Craig Ewert, 59, whose death in an assisted suicide in a Swiss clinic will be broadcast on British television. Photograph: Sky Real Lives/PA
• Sky documentary shows moment British man dies
• Critics label programme ‘macabre voyeurism’
By Steven Morris and John Plunkett
A documentary that appears to show the moment when a man dies after going through with an assisted suicide was strongly criticised yesterday by anti-euthanasia campaigners and a television watchdog.
The film, which is being screened on the Sky Real Lives channel tonight, seems to show the moment when 59-year-old Craig Ewert, who had motor neurone disease, died. It is believed this would be the first time the instant of the a person’s death in an assisted suicide has been shown on British television.
Both the documentary maker, Oscar winner John Zaritsky, and Sky insisted that the film, Right to Die? – which is being shown at 9pm – is an important contribution to a vital debate.
Ewert, a retired university professor from Harrogate, Yorkshire, travelled to Dignitas, the organisation in Zurich that helps people to die, because he did not want to spend the rest of his days in a “living tomb”.
The documentary shows Ewert and his wife, Mary, exchanging a last kiss. He says: “I love you sweetheart – so much.” She replies: “Have a safe journey. I will see you some time.”
Ewert is then given a liquid and told he will die if he drinks it. He drinks through a pink straw, then asks for some apple juice and music. Shortly before his eyes close, he says: “Thank you.”
Dr Peter Saunders, a director of the Care Not Killing alliance, branded the film “macabre death voyeurism”. He said: “This is taking us a little further down the slippery slope. It seems there is a macabre fascination in this death tourism.
“It’s creating the impression that there is a huge demand for this. There isn’t. There are only a very few people going over to use this service but an inordinate amount of media coverage. It’s all part of a calculated campaign to get the issue back before parliament.”
Saunders, a general surgeon, said there was a danger that people could feel “subtly” pressurised into going down the same route.
Dominica Roberts, of the Pro-Life Alliance, said the programme sent out the message that some people’s lives are “worthless”, adding: “It is both sad and dangerous to show this kind of thing on the television.”
John Beyer, director of the television monitoring group Mediawatch-UK, said: “This subject is something that is quite an important political issue at the moment and my anxieties are that the programme will influence public opinion.”
Zaritsky said filming Ewert’s death was the most difficult moment in his 26-year career. “When we were filming it we all had to remain very professional and just concentrate on doing our jobs,” he said. But he insisted: “I want the film to be controversial and I want people to debate it strongly.”
The veteran documentary maker Roger Graef, who has made more than 80 films, said: “”If someone has allowed the filming to happen I don’t see a problem with that. We don’t have to watch it. We know it’s a film about euthanasia. I think it informs the debate.”
Brian Woods, chief executive of True Vision TV, which specialises in documentaries about human rights, said: “I don’t think there is any moral problem with filming the moment of death. It is a matter of context and how appropriately and tastefully it is done.”
Barbara Gibbon, head of Sky Real Lives, said: “This is an issue that more and more people are confronting and this documentary is an informative, articulate and educated insight into the decisions some people have to make. I think it’s important that broadcasters give this controversial subject a wider airing.”
Asked if the actual moment of death is shown, a spokeswoman for Sky Real Lives said the crew filmed Ewert for 40 minutes as he died. But it was impossible to say at what point he actually did so.
Last year publicity material for an ITV1 documentary claimed it showed the moment Alzheimer’s sufferer Malcolm Pointon died. It later emerged that he died two and a half days after the cameras stopped rolling.
An Ofcom spokesman said: “All UK broadcasters must adhere to the broadcasting code which sets standards for the content of TV programmes.
“The code contains clear rules about the portrayal of self-harm and suicide in order to protect people from harm.”