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‘Why the BBC Should Give a Voice to the Terminally Ill in Its Assisted Dying Documentary’

The latest episode of the hit Media Storm podcast focuses on a new programme arguing against the legalisation of assisted dying – but some viewpoints are missing

Campaigners from Dignity in Dying hold a rally on 29 April 2024, ahead of a parliamentary debate about assisted dying. Photo: Eleventh Hour Photography/Alamy

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On Tuesday, the BBC will release a documentary arguing against assisted dying. We encourage you to watch it. And then we encourage you to think about this: they won’t speak to a single dying person.  

This week, death is in the headlines. It’s Dying Matters Awareness Week (though given 25% of Brits will probably never write a will because they think it’s ‘too morbid’, readers are probably unaware). We’ll need an Awareness of Dying Matters Awareness Week to take care of that.

You are more likely to be aware of the death of Kris Hallenga, CEO of breast cancer awareness charity CoppaFeel!. This week’s headlines have been filled with tributes to her incredible legacy – but one part has been glossed over. Hallenga advocated for legalising assisted dying.

“Whether you choose to do that or not,” she said in a campaign video, “is up to you and no one else”.

Sarah Wootton, CEO of Dignity in Dying, works tirelessly to get the issue in the news cycle – but says journalists are only interested “whenever there’s a conflict”. And while no one wants conflict over the passing of a national treasure, there is ample opportunity for dying to enter our news guns-blazing, with parliamentary debates happening across the British Isles. 

Holyrood, Westminster, Tynwald, The States Assembly… did you know these were all parliaments in Britain, let alone ones debating assisted dying laws? 2024 has provided fantastic fatal fodder for cardiac arrest-inducing chat shows: we’ve seen palliative care advocates pitted against doctors of death, religious leaders against liberalists, ‘pro-lifers’ against ‘pro-choicers’. Death has become Christmas morning for Good Morning Britain

But for people trying to raise awareness of the suffering caused by the current legislation, this creates a catch-22. “Journalists like to cover the conflict,” said Wootton, “but the conflict scares people off.”

The reality is far more peaceful and dull.

Assisted dying is the single issue for which flag-wavers for Reform, Green, Conservative and Labour could stand hand-in-hand with ironically few fatalities. Some 75% of the British public are in favour of legal reform, with majorities spanning every constituency and major political party according to the latest polling.

The media’s decision to stage a contentious two-sided debate goes some way to explaining why policy is so far behind public opinion. England and Wales have some of harshest criminal laws in the liberal world, threatening 14 years in prison for assisted suicide and a life sentence for euthanasia.

Which takes us back to BBC’s morbidly-titled upcoming documentary: Better off Dead?. The show draws vital attention to arguments against legalisation that flag the potential vulnerability of disabled people under the proposed law. But not a single terminally ill person is spoken to about their vulnerability under the current law. And it’s not hard to find them – listen to our latest episode.

Our informant is the man the BBC called on to represent the argument ‘in favour’ of legal reform – a man typically leant on to do so by journalists. He may not be a dying man, but at least he’s a right honourable gentleman: Lord Falconer introduced the Assisted Dying Bill into Westminster in 2013.


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But he told us that “the real voices that should be heard in all of this are not mine and not [the presenter’s], but those who are terminally ill”. He says he also persistently tried to persuade the BBC, to no avail.

“I’m quite insulted,” Jenny Carruthers, a terminal breast cancer patient, told us. She questions the fixation with “hypothetical risks” and “slippery slopes”, while she’s got “a perfect understanding of the screaming agony I face”— but isn’t getting any airtime.

We will not be alone in noting the BBC’s oversight. A YouGov poll of British adults ranked terminally ill people as the most important ones to be listened to in this debate, over medics, religious leaders and politicians.

But it is also worth mentioning who was missing from this poll: people with disabilities were not listed as an option.

This is where the BBC documentary admirably spotlights the very real fears of marginalised people. The issue of society devaluing disabled lives has come up before on Media Storm, when campaigner Ellen Jones reflected on Do Not Resuscitate orders (DNRs) being placed on people with learning disabilities during COVID — a shocking story, but not to her: “The benefits system has been killing off disabled people in the tens of thousands for years. This is an old hat.”

‘Assisted Suicide: Always Personal and Always Political’

For Penny Pepper, debates about changing the law on assisted suicide are a way in for a dangerous, niggling, idea of how we should value disabled people’s lives

The BBC’s Better off Dead? raises pressing questions for our ableist society but these are not exclusive to, nor encompassing of, assisted dying. They do not erase terminally ill people’s right to be heard. Rather, we believe their exclusion betrays an ideological bias.

A spokesperson for the BBC described the show as “a personal view documentary authored and narrated by [disability rights activist and actress] Liz Carr in which she argues why we shouldn’t legalise assisted suicide”.

“There have been a range of documentaries on this subject, and the voices of terminally ill people have featured on a number of occasions across BBC outlets,” they said. “We rarely hear the perspective of disabled people who are afraid of these laws and this film offers an uncommon insight into this difficult and complex debate.

“In the film, Liz meets a range of voices on both sides of the debate, including leading voices pushing for a change in the law and arguing for assistance to end intolerable suffering.”

Personal or not, the BBC is still beholden to its editorial standards for factual content. And an editorial stance is clear in its choice of words – it chooses the term ‘assisted suicide’. 

‘Assisted suicide’ is also commonly found in the Telegraph and The Sun. But with 650 terminally ill people dying by suicide in the UK each year, at a rate twice as high as the general population, legalisation aims to provide an alternative. The wording is a “political choice”— by Carr’s own admission.

“I’m going to talk about assisted suicide, not assisted dying,” she explained at the Parliament of Victoria in Australia in 2017. “We should call it what it is. They are choosing to take their own life”.

Such a claim speaks for the people it refers to but provides no right of reply. So here it is: “It isn’t suicide,” said Gareth Ward, whose father shot himself after 15 years of “miserable” cancer. “My dad didn’t shorten his life, he shortened his death.”

Journalistic integrity doesn’t mean standing for nothing. Sometimes, impartial review of the facts and appropriate weight given to the most affected voices lands you hard on one side of the law. 

Media Storm’s ‘The Death Debate: Assisted Dying and the Legacy of CoppaFeel!’ is out now

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