Is it ethical for the BBC to broadcast a suicide?
Care Not Killing, an
British alliance of over 40 organisations, has
called on the Uk’s Secretary of State for Health and the 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
The press release reads
featuring celebrity author Terry Pratchett was shown on BBC2 on Monday night
following a huge amount of advance media publicity. It breaches international
guidelines on suicide portrayal and, as such, poses a significant risk to
vulnerable people. There is a real risk that copycat suicides will follow the
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.
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.
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 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 and, perhaps
tellingly, no annual reports are available since 2008.
We are therefore
calling on the Secretary of State for Health and the 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
Dr Peter Saunders is a former general surgeon and CEO of Christian Medical
Fellowship, a UK-based organisation with 4,500 UK doctors and
1,000 medical students as members. This article has been cross-posted from his
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