BBC still failing to ensure “due impartiality” on the assisted suicide and euthanasia debate

Like millions of other I settled down last week to watch the actress and disability rights campaigner Liz Carr, make the argument against legalising assisted suicide and euthanasia.

It was, without a doubt an incredibly powerful film, which I am certain will have changed the minds of many wavering assisted dying supporters, but I can’t bring myself to congratulate the BBC, which over the years has consistently and unremittently acted as the “cheerleader” for a change in law.

Indeed, my predecessors and I have written to the BBC about bias on more than two dozen occasions, all rebuffed with vague promises about coverage overtime across the whole network.

But in the last two decades, the Liz Carr documentary, is just one of two programmes that have slipped through the BBC’s censors and been allowed to put the counter-narrative, that the state sanction killing of people based on illness or disability might actually be a bad thing.

By contrast the BBC have run a huge number of one-sided programmes, both documentaries and drama where the portrayal of so-called assisted dying is painted as being a good thing.

For those who doubt this, below is a list of just few examples:

• ‘I’ll Die When I Choose’. BBC Panorama documentary fronted by Margo Macdonald MSP in the lead up to introducing her ‘End of Life Assistance (Scotland) Bill’ screened four times between 8 and 14 December 2008.
• ‘A Short Stay in Switzerland’. 90-minute docudrama covering death of Anne Turner at the Dignitas facility in January 2006. Screened seven times between 25 January 2009 and 27 January 2010.
• The 34th Richard Dimbleby Lecture, ‘Shaking hands with death’ featured DID patron Terry Pratchett making the case for assisted suicide for patients, like himself, with Alzheimer’s disease. Screened in February 2010.
• BBC East Midlands ‘Inside Out Programme’ featured a ‘confession’ by producer Ray Gosling to smothering his former lover.
• ‘Choosing To Die’ was screened on 13 June 2011. It featured Terry Pratchett and showed the death of a British man.
• Eastenders – the assisted suicide of Ethel Skinner (2000) which was revisited in subsequent episodes.
• Eastenders – the suicide of Peggy Mitchel (2016) who was suffering with cancer.
• Way to Go – a six-part sitcom about assisted suicide shown on BBC3 (2013)
• Radio Four Drama, The Ferryhill Philosophers February 2019
• How To Die, a BBC 2 documentary which followed Simon Binner’s assisted suicide after motor neurone diagnosis February 2016
• Altered States, a documentary, screened on 18 November 2018. Presented by Louis Theroux it featured several people considering assisted suicide, yet focused on the final moments of a gentleman called Gus.

Then there is the Putinesque portrayal of this issue in the news and on various news programmes, with senior presenters clearly taking the side of those calling for a change in the law, or on many occasions failing to even invite anyone opposed to assisted suicide onto the programme.

These include but are not limited to giving Lord Falconer unopposed appearances on Politics Live and its predecessor the Daily Politics when discussing cases such as Noel Conway, while failing to give equal coverage to those who oppose facilitating the suicides of terminally ill and disabled people as standard practice.

As far back as 2019 I wrote to the BBC three examples of this deep-rooted bias. First the coverage of Geoff Whaley, led by the BBC’s Home Editor Mark Easton. The initial coverage including the coverage online, did not include any person, or organisation putting the other side of this controversial argument. Above the article and short programme, the webpage displayed a series of other pro-euthanasia video.

Mr Easton continuously used the phrase “assisted dying”, a campaign term that is not recognised in law. He made a choice not to refer to assisted suicide or euthanasia. “Assisted dying” is used because it sounds less aggressive and interventionist than the word euthanasia.

The second programme was Politics Live on BBC2, which invited on Lord Falconer, a well-known campaigner for assisted suicide, to discuss this issue without inviting one of the many Parliamentarians who have argued in support of the current law. The only dissenting voice came from Bernard Jenkin, who voted against changing the law in 2015. While he did his best to put the other side, he made clear he was not an expert on this issue.

Finally, BBC Radio Four ran a 45-minute programme, hosted by Deborah Bowman, about Debbie Purdy. Again, there was not a single person – for example doctors or disability rights campaigners – putting an alternate view something the programme makers admitted to on air, with a rather glib remark that the rest of the network can put the other side. No 45-minute right of reply followed.

All the cases are reported 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.

Another example was the recent Westminster Hall Debate, apart from the discussion featuring as the top story on the BBC, including coverage on the Today Programme and network news, CNK also spoke to two BBC producers who seemed to think that debate could lead to a change in the law, despite there not even being a vote.

Compare and contrast this to coverage given, on the same day to the decision by the Government to make it more difficult for disabled people to claim PiP payments and other benefits. This was an actual policy decision that has real world implications.

Similarly when the highest court in Europe, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), rejected appeals on the part of Tony Nicklinson and Paul Lamb as ‘manifestly ill-founded and…inadmissible’ , the largest news gathering organisation in the world managed just a single web based article. This was in stark contrast to the blaze of publicity leading up to the case.

So, while I welcome the decision by the BBC to screen the Liz Carr documentary, originally proposed in 2011, they have a long way to go before they can demonstrate true impartiality.

Dr Gordon Macdonald

Dr Gordon Macdonald is the CEO of Care Not Killing (CNK).

CNK promotes better palliative care and opposes legalising assisted suicide and euthanasia.