Home | UK | Anti-euthanasia backlash hits BBC after Terry Pratchett shows death at Dignitas

Anti-euthanasia backlash hits BBC after Terry Pratchett shows death at Dignitas

By Liz Thomas

Last updated at 1:09 PM on 14th June 2011


Hundreds of viewers have have complained against the BBC for 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, 21, take his last gasp and beg for water 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 after announcing that it would show the final days and death of Peter Smedley, 71, in the programme. 

Peter Smedley after he has taken a fatal drug: The programme makers have been accused of 'romanticising' and 'normalising' assisted death

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

Mr Smedley takes the deadly barbituates. The BBC has already been branded a 'cheerleader' for the practice

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 over 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 also 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 famous canned food family, gave Sir Terry and his 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, suffered from motor neurone disease

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

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'

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

CANCER PATIENT'S FATHER DEMANDS RIGHT TO END LIFE

A father who says his son looked like a 'skeleton with veins' before he died from bowel, liver and lung cancer has demanded that people are given the right to end their life in Britain.

Simon Bray, 54, died in the arms of his wife and father yesterday afternoon after being diagnosed with inoperable cancer more than a year ago.  John Bray, 78, welcomed the debate the programme sparked saying opponents of assisted suicide don't understand what most terminally ill people endure.

He said his son - an industrial sculptor - had a wretched existence before he was admitted to the hospice as he turned from being a loving, active, well-travelled family man to 'a skeleton with veins'

His father said there needs to be a proper debate to prevent other families from suffering like his.  'It has been a nightmare for us because he was the most beautiful boy but at the end he was like a skeleton with veins,' he said.

However, rather than a Dignitas-style clinic, Mr Bray said people with terminal illnesses should be given the choice to end their life in a way they choose.

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

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

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.'

Bishop Michael 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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it's amazing how us humans are quick enough to end an animals life if it's suffering, but are happy to let a fellow human being suffer the same, i whole heartedly support the right to end your own life if you have a terminal illness, i wouldn't want my family to go thorugh the pain of having to watch me slowly dying, i'd prefer the choice to be mine and die with some dignity whilst being able to say goodbye to my family and not missing out beause i'm hooked up to some machine drugged up to the eyballs.

- Emma, Newport, 14/6/2011 13:12

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Thank you, Jaqui, London, 14/6/2011 6:30, That is a very classy way of stating disagreement, and for that reason I highly respect your opinion as well. Peace.

- Art, Austin, TX USA, 14/6/2011 13:12

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I am a home carer and find my job a joy though sad at times as i cannot imagine the loneliness of some of the clients who are unable to venture out mainly to due immobility through old age. However some of my clients are not isolated because of age and one client is severly disabled by MS and in her words her life is pitiful, she wants to die! However she is no longer able to make that decision by herself as everything has to be done for her, is she is left with is her ability to speak and swallow food. The decision should be hers when she is ready and no one should stand in her way! I grew up with an Aunt who had spina bifida who out lived all expectations but i am in no doubt she refused to seek medical help towards the end because she had given up, she knew her time was near and she just stopped eating and eventually slipped away. I am a fighter and can never imagine giving up but as yet have not found myself in such a position so cannot have an opinion.

- Pam, Bedford, 14/6/2011 13:11

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First of all we are all going to die. Frankly that was the most peaceful passing I have ever seen for a sufferer of MND. I admire wholeheartedly the Smedley's for sharing what is normally a very private time. We have all seen the films of people put up against a wall and shot, and they had no choice. The means of dying is irrelevent, but the choice is.

- angelina, somewhere out there, 14/6/2011 13:11

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I felt very uncomfortable watching this programme; dignified it was not. - Simon, Somerset, 14/6/2011 8:12..................................... why did you watch it then......... i feel very uncomfortable sitting in the sun to long - therefore i move to the shade........ its not rocket science!!

- DG, Downsouth, 14/6/2011 13:11

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Funny "morality", the cary-shary, touch-feely, "liberals". They weren't going to let you smoke (I don't, and hate it) with their mates and like minded bar staff without £MILLIONS in air extract systems, because smoking kills, even though smokers pay something like SEVEN times the TOTAL smoking RELATED costs to the NHS (including anti-smoking campaigns) in tobacco taxes and don't draw their pensions or block NHS beds with old age inesses. Then they weren't going to let them smoke in selected premises. Then they wouldn't let them smoke in any premises. Now they are complaining about them going outside to smoke, and even staying at home, polluting the air their kids and neighbours breath. But it's OK to swallow poison in liquid form because of "human rights".

- Mr B J Mann, Nottingham, England, 14/6/2011 13:10

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