Though known in his lifetime as a family man and hotel tycoon, Peter Smedley will likely be best remembered as the subject of Sir Terry Pratchett’s documentary, Choosing to Die. The film follows Smedley’s journey to the Dignitas assisted suicide clinic in Switzerland. It aired Monday on BBC2, and is available on BBC iPlayer. Since Monday, the BBC has received 898 letters of complaint.
With the Suicide Act of 1961, suicide ceased to be a crime in England. To “aid, abet, counsel or procure the suicide of another”, however, remains punishable by up to fourteen years’ imprisonment. Therein lies the reason why Smedley died in an industrial park in Zurich rather than at home in Guernsey. Because of laws against assisted suicide, Englishmen and women seeking the service must travel to clinics abroad, often at great expense and sooner than they would prefer, owing to the demands of travel. The point of the film is to advocate for the legalisation of assisted suicide in Britain, which would allow people to die at home.
I see two reasons for the 898 angry letters. First is assisted suicide per se. “Life is a gift,” Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali writes, “we are not competent to take it”. Second is the idea of a publicly funded broadcaster airing a film about assisted suicide.
The question of whether one should be able to have a nurse administer poison to him or her is a question of individual liberty. Is the individual capable of choosing to take his or her own life? Does this choice harm the rest of society or reduce the value of life? If so, does this matter to whether the choice should be allowed? Most at this institute would come down strongly on the side of individual choice, but there are obviously many Britons who would disagree.
Perhaps more complicated is the latter question, of whether it is appropriate for a public broadcaster to finance and air a film about an illegal and controversial practice. Let us leave aside libertarian objections to the existence of a public broadcaster. Given such a broadcaster, what should it air? Alistair Thompson, spokesman for the Care Not Killing Alliance, calls the programme “propaganda”. The BBC denies this, but Pratchett is a vocal advocate of legalising assisted suicide, and the film is hardly neutral on the subject. The other BBC response is that it always seeks to promote public discourse, which has certainly been achieved.
What is the mandate of a public broadcaster? Must it show all sides of every issue, or is prompting debate sufficient? Should it serve as vehicle for the expression of political views?