Death in Prime Time

While the management of risk is something that most of us deal with every day in some fashion, when that risk comes in the form of the loss of a life, it is simply not a risk society can afford to take. Award winning British author, Terry Pratchett's macabre fascination with death will soon bring the assisted suicide of hotelier, Peter Smedley in the Swiss Dignitas facility into living rooms across the UK on BBC 2.Pratchett, who was diagnosed in 2007 with early onset Alzheimer's disease, responded to that news by donating a million dollars US to Alzheimer research, pressing the British government to fund more research into dementia and attempting to develop a machine to assist Alzheimer's sufferers in daily life.  A noble and fitting response.  The recipient of an OBE and a Knighthood for services to literature, Pratchett is more likely to be remembered, however, for his own desire to die by assisted suicide and for documenting the suicide death of others for public consumption on the small screen.  In this last and most bizarre endeavour he has found a willing accomplice in the form of the British Broadcast Corporation, the BBC.

Those who push progressive social agendas, by definition, push at the boundaries; both in the pursuit of their goal and in the goal itself.  This is not unusual and, by enlarge, is evidenced by the retelling of horror stories of some supposed injustice or another in an attempt to turn what hitherto might have seemed a ludicrous trespass against social mores into a reasonable proposition that only the heartless would abjure.  But rarely, if ever, does such political activism put the lives of others in danger.  Here Pratchett and the BBC in particular stand virtually alone.

Make no mistake; the broadcast of this so-called documentary will put lives at risk.  Every mental health professional knows it as do, for the most part, every editor in the broadcast media.  It's called suicide ideation; the broadcast images creating in impressionable minds thoughts about death and dying to the point where a person is drawn to act upon such thoughts.

The World Health Organisation says, 'there is strong support for the contention that media reporting of suicide can lead to imitative behaviours, as evidenced by statistically significant increases in completed and attempted suicide rates.  These increases cannot be explained by suicides that might have occurred anyway being 'brought forward', because they are not followed by commensurate decreases in rates.' WHO concludes that, '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.'

We should not be drawn to thinking that the neither the BBC nor Pratchett himself are simply ignorant of this reality.  One rather expects that they have simply determined that the ends they seek are justified and that the risk itself is of a lesser concern.  This is at best callous indifference to harm.

One imagines that the documentary will carry the usual viewer warnings and possibly even the usual publicising of a suicide helpline in the closing credits, but that hardly absolves the national broadcaster or Pratchett from culpability.

It occurs to me that there's an interesting parallel here between the actions of Pratchett and the BBC and those who push a legislative agenda to the same end.  Ultimately they are both prioritizing their agendas ahead of the risks.  The broadcaster's viewer warnings are akin to the so-called 'safeguards' within the legislative framework: they give the appearance of 'doing-the-right-thing' but, in reality, protect no-one.

Preventing Suicide A Resource for Media Professionals World Health Organisation (available at