization could actually encourage abuse and even coercion. And I fear that any such change will mean that disabled people, like me, are even more marginalized in our society, so that a swift exit comes to be seen as a merciful release. The case that Sir Terry presents is riddled with myth-making. He and his supporters like to talk of ‘robust safeguards’ in the proposed new law to protect the frail, the ill, and the disabled from lethal exploitation,” Morris says.

John Smeaton of the pro-life group SPUC is not happy either.

“If Mr Morris’ comments are valid, the BBC is violating its public service duty to impartiality yet again, by broadcasting items favorable to the assisted suicide cause,” he says. “By broadcasting a person’s suicide, and providing a platform for the promotion of assisted suicide. the BBC is undermining suicide prevention campaigns, including BBC and World Health Organization (WHO) guidance on media coverage regarding suicide.”

Smeaton says the document will likely “present a fictionalized picture of the Swiss suicide system, is strongly biased in favor of this highly controversial suicide process, and fails to address any objections or alternatives to assisted suicide.”

ACTION: Please complain to the BBC about the showing of this documentary, by visiting and filling out the online form at You can also telephone BBC Audience Services on 03700 100 222 or write to BBC Complaints, PO Box 1922, Darlington, DL3 0UR.