An unjustified death on the box

When we watch people die on television, we should be careful not to mistake it for reality
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Tonight on BBC2 you can watch Cornelius van Wendel de Joode die. In the presence of his wife, he is first put to sleep with a massive injection of barbiturates and then a further injection of a form of synthetic curare terminally relaxes all his muscles. The doses are administered at his home in Amsterdam by his GP, Dr Wilfred van Oijen, and the entire procedure is conscientiously kept within the guidelines laid down by the Dutch law on euthanasia. Van Wendel, who was 62, was dying of motor neurone disease and he wished to go in peace rather than await the merciless ravages of the sickness.

The documentary - Modern Times: Death on Request - is well-made and moving. Its close concentration on the anguished, anxious face of Dr van Oijen is particularly effective; it is difficult by the end of the programme not to find oneself loving the man. Both van Wendel and his wife come across as proud, brave, devoted people.

But something is obviously wrong. What is wrong is that we are watching and that means that, through each stage of these harrowing proceedings, a camera crew was looking and listening, checking the light and sound levels even as the poison was flooding through van Wendel's veins.

Suddenly the behaviour of the three protagonists seems miraculous, weird, uncanny. Offensive, almost blasphemous questions spring to mind. Did Dr van Oijen consider the presence of the camera when he chose to wear his curiously livid, hooped sweater for the fatal evening? And when Mr van Wendel lay on his bed for the last time, did he not wonder about the propriety of this, about the strangeness of the fact that his life was ending under the gaze of a BBC camera crew?

The very fact that this documentary is being shown has already run into considerable opposition. Alert, an anti-euthanasia organisation, has even asked the Prime Minister to stop it being broadcast. Alert's two main arguments, as explained to me by Dr Peggy Norris, are that, first, it will send a dreadful, discouraging message to the chronically ill and that, second, it quite obviously amounts to propaganda for the legalisation of euthanasia. Dr Norris has not seen the film, but she says that, even if the death portrayed had been more messy, more horrific, she would have opposed its showing on the basis that it still normalised the idea of mercy killing. The whole thing is, she says, "macabre".

I have written here before of my own opposition to the legalisation of euthanasia. And it seems to me that Alert's general, practical case is strong, irrespective of the wider moral questions. The availability of euthanasia will result in a long-term deterioration in the quality of palliative care and will put pressure on the sick to choose this form of legalised suicide.

But Death on Request raises not only this big, public issue, but also the more slippery and curious matter of television and death. Almost everybody will have seen real deaths on television, in among the thousands of faked ones that bombard us every night. It was the death of a little girl before Michael Buerk and his camera crew that inspired the whole Live Aid campaign in 1984-85. And wars have generated a steady flow of on-screen deaths. I remember in particular the shooting of a Biafran before Mike Nicholson and an ITN crew in the Sixties. Less agonising but equally real are the deaths at a distance which can be seen almost every week in the form of the explosions of bombs, rockets or the crack of gunfire.

Clearly television has an appetite for death. This may be seriously expressed - doubtless Buerk and Nicholson believed sufficiently in the significance of what they saw to be satisfied that these deaths should be broadcast. But television is primarily about entertainment and seriousness can easily become faked, ghoulish.

In the United States, for example, there was a fierce campaign to allow executions to be televised. The arguments were serious enough - justice should be seen to be done, this was the people's will so the people had a right to see and so on. But who believes any of that stuff? The American broadcasters wanted ratings, shock value, fun, they wanted a real grave to dance on.

The main argument of news and documentary television is, of course, that whatever the motives, the real thing is the real thing. These deaths happen, why should they be concealed from our gaze? Any process of selection implies a degree of paternalism. The camera does not lie, this is what the world, our world, is like.

And, if we face it, we might feel more inclined to be involved, to improve things. Maybe televised executions will dull the Americans' horrible appetite for capital punishment. Maybe showing all the war footage that floods into TV newsrooms will cool our belligerence.

In any case, nobody argues against a writer describing a death, however awful. I myself have written at some length and in some detail about the application of euthanasia in Holland and, if asked, I don't doubt that I would describe an American execution.

The first point here is that television is not writing. Writing, however flat, can only advertise its own subjectivity. We are always aware of the intervening presence of a particular human perspective. Written words offer themselves as a version, they do not impose or insist that they are the only version.

Television, by contrast, performs a kind of confidence trick. Its subjectivity is heavily concealed by an apparently mechanical objectivity. The camera, we feel, is just a machine recording events. Indeed, in the case of Death on Request its presence becomes so unobtrusive, so accepted by the protagonists, that we forget its presence - we are shocked when we remember.

But watching Death on Request or an execution on television is not the same as being there. So much is left out - the smells, the touch, the atmosphere, the eye contacts, our own participation. All these contribute to the occasion, implicating us in the proceedings whether we like it or not. And, if we are not really there, how can we say that this is the real thing? How can we make judgements on the basis of this distanced, sanitised, edited construction?

The truth is, television does not show us the real thing, it shows us only a devastatingly convincing version. It is a more effective liar than any other medium precisely because it seems so like the truth. In this light the argument that all things must be shown merely because they are real weakens and crumbles. There may be an argument, in a particular case, for broadcasting the intimacy of death, but it should always be clear that it is a very difficult argument to establish. The first instinct of the producer should be to turn away - such an instinct is, after all, no more than a normal human reflex.

Death on Request should not, on balance, have been made. The co-operation of the van Wendels is not sufficient justification. Their behaviour is impeccable but for the sordid presence of the camera crew, a presence which, however sensitive, however unobtrusive, always changes everything.