Bishop slams ‘one-sided view’ of suicide on TV

15 June 2011

by Ed Beavan

A BBC documentary, which showed a Brit­ish man taking part in an assisted suicide in Switzerland, was “a highly emotionally charged, one-sided view of a very important public issue”, the Bishop of Exeter, the Rt Revd Michael Langrish, said this week.

Bishop Langrish has called for the BBC to broadcast a programme on palliative care, in the interests of balance, after the screening of the documentary on Monday night, Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die, which showed a 71-year-old hotelier, Peter Smedley, being helped to die. The presenter, Sir Terry Pratchett, who has a form of Alzheimer’s, accompanied Mr Smedley, who suffered from motor neurone disease, to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland to watch him end his life.

Bishop Langrish, who viewed the documentary before taking part in a debate on assisted suicide on Newsnight on BBC2, said that he was concerned that the pro­gramme did not look into alternative options for those suffering from terminal illnesses. Speaking on Tuesday, he said: “I thought it showed a human being objectified and being used as an instrument for a story.”

Bishop Langrish, who has a daughter with Down syndrome, has campaigned against assisted suicide for many years, and fears that it could affect the weak and vulnerable. He is concerned that any change in the law could adversely affect the vulnerable. Current legislation is “predicated on the intrinsic value of human beings”, and any change in favour of the type of people featured on the programme, who are “articulate and of means”, could unbalance this.

He called for a conversation between both sides on “what constitutes a good death”, and urged the BBC to visit one of the four hospices in his diocese, “where people die in peace and have their pain managed, in a place they regard as home”.

A former Bishop of Rochester, Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, said that the BBC had some “hard questions to address”, after broadcasting the programme. “Its own guidelines state that the portrayal of suicide has the potential to make this appear possible, and even appropriate, to the vulnerable.” He also argued that “the BBC has an obligation to provide a balanced presentation of the moral issues of the day,” but “so far, there has been little evidence of such balance in this matter.”


In a statement, the BBC said that it ac­know­­ledged that suicide was “an exceptionally difficult issue”, which “should be portrayed with the utmost sensitivity”. It argued that there was “a clear editorial justification” to broadcast the programme, which “does not encourage suicide and does not breach BBC guidelines.

“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. . .

“Immediately following the documentary, a Newsnight debate gave different voices the chance to take part in a wide-ranging debate about assisted death. We had hoped that both programmes would spark a constructive national discussion that engaged people across the spectrum of opinion, and it’s clear that this was achieved.”

Leader comment

As a result of this programme, have you be­come more sympathetic to assisted suicide?

Leader comment

As a result of this programme, have you be­come more sympathetic to assisted suicide?

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