A thinking man’s snuff movie

Televising an assisted suicide was perverse, but unsurprising given our culture’s obsession with the dark side of life.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Culture

The decision to televise an assisted suicide on an obscure satellite channel last night appears to have excited almost as much public debate as the issue of euthanasia itself. It is typical of our media-centric culture, where something hasn’t really happened until it appears on TV and the internet.

The Sky Real Lives channel showed the film of Craig Ewart, a 59-year-old American academic and motor neurone disease sufferer, committing suicide at the Swiss Dignitas clinic in 2006, after drinking a mixture of sedatives and using his teeth to turn off his ventilator. Defending the decision to broadcast, the channel claimed that ‘this documentary is an informative, articulate and educated insight into the decisions some people have to make’. So all they were interested in was educating us and raising awareness of the issues. Heaven forbid that a channel such as Sky Real Lives would ever seek to exploit a tragedy for entertainment purposes…

However you dress it up, this was little more than a thinking man’s snuff movie, an attempt to turn death into a televisual spectacle for public consumption. It was deeply prurient, preying on our baser rubbernecking desires to watch the unwatchable – car crash TV of another sort.

What was educated or educational about showing somebody dying an apparently peaceful death? Before it was broadcast, did we really all imagine that ‘assisted suicide’ involved cutting your own head off with a hacksaw? The film-maker, Oscar-winning director John Zaritsky, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that ‘I think it would be less than honest if we were to do a film about the process of assisted suicide and not actually be able to see the ultimate, you know, act as it were’. That claim seems less than honest, you know, as it were. Documentary makers have produced moving films about everything from war to famine without feeling the need to linger lovingly on the moment of death, as it were.

Even some of the more overheated critics of the programme could barely disguise the frisson of titillation they felt at the broadcast. ‘Tonight, in a British TV first, the moment a man dies in an assisted suicide will be shown’, announced the Daily Mail headline: ‘We apologise to readers upset by these images but they provoke a profound debate: should this most intimate of family scenes be broadcast?’ Look at these images, aren’t they appalling, especially that one there…

Others seem to have objected to the broadcast largely on the ground that it will boost the case for euthanasia. One campaigner was reported as saying that this should not be shown ‘because we are against the legalisation of assisted suicide’. But trying to hide from the facts is no basis on which to win an argument. As one who both supports legalised abortion and opposes legalised euthanasia on humanist grounds, it seems slightly ironic to me to see the religious ‘pro-life’ lobby, who oppose both, are up in arms about this film. After all, they insist on their right to show explicit film of abortions that they think will put the public off. Now they oppose the showing of a film of a quiet assisted suicide that they fear will weaken their case. At least they are consistent in their low opinion of us, the supposedly gullible British viewers.

In truth we do need the fullest public debate about the issues raised by assisted suicide. But that is not about video images, it is about the values of our society. It is not simply a question of seeing how a patient dies, but of deciding how we want to live, what value we attach to our humanity and whether we want to see a state-sanctioned system decree that some lives are not worth living.

Death should certainly not be hidden away. It is important for example to talk to children about it, and to have proper funeral or memorial ceremonies – we took our quite young children to their grandfather’s funeral as an important family moment. But the argument that this film was justified because we treat death as too ‘private’ a matter is misplaced. Some things really are private and personal and should remain so. How you feel about a death is ultimately not about whether you see it, but whether you know and care about the individual involved. That is why for most people, uninvolved in the tragedy, such a perverse programme is more entertainment than education or anything else.

Defending the film, Mr Ewart’s widow claimed that ‘he was keen to have it shown because when death is hidden and private, people don’t face their fears about it. They don’t acknowledge that it is going to happen, they don’t reflect on it, they don’t want to face it. That’s the taboo.’ Many people have talked about breaking the taboo surrounding death. I almost wish there was such a thing to break. In fact, of course, there has been no taboo about discussing and displaying death for some time. We live almost in a culture of death and decay, a miserabilist mood in which screening a suicide is only a logical extension of broadcasting autopsies and operations and where everything from contemporary art and drama to documentaries seems obsessed with death, disease, degradation and the dark side of life.

In the letter Mr Ewart wrote before his death he said his options were ‘death, or suffering and death’. That could almost serve as a succinct summation of the human condition as portrayed in popular culture today, where life is suffering and death is a release. Perhaps the only real surprise was that his assisted suicide was not shown on mainstream TV. Coming soon, to a Panorama special near you…?

Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large.

Previously on spiked

spiked hosted a dignified debate about death. Kevin Yuill deplored the public parading of a severely disfigured French woman who wanted the ‘right to die’. He felt the case of Colin Norris indicated the devaluation of old people’s lives. Elsewhere, he said no thanks to the ‘right to die’ and argued that those supporting euthanasia gave cultural approval to suicide. Dr Margaret Branthwaite made the case for legalising assisted dying. Frank Furedi urged us to challenge the culture of death, while Brendan O’Neill peered into the world of pro-suicide websites. Or read more at spiked issue Euthanasia.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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