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23 June 2011

BBC breaches suicide guidelines

BBC breaches suicide guidelines

On 13 June, BBC 2 screened its programme Choosing to Die about assisted suicide whichhas created significant media interest and raised numerous concerns. 

In the documentary the television cameras followed millionaire hotelier Peter Smedley to the Swiss suicide clinic Dignitas in Zurich to observe his final moments before his assisted death.

The documentary was presented and promoted by author Sir Terry Pratchett, who is a patron of pro-euthanasia lobby group Dignity in Dying and who is himself suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

Some senior peers have accused the BBC of running an "orchestrated campaign" to change the law on assisted suicide. They include Baroness Campbell of Surbiton - herself severely disabled,Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, Lord Alton of Liverpool and Lord Carlile of Berriew, QC. They insisted that it was "not the job" of the Corporation to "become a lobbying organisation or a cheerleader for those who wish to change the law", adding that the BBC had made no effort to make it clear that three recent attempts to change the law on assisted suicide in the House of Lords have been "lost by a significant margin".

In a debate on Newsnight following screening of the documentary, the Bishop of Exeter, the Rt Revd. Michael Langrish, whose own daughter suffers from Down's syndrome, criticised the documentary saying: "I want to see much more emphasis put on supporting people in living, than assisting them in dying."

Care Not Killing (CNK), an alliance of more than 40 organisations, of which the Evangelical Alliance is a founding member, in its press statement issued before the screening of the documentary called on the secretary of state for health and the secretary of state for culture, olympics, media and sport "to carry out an urgent investigation into the way assisted suicide is covered by the BBC and its link to English suicide rates.

CNK campaign director Dr Peter Saunders, said: "A programme featuring celebrity author Terry Pratchett was shown on BBC2 on Monday night following a huge amount of advance media publicity. It breaches international guidelines on suicide portrayal and, as such, poses a significant risk to vulnerable people. There is a real risk that copycat suicides will follow the screening.

"The WHO international guidelines on suicide portrayal refer to over 50 published studies, systematic reviews of which have consistently drawn the same conclusion, that media reporting of suicide can lead to imitative suicidal behaviours. This phenomenon is variably termed suicide contagion, copycat suicide, suicide cluster or the Werther effect.

"Its recommendations to media professionals include the following:

  • Avoid language which sensationalizes or normalizes suicide, or presents it as a solution to problems
  • Avoid prominent placement and undue repetition of stories about suicide
  • Avoid explicit description of the method used in a completed or attempted suicide
  • Avoid providing detailed information about the site of a completed or attempted suicide
  • Exercise caution in using photographs or video footage
  • Take particular care in reporting celebrity suicides'

"Since 2008 the BBC has screened no less than five docudramas and documentaries portraying assisted suicide in a positive light and none giving the opposite perspective. The above recommendations have been repeatedly and consistently breached.

"The programme which the BBC intends to screen on Monday constitutes a major risk to vulnerable people and may also be in breach of the Suicide Act 1961 which was amended in 2010 by the Coroners and Justice Act, making it illegal to 'encourage or assist' the suicide of another person. This new wording was adopted specifically to counter the encouragement of suicide by media or internet amidst concerns following the Bridgend cluster of suicides in 2007.

"Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that suicides in England rose from 3,993 in 2007 to 4,390 in 2009 - an overall increase of 10 per cent and the greatest two-year rise in over a decade. Amongst males aged 45-74, the age group of Terry Pratchett and Peter Smedley, the rise has been 16 per cent from 1,174 to 1370. The latter figure is the highest in over 20 years.

"It is noteworthy that the national suicide prevention strategy for England, launched in 2002, is failing dismally to reach its targets and, perhaps tellingly, no annual reports are available since 2008.

"We are therefore calling on the secretary of state for health and the secretary of state for culture, olympics, media and sport to carry out an urgent investigation into the way assisted suicide is covered by the BBC and its link to English suicide rates."

Care Not Killing is a UK-based alliance bringing together around 50 organisations - including human rights and disability rights organisations, health care and palliative care groups, faith-based organisations groups and thousands of concerned individuals.

It has three key aims:

  • to promote more and better palliative care;
  • to ensure that existing laws against euthanasia and assisted suicide are not weakened or repealed during the lifetime of the current Parliament;
  • to inform public opinion further against any weakening of the law.

Care Not Killing seeks to attract the broadest support among health care professionals, allied health services and others opposed to euthanasia by campaigning on the basis of powerful arguments underpinned by the latest, well-researched and credible evidence.

Apart from the Evangelical Alliance, key groups signed up to Care Not Killing include: The Association for Palliative Medicine, the United Kingdom Disabled People's Council, RADAR, the Christian Medical Fellowship, the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales, the Church of England and the Medical Ethics Alliance.