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Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die

The sharply divided fallout from the author's provocative programme on euthanasia.

Should we be allowed to choose to die? That was the polarising question raised by author Terry Pratchett in a documentary aired on the BBC on Monday.

Its discussion of euthanasia was lent extra poignancy by the fact that Pratchett was diagnosed in 2007 with Alzheimer's disease. He said at the time he would like to die in his "own home, in a chair on the lawn, with a brandy in my hand to wash down whatever modern version of the 'Brompton cocktail' some helpful medic could supply. And with Thomas Tallis on my iPod, I would shake hands with Death."

The programme showed Pratchett's journey to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland to follow two British men who had decided to end their lives. One of them, Peter Smedley, a millionaire hotelier, later invited Pratchett and the cameras to view his last moments.

Predictably, the show - watched by 1.64m viewers - provoked strong reactions.

The Daily Mail claimed that the airing of Peter Smedley's death could cause "copy-cat suicides" and attacked the BBC for being a "cheerleader" for euthanasia. It quoted the former Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir Ali, saying: "The thousands of people who use the hospice movement and who have a good and peaceful death, there was very little about them." He added: "This was really propaganda on one side."

The Guardian took a more relaxed view, with Mark Lawson writing that "with proper editorial control, these brave participants are a legitimate element in TV's medical reportage".

Many papers suggested that this is the first time a suicide has been on shown on television, but this is not the case. Real Lives, a programme shown on Sky, aired footage of a death in the same fashion in 2008. However, the Sun and the Mail argue that this is the first on terrestrial television, and is therefore unacceptable.

The BBC's commissioning editor, Charlotte Moore, defended the programme: "To gloss over Peter's final moments would be to do a disservice to Peter, to Terry and to the viewer. We have a responsibility to tell the story in its entirety. How can we do this if we shy away from the crux of the story, difficult as this may be?"

This view was shared by the Telegraph and The Independent, whose writers seem to have been affected in the way that Charlotte Moore and Terry Pratchett had intended.

In contrast to this the Sun's Chris Pollard described the final scene of Smedley's life as "harrowing" and "controversial". The paper quoted Dr Peter Saunders, campaign director for Care Not Killing, an anti-euthanasia pressure group, who said: "This was a grossly misleading and unbalanced piece of dangerous propaganda that could lead to an increase in suicides."

These views were contrasted with an answer from Sarah Wootton, chief executive Dignity in Dying, who said she believed "the documentary will contribute to the change in the law necessary to make this [euthanasia] a reality".

Perhaps the most poignant comment came from the Telegraph's Ceri Radford. "Whatever you think of the views of Pratchett, who suffers from Alzheimer's and wants the UK to change its laws on assisted death, this is a brave piece of television, not a cheap polemic," she wrote. "Sometimes the genuinely shocking has an important place on our screens."