Ray Gosling: The confessions of a mercy killer

A BBC documentary maker's admission that he suffocated a former lover stricken with Aids has provoked a fierce ethical debate
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The Independent Online

He promised viewers the confession he was about to make would be "rather startling". And so it proved to be. Ray Gosling, pioneering gay rights campaigner and veteran broadcaster, revealed in a local BBC news programme on Monday night how one hot afternoon some years ago he smothered a former lover to death as he lay in hospital suffering unimaginable pain and beyond the reach of medical help.

Yesterday detectives from Nottinghamshire police's homicide unit visited the production offices where the documentary – a "journey of death" exploring the culture surrounding modern mortality – was made. In his emotional confession, told as he strolled through a graveyard, Mr Gosling, 70, refused to reveal the name of the young man or to state exactly when the mercy killing had taken place.

The lack of detail will make the investigation difficult for police. So too will the broadcaster's insistence yesterday as media interest in his past grew that he would disclose no more information no matter how hard he was pressed – indeed, even if he was "tortured". He said the dead man was "looking down from heaven" on him.

"No, no, no. No way, no way, no way. It is nobody's business. It was a private pact," he said. "I don't regret it." The man had been suffering from an Aids-related illness and had asked Mr Gosling to step in to end his life should his suffering become too much to bear. He was not Mr Gosling's partner Bryn Allsop, who the broadcaster nursed through pancreatic cancer to his death several years later.

It is understood the incident happened in the early 1980s when HIV was a little-talked about or understood condition devastating the gay community and long before the advent of antiretroviral drugs to treat it.

But Mr Gosling, whose award-winning documentaries have given voices to communities traditionally overlooked by the mainstream media – lovingly crafted portraits of working class people from provincial towns – insisted he was not about to become a spokesman for the cause of assisted dying. "I just want people to get on with living their lives as fully as possible for as long as they are still alive. But when you are in that much pain though it is not really a life," he said.

He explained he had been moved to tell his own secret after listening to the candid stories told to him by his interview subjects for the documentary series Inside Out. Other recent topics for his work have also been highly personal and he has spoken frankly about his spiral into debt and his battle against the stigma of old age.

While his own actions in helping his lover to die were inspired by compassion, he said he believed the practice to be commonplace in the medical profession. "Sometimes doctors do it on their own. Sometimes people do it on their own. And if it happens to a lover or friend of yours, a husband, a wife, and I hope it doesn't but when it does, sometimes you have to do brave things and you have to say – to use Nottingham language – bugger the law," he said.

Although he rarely discussed the subject, it emerged that he had spoken about the incident to close friends in the past. Allan Horsfall, with whom he formed the groundbreaking organisation the North West Homosexual Law Reform Committee in the late 1960s, a time when when openly gay men faced prison or harmful "corrective" treatments for their sexuality, said he doubted the confession had been made on the spur of the moment.

"He didn't talk about it very much but he did talk about it. He dealt with it quite easily but he only told people who he had been friends with for many years. He would never seek out publicity like this just for the sake of it and I don't think he will be regretting it. I spoke to him shortly after he recorded this and he could have gone back and deleted it if he had wanted to.

"But it was a very brave thing to do because we don't know what the Crown Prosecution Service will do now – indeed, whether they will do anything at all," said Mr Horsfall.

The BBC, which employs Mr Gosling as an occasional presenter of its regional news documentary strand, said it would co-operate fully with the police investigation. The programme was cleared by the corporation's legal and editorial standards departments before it was broadcast.

A spokesman said two messages of support had been received immediately after it was shown while three complaints had been lodged after the story appeared in newspapers.

But though it was watched by only 98,000 viewers in the East Midlands region around Mr Gosling's Nottingham home, his words were seized on by those on either side of the assisted dying debate.

A spokesman for Care Not Killing, which campaigns for better palliative care and against liberalisation of the euthanasia laws, accused the BBC of distorting the facts.

He said: "It is somewhat bizarre and highly irresponsible that the BBC, which has known about this case for over two months, has not referred the matter to the police but instead made the decision to make it international news just before the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) releases his assisted suicide prosecution guidelines.

"This will fuel concerns that the BBC is not covering this issue in an even-handed manner and may even be trying to put pressure on both the DPP and Parliament by giving hugely disproportionate coverage to emotive cases in which the facts are selectively presented to an uninformed audience."

But Jo Cartwright, of pro-change group Dignity in Dying, said Mr Gosling was just one of many people in Britain living with the consequences of helping someone to die, often suffering higher rates of psychological damage and suicide.

"This highlights that there is an issue and a real and present problem with people having to get involved in the end of their loved one's lives. But if you had safeguarded assisted dying, friends and families would not have to go through this. A retrospective police investigation would be pointless," she said.

Mr Gosling started his career as a railway signalman and later worked with problem youths. He went on to write a succesfull book and make powerful films, normally centred on life in the East Midlands.

As his gay rights activism grew his presenting career flourished in the English regions and he was a stalwart on screens in the North-west where for a long time he was one of the few openly homosexual people to appear on television.

Case closed: Why an investigation is likely to flounder

Most murder, manslaughter or mercy killing investigations start with a body and, if detectives are lucky, the case might end with a confession. The Ray Gosling situation turns that scenario on its head and makes the case against him very difficult to prove.

From his on-screen admissions it would appear that Gosling has a case to answer for the offence of assisted suicide. Given that the existence of an apparent "suicide pact" between Gosling and his former lover is based on Gosling's say-so alone, he could even be questioned for murder.

But with little knowledge of when the crime happened, where it took place, or even who it happened to detectives do not have much to go on.

Given that the victim is thought to have died some time in the 1980s people who could act as witnesses (family members of the victim or the hospital doctor) may well be dead.

And as the victim was smothered, according to Gosling, an exhumation of the body will provide nothing in the way of assistance, so there is no medical or forensic evidence.

The only evidence is the documentary footage. But it remains to be seen whether this alone will convince the Crown Prosecution Service to press charges, let alone prove Gosling's guilt.

Interviewing Gosling is unlikely to help any case. "I'm not going to tell [the police] anything," Gosling said. As one police source explained: "The only hope is to investigate his past and hope his name shows up on a death certificate somewhere as next of kin."

Mark Hughes