Monday, 11 March 2013

SBS - cheerleading for assisted suicide - again!



Last night, while channel surfing, I noticed that SBS One, for the second time in 6 months, aired the Terry Pratchett documentary on assisted suicide, Choosing to Die.

This program was roundly criticised by my British colleague, Peter Saunders when it was first aired on the UK BBC TV in mid-2011 and was subsequently the subject of some significant complaint.

It clearly influenced at least one subsequent suicide in the UK and possibly more.

On this, the second occasion, I decided to make a formal complaint to SBS. Readers might like to consider making their own complaint.

SBS Ombudsman
Special Broadcasting Service
Locked Bag 028
Crows Nest NSW 1585
Fax: (02) 9430 3047

Per email: formalcomplaints@sbs.com.au

Dear Ombudsman,

Complaint: Program: Choosing to Die SBS One Sunday 10th March 2013 9:35 pm

In breach of SBS Code of Practice on suicide (1.7); In breach of WHO guidelines on preventing suicide.

This ‘documentary’ by British filmmaker, Terry Pratchett, is, in my opinion, not suitable for public broadcast because of its portrayal of suicide.

Your own code states:
Suicide is a legitimate subject for programming but one that should be portrayed with a high degree of sensitivity. Care should be taken to avoid describing or showing methods of suicide in any great detail. Program makers should be alert to the dangers of making such behaviour attractive to the vulnerable. Where methods are described, program makers should have regard to context and editorial requirements. (1.7)

The portrayal of suicide in this documentary focusses on the death in Zurich at the Dignitas death centre, of British Hotelier, Peter Smedley. Not only does it ‘normalize’ suicide, it makes Smedley out as a courageous hero for carrying out his intentions to die. It gives no meaningful account of bereavement and, most disturbing, it shows Smedley choking, begging for water and, eventually dying.

Your code places a significant burden in this regard upon the ‘program makers’ however, that does not absolve you, as public broadcaster, from scrutiny should the ‘program makers’ step outside such guidelines as they clearly have done.

Moreover, the broadcast of this documentary is in breach of five of the guidelines for broadcasting suicide set down by the World Health Organisation and was the subject of numerous complaints to the BBC when it was first broadcast in the UK in 2011.

•Avoid language which sensationalizes or normalizes suicide, or presents it as a solution to problems
Comment: This was the whole point of the documentary.

•Avoid explicit description of the method used in a completed or attempted suicide
Particular caution should be exercised when the method of suicide is unusual. While this may appear to make the death more newsworthy, reporting the method may trigger other people to use this means.
Comment: This documentary is a How to format for suicide

•Avoid providing detailed information about the site of a completed or attempted suicide
Particular care should be taken by media professionals not to promote such locations as suicide sites by, for example, using sensationalist language to describe them or overplaying the number of incidents occurring at them.
Comment: There could not be a more notorious site for suicides than the Dignitas Clinic in Zurich.

•Exercise caution in using photographs or video footage
Photographs or video footage of the scene of a given suicide should not be used, particularly if doing so makes the location or method clear to the reader or viewer. In addition, pictures of an individual who has died by suicide should not be used.
Comment: The documentary describes the process in detail, shows Smedley ingesting the poison, shows him choking and asking for water and shows his death.

•Take particular care in reporting celebrity suicides
Comment: Smedley was a well-known person in the UK.

It is also a matter of public record that at least one person (probably two) in the UK took direct action towards their suicide after seeing the documentary.[1]

I understand that this is the second screening of this documentary. I fear that this will be seen by some as a ‘way out’, a ‘quick and easy solution’. It may lead some to contemplate travelling to Zurich; it may also lead others into looking into other ways of committing suicide (the Wherter Effect).

I believe that SBS has shown a distinct lack of accountability and sensitivity to vulnerable people in airing this program.

Yours sincerely,



Paul Russell
Executive Director
HOPE: preventing euthanasia & assisted suicide                               11th March 2013
PO Box 229
MARDEN SA 5070

2 comments:

  1. In other words, we the great unwashed, should not be shown anything that might inform us of about this important issue. Paul, your letter is advocacy of some of the worst aspects of the Nanny State. By the way, if this encourages some to go to Switzerland, maybe that's a better outcome than them going down to the local railway crossing.

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  2. Nic, perhaps you should take your blinkers off before you read - I did not advocate for an Ostrich-like view at all. Caring and allaying peoples fears and then providing good care is a far better option.

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