BBC defends decision to break last taboo by filming death

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The Independent Online
The BBC defended itself yesterday against the accusation of being "unbelievably insensitive" in its attempts to break the last television taboo: by showing people dying of illness for a major science series.

Mary Whitehouse, founder of the Viewers' and Listeners' Association which recently backed the BBC's campaign for a higher licence fee, said showing such events would be "an intrusion into family grief with the whole world watching".

She added: "I would like to see the governors look into it and give their verdict. I would be surprised if they approved."

The BBC's newly updated producer's guidelines, adherence to which is written into staff contracts, says: "The dead should be treated with respect and not shown unless there are compelling reasons for doing so. Close-ups should generally be be avoided. When such scenes are justified they must not be lingered over."

But a BBC spokesman said that while filming was continuing for the series of "several" terminally ill patients, one with cancer, it was with the permission of the patients, their doctors and their relatives.

"We have not decided whether to film their death," she said. "If that decision was taken, it would be taken with the full, informed consent of the patient and their relatives, and it would also never be shown without the greatest respect for the sensibilities of viewers.

"We would also like to add that these people have given the subject of their death a lot of thought. This in itself may help those who face what is a very frightening but universal experience."

The pounds 4m BBC1 series, with the working title The Human Body, is scheduled for transmission in 1998. It is to attempt to do for human biology what The Private Life of Plants did for the world's flora. It will cover the seven ages of human life, from conception to grave, in seven 50-minute episodes and represents the BBC's first attempt in 20 years to tackle a comprehensive study of the subject.

The series is the brainchild of Jana Bennett, head of the BBC's science department. While acknowledging the final programme on dying and death will raise ethical issues, she told Broadcast magazine: "The processes of death are fundamental to basic biology."