Monday 20 June 2011

My letter to Jeremy Hunt about BBC media portrayal of suicide

Last week I wrote on behalf of Care Not Killing to Jeremy Hunt (pictured), the Secretary of State for Cuture, Olympics, Media and Sport. I asked him to carry out an investigation into the way assisted suicide is covered by the BBC and its link to English suicide rates. I also wrote along similar lines to the Secretary of State for Health.

Whilst the BBC has issued a statement denying bias in its media coverage of assisted suicide (as expected!) it has not yet addressed the matter of suicide contagion. That in itself is very interesting given that the issue has huge media coverage all over the world in the last week. Here is my letter to Mr Hunt:

The Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport

Dear Sir,

Re Link between BBC coverage of assisted suicide and English suicide rates

I am writing to ask you, as 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.

The television programme, ‘Choosing to Die’, featuring celebrity author Terry Pratchett and scheduled to be shown BBC2 at 2100 on Monday 13 June, features the death on screen of a British man, Peter Smedley, at the Dignitas facility in Zurich. The programme has already had a huge amount of advance media publicity.

On the basis of its reported contents, it breaches international and national guidelines on suicide portrayal. As such it poses a significant risk to vulnerable people and, on the basis of available evidence, it is highly likely that copycat suicides will follow the screening.

The BBC editorial guidelines note that ‘factual reporting and fictional portrayal of suicide, attempted suicide and self-harm have the potential to make such actions appear possible, and even appropriate, to the vulnerable’.

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.

The WHO 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.

Over this same period, and previously, the BBC has granted an international platform to many personal accounts about assisted suicide. Cases are often highlighted in painstaking detail featuring long personal interviews and often with substantial extraneous information about the individual’s personal life.

Contrary views are either not expressed, or are at best relegated to single sentence reactionary sound-bites. This creates the false impression that the small minority these cases constitute are somehow representative of all people facing suffering or death.

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% and the greatest two year rise in over a decade. Amongst males aged 45-74, the age group of Terry Pratchett and suicide victim Peter Smedley, the rise has been 16% 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. In addition no annual reports seem to be available since 2008.

I attach further reference information and look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience.

Yours sincerely

Peter Saunders
Campaign Director
Care Not Killing Alliance


  1. Dr Keith Judkins20 June 2011 at 06:33

    Well done Peter!

    The pro-assisted-dying lobby in the BBC and Parliament is unfortunately very strong. Furthermore, most people are passive on this matter having no strong ethical basis from which to argue against it; the commonest 'public' view seems to be 'why not, if it's their choice?'

    I am glad therefore that you have argued from a practical, not an openly Christian, stance (though I know that's where you essentially come from).

    Keep up the good work.
    Keith Judkins

  2. How about you offer some kind of argument against offering the choice?

    I noticed that in the debate after Terry Pratchett: Choosing To Die there were no arguments whatsoever put forward against the idea of offering the choice to mentally able individuals.

    The Bishop repeatedly told the story of his daughter - very sad, but irrelevant. She presumably doesn't want to die and isn't considered legally able to take her own decisions anyway.

    Liz Carr said that there was a risk that people might be forced into it - this is true, and means that good legal protection is required.

    Very worryingly, she also said that we shouldn't make changes to the law simply to help a minority. I can't understand how anyone could say that with a straight face.

    You are clearly very much against the idea - would you care to explain why?

    The only thing you seem able to bring up is 'copycat suicide' - this is totally irrelevant.

    All the prople arguing for making assisted-suicide available have always said that there must be checks and balances.
    Those checks have always included:

    "Is this person really, really, really certain that they want to do this now?"
    "Is there any evidence that this person is being coerced into this?"

    For the last 1000 years or so there has been an extremely vocal "Anti-suicide" lobby - until very recently, it was actually against the law to commit suicide and one could (in theory) be prosecuted for it.

    You appear to be arguing that we should not even discuss this!
    - Many years ago abortion was such a taboo. The actual result was women dying due to botched abortions in 'backstreet clinics'.
    One clear result of illegal assisted suicide is that the very few who want to undertake it go to Switzerland much earlier than they otherwise would.

    Do you really believe that someone who is suffering the most horrendous pain should be dosed up to the eyeballs with morphine such that they cannot do anything, and then allowed to slowly die of dehydration?
    Simply to make *you* feel better?

    What kind of person forces that on someone else against their express wishes?

    You may prefer that end for yourself, but why should you be able to force that upon another?

  3. This was a post about suicide contagion. For discussion of the issues you raise see the cnk q&a at

  4. Tomo, I think your example of abortion is a good reason why assisted suicide should NOT be legalised. Abortion was brought in for the extreme cases and to protect women. But as we know the law now allows the majority of abortions for social reasons. I fear a similar escalation if assisted suicide was made legal. Legality gives a stamp of approval and we would see human life further devalued.

    Waldorf Worthing


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.