The BBC is facing mounting anger over its coverage of the assisted suicide debate after it emerged that it has broadcast five pro-legalisation documentaries and drama-documentaries in less than three years.
In that time, the broadcaster has failed to produce a single documentary or drama-documentary from the viewpoint of those opposed to a weakening of the law on assisted suicide.
Disabled campaigners spoke out again over alleged bias at the BBC after the screening of the latest programme, a documentary fronted by the author Sir Terry Pratchett, who has Alzheimer’s disease and is a vocal supporter of legalising assisted suicide.
Pratchett failed to interview any disabled opponents of legalisation, but instead talked to three disabled people who were in favour of changing the law, including two who had decided to end their lives at the notorious Dignitas clinic in Switzerland.
The documentary followed one man with motor neurone disease to the clinic, where Pratchett watched him take his own life with the assistance of Dignitas staff.
Pratchett is one of the funders of the Commission on Assisted Dying, which is chaired by Lord Falconer – a fellow supporter of legalisation – and was set up by the pro-assisted suicide charity Dignity in Dying. Up to nine of the 12 commissioners have previously supported changing the law.
So far, the BBC has received 301 comments of “appreciation” about the Pratchett documentary, but 1,219 complaints.
Since December 2008, the BBC has screened a string of programmes with a similar theme: an edition of Panorama fronted by the assisted suicide campaigner and MSP Margo MacDonald; a docu-drama about the Dignitas death of another assisted suicide campaigner, Anne Turner; the Dimbleby Lecture delivered last year by Pratchett; and an edition of the BBC’s Inside Out, in which journalist Ray Gosling made a false confession that he had helped a former lover to die.
Baroness [Jane] Campbell, convenor of Not Dead Yet UK, a disabled people’s organisation that campaigns against legalisation, said the BBC’s bias was “too strange to be true”.
She said she believed there must be executives at the BBC who were “signed-up members of Dignity in Dying”.
She added: “Someone is influencing the BBC, otherwise we would have had more balance; at least one programme.
“We know that there are many of us and many organisations that have written to the BBC and so have high-profile senior people, who have said: ‘This is outrageous, what is going on?’”
Baroness Campbell and two fellow peers, the barrister Lord Carlile – an expert on penal reform and security issues – and the pro-life campaigner Lord Alton, this week wrote to the BBC’s director-general, Mark Thompson, and the chair of the BBC Trust, Lord [Chris] Patten, to protest at the lack of balance on the issue.
The Care Not Killing alliance, which also campaigns against legalisation, called on 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 English suicide rates”.
The alliance said the latest documentary breached international guidelines on the portrayal of suicide, and warned of a “real risk” of “copycat suicides”.
A BBC spokeswoman said there was “clear editorial justification” for the inclusion of the Dignitas death, which “does not encourage suicide and does not breach BBC guidelines”.
She said: “The BBC doesn’t have a stance on assisted suicide, but we do think that this is an important matter of debate.”
She later claimed that the documentary “was not a pro-assisted death programme” but “a documentary about people’s personal experiences”.
She said: “We do not commission programmes based on agendas, so it would be completely against all BBC policy to commission a programme just because it was a pro or anti look at a specific agenda.”
And she said it would be “absolutely physically impossible” for one person at the BBC to be able to promote such a pro-assisted suicide agenda.
But she was unable to explain – despite repeated requests – why there had been five BBC pro-assisted suicide documentaries and drama-documentaries since late 2008, and none representing the views of opponents of legalisation.
When asked about the alliance’s call for an investigation, a Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) spokesman said: “It is a matter for the BBC and the BBC Trust.”
A spokesman for the Department of Health (DH) – which is currently working on a new national suicide prevention strategy – said it was a matter for the DCMS or the Ministry of Justice, and added: “I don’t think there is anything DH can do about it.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said it was for the DCMS to comment.
16 June 2011