im Dobbin says the BBC has become a cheerleader for euthanasia With a helpful leg-up from the BBC, assisted suicide is again dominating the medical ethics debate. Just last month licence fee money – our money – was used to produce the Beeb’s fifth pro-euthanasia film in only three years, this time fronted by the popular novelist and eerilycomfortable-with-death Sir Terry Pratchett.
Being the chairman of the All Party Pro-Life Group, I (unsurprisingly) oppose any change in the law. Three votes in Parliament – two in the Lords and one in the Commons – came to the same conclusion.
On grounds of public safety a change in the law is also opposed by the British Medical Association (BMA), the palliative care movement, many Royal Colleges representing the different strands of medicine and disability rights organisations.
But whatever view you hold about euthanasia, all of us would surely agree that the public debate ought not to be subverted by slanted reporting. Those media outlets that are funded by public contributions have a particular duty to present both sides of a contentious moral issue.
So, regardless of what you think about the issue, I hope you will stand side-by-side with me in asking what on earth the BBC thought it was doing on Sunday May 15 when 10 of 11 interviews carried by the World Service in its news programming were in favour of assisted dying.
I hope, too, that you would share my dismay that the BBC has not only ignored its own guidelines on impartiality but also shown wanton disregard for the World Health Organisation’s guidelines on suicide which state that “one of the many factors that may lead a vulnerable individual to suicide could be publicity about suicides in the media” and that “sensational coverage of suicides should be assiduously avoided, particularly when a celebrity is involved”. Hmm. Those guidelines continue: “Front-page headlines are never the ideal location for suicide reports”, so I’ll leave it to the reader’s discretion as to whether slapping a massive photo of Sir Terry on the front of the BBC-owned Radio Times with “Five minutes of television that will change our lives” emblazoned across it constitutes a breach.
Combine all this with the BBC’s abject failure to report the BMA’s vote opposing any change in the law. The motion also deplored the distorted composition of a commission of inquiry established by Lord Falconer which claims to be independent but which contains no known opponent of assisted dying among its members.
The BBC’s actions are reminiscent of the practices of a totalitarian state which attempts to control debate and manipulate opinion rather than an organisation that preserves as sacrosanct “due impartiality in... news and other output dealing with matters of public policy or political or industrial controversy”, as the Beeb’s own guidelines claim.
Perhaps those of us who believe in democracy might also share a concern that the BBC has routinely failed to acknowledge the conclusions of Parlia ment. In recent years the House of Lords has consistently and comprehensively rejected any attempt to change the law. In the Commons the last attempt to change the law was defeated by a thumping 236 votes to 91. A recent vote in the Scottish Parliament came to a similar conclusion.
Two full Select Committees, 2,460 questions, 860 pages of Hansard, 15 oral sessions and 14,000 letters later, Parliament decided that it would not be in the public interest to allow our citizens to kill themselves. But for some reason none of this is thought newsworthy. Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not suggesting that this is some malign conspiracy. I think it more likely that the reporters at the BBC are so convinced of the arguments in favour of assisted suicide that the opposing view doesn’t warrant much copy – and all for good, compassionate reasons.
But I would suggest that if they were to wade through the Lords or Commons debates on the subject they might unearth some of the reasons why assisted suicide is such a bad idea and, perhaps more pertinently, the sort of society to which liberalisation of the law is likely to lead. First, they would be sure to discover the strong economic impetus for the legalisation of killing those with a “diminished quality of life” (by which proponents almost always mean disabled or elderly). Disabled and elderly people cost the state a lot of money and one solution to the economic conundrum such a demographic implies is to teach people that disability or old age is equivalent to lack of dignity and then to allow those living “undignified” lives to end it all. If this seems a little overblown, I invite you to consider the words of crossbench peer and long-time euthanasia poster girl, Baroness Warnock: “If you’re demented, you’re wasting people’s lives – your family’s lives – and you’re wasting the resources of the National Health Service.” Second, they would find a careful examination of the patterns likely to result from the legalisation of assisted suicide and euthanasia, such as those seen recently in the Netherlands, where early-stage dementia was a good enough reason for 2,700 people to have their lives ended, or the phenomenon of “doctor shopping” in Oregon, where certain practitioners have become known for their willingness to refer patients to death clinics and are sought out accordingly.
Chances are that, because of the way the public debate has been framed, you will never have heard of these critically important developments.
The BBC retorts, laughably, that the Pratchett programme was constructed in such a way that viewers could “make up their own minds”. Call me an old-fashioned socialist, but if I wanted to produce an impartial programme about a difficult moral issue that allowed people to make up their own minds, I might not ask a campaigner on one side of the debate to present it. Rather, I might allow a disabled person – such as Baroness Campbell of Surbiton – the chance to explain why she so passionately opposes a change in the law. This change fills disabled people with fear and, under the guise of compassion, conceals economic and eugenic arguments which broadcasters have a duty to air and which the public have a right to hear.
Jim Dobbin is the Labour MP for Heywood and Middleton