07 December 2011


By Gordon Rayner Daily Telgraph 070611

Millionaire hotelier Peter Smedley named as man whose Dignitas assisted suicide was filmed by BBC

A few days after Peter Smedley’s death last December, his close friends found individually-written letters from him in their post, telling each one how much they had meant to him.

Image 1 of 4
Peter Smedley pictured with his wife

By Gordon Rayner, Chief Reporter
07 Jun 2011

Mr Smedley, a millionaire hotelier and scion of the Smedley’s tinned food empire, had been such an intensely private man that none of the recipients had known in advance that he had planned his own assisted suicide and travelled to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland to end his life.

But the greater surprise was still to come, when Mr Smedley’s friends were joined at his memorial service by a BBC crew who had filmed the 71-year-old’s final moments for a controversial new documentary by Sir Terry Pratchett, the author and campaigner.

“We didn’t know until after the event that he had gone to Dignitas, and we didn’t know about the film until we went to the memorial service and the film crew was there,” one of his closest friends said last night.

Mr Smedley, who was suffering from motor neurone disease, is referred to only as “Peter” in the BBC2 film, Choosing to Die, which will be broadcast on Monday.
Until now, his full identity has remained a secret, but his friends have told The Daily Telegraph of his determination to help change the law on assisted suicide and paid tribute to his courage.

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“Peter was an extremely private man and not someone that would want to share most things,” said a close friend, who asked not to be named. “But clearly he wanted to change the law.

“I think he was very keen for people in that predicament to be able to make a decision on when to end their lives, and you can’t do that in England because your wife or spouse isn’t allowed to help, and it’s a terrible thing to have to go to Switzerland.

“He would have wanted to die in his own bedroom or his own sitting room.”
Unknown to all but his closest family, Mr Smedley invited Sir Terry to accompany him and his wife Christine, 60, to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland, where he drank poison and died on Dec 10 last year.

His death will be the first assisted suicide to be screened on terrestrial television in the UK.

Sir Terry, who has campaigned for the legalisation of assisted suicide since he was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, said in an interview this week that he was sure Mr Smedley would still be alive if he had been able to kill himself in his own home, rather than having to go to Switzerland while he was still fit enough to travel.

“I’m sure that’s true,” said his friend. “I’m sure both he and his wife would have preferred it if he could have made the decision to die here.”
Mr Smedley grew up on his family’s farms in East Anglia, where he would help pick the peas that Smedley’s were famous for before the brand eventually became part of Premier Foods.

As a young man he moved to South Africa, where he became a pilot and flew a single-engined aircraft across the continent, before moving back to England and establishing a property empire.

After marrying Christine in 1977, with whom he later had a daughter, now aged 20, the couple bought Ston Easton Park in Somerset from William Rees-Mogg, the former editor of the Times, and converted it into a luxury hotel.

Within a year of it opening in 1982 it was named Hotel of the Year by the food critic Egon Ronay, and they later established it as a major venue for horse trials.
The couple retired to Guernsey in 2000, where Mr Smedley was diagnosed with motor neurone disease two years ago.

“A lot of his friends didn’t know he had been diagnosed with it to begin with,” said his friend. “He didn’t want people to feel sorry for him.

“He did a lot of research into motor neurone disease and knew there was no cure and that it leads to a horrible death and a ghastly future to face. He would have ended up suffocating and that’s obviously what he wanted to avoid.”

In an interview in this week’s Radio Times, Sir Terry said of Mr and Mrs Smedley: “They are of a class and type that gets on with things and deals with difficulties with a quiet determination.”

Moments before Mr Smedley died, said Sir Terry: “I shook hands with Peter and he said to me ‘Have a good life’, and he added ‘I know I have’.”

When a Dignitas worker asked him if he was ready to drink the poison that would end his life, Mr Smedley said “Yes” and added: “I’d like to thank you all.”

Sir Terry said that as he was doing this, Mr Smedley became embarrassed because he could not remember the name of the sound man.

“And that’s what puts your mind in a spin,” he added. “Here is a courteous man thanking the people who have come with him to be there and he’s now embarrassed, at the point of death, because he can’t remember the soundman’s name.

“This is so English…it also seemed to me with his wife that there was a certain feeling of keeping up appearances.”

After Mr Smedley died, said Sir Terry: “I was spinning not because anything bad had happened but something was saying, ‘A man is dead... that’s a bad thing,’ but somehow the second part of the clause chimes in with, ‘but he had an incurable disease that was dragging him down, so he’s decided of his own free will to leave before he was dragged.’ So it’s not a bad thing.”

Days later, Mr Smedley’s friends received their letters.

“He wrote about how much we meant to him, and it was a very gentlemanly, very sweet and dignified thing to do, typical of him really,” said his friend.

“I think it was amazingly brave of Peter and Christine to do what they did.”
On Monday the BBC, which has been accused of becoming a “cheerleader” for assisted suicide, defended its decision to show Mr Smedley’s death in the film.

Sir Terry hopes it will persuade the government to think again about the law on assisted suicide, and advocates a system of doctors being able to prescribe take-home suicide kits to enable terminally-ill people to choose the right moment to end their lives.

Christine Smedley said last night she did not want to discuss her husband’s death.


BBC flooded with complaints over Choosing to Die documentary

The BBC has been flooded with complaints after it screened Choosing to Die, a documentary showing a British motor neurone disease sufferer taking his own life at a Swiss clinic.

12:17PM BST 14 Jun 2011

The corporation said 898 people had registered their disapproval of the documentary presented by the author Sir Terry Pratchett, with 162 fresh complaints since it aired on Monday night.

A spokesman added that it had also received 82 “appreciations” of the programme about Peter Smedley, a British motor neurone disease sufferer, who allowed the film crew to capture his dying moments at the Dignitas clinic.

Here are some of the comments in condemnation and support of the film, which has reignited the debate on Britain’s assisted suicide laws:

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Sir Terry Pratchett:

“I was appalled at the current situation. I know that assisted dying is practised in at least three places in Europe and also in the United States.

"The Government here has always turned its back on it and I was ashamed that British people had to drag themselves to Switzerland, at considerable cost, in order to get the services that they were hoping for."

Alistair Thompson, a spokesman for the Care Not Killing Alliance pressure group:
"This is pro-assisted suicide propaganda loosely dressed up as a documentary. The evidence is that the more you portray this, the more suicides you will have."
Charlie Russell, who directed the documentary:

"As a film-maker I felt that it was the truth of the matter. Unfortunately we do all die. It's not necessarily very nice but that is what happens to us all so I think it is quite important to see it."

Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester:

"I think an opportunity had been bypassed of having a balanced programme – the thousands of people who use the hospice movement and who have a good and peaceful death, there was very little about them.

"This was really propaganda on one side. Life is a gift and it has infinite value and we are not competent to take it, we do not have the right to take it, except perhaps in the most extreme circumstances of protecting the weak.”

Dignity in Dying, the pressure group:

"People who did not want to watch it did not have to watch and were not confronted with something they did not want to see.

"It certainly shows that Dignitas is not an ideal option for people and we would rather people had the choice of dying at home at a time and in a manner of their choosing."

Dr Peter Saunders, campaign director for the Care Not Killing Alliance:

"We felt the programme was very unbalanced and one-sided and did not put the counter-arguments. Our biggest concern was that it really breached just about all the international and national guidelines on portrayal of suicide by the media.

"We are very worried about the danger of copycat suicide or suicide contagion. We have written to the Secretary of State for Health and the Secretary of State for Culture to ask them to carry out an urgent investigation into the way that assisted suicide has been covered by the BBC and its link to English suicide rates."

Debbie Purdy, a multiple sclerosis sufferer and assisted suicide campaigner:

"Lawyers and judges have been the only people who have been prepared to defend my rights and my right to life and the quality of my life is the most important thing to me.”

Liz Carr, a disability campaigner:

“I, and many other disabled older and terminally ill people, are quite fearful of what legalising assisted suicide would do and mean and those arguments aren't being debated, teased out, the safeguards aren't being looked at.

"Until we have a programme that does that, then I won't be happy to move onto this wider debate."

Emma Swain, the BBC’s Head of Knowledge Commissioning:

“The film does show some other perspectives but it is not critical that every film we make is completely impartial and balanced.”

Nola Leach, chief executive of CARE:

“I rather thought that we had moved on from the days when people gathered in crowds to watch other people die.

“That the BBC should facilitate this is deeply disturbing. One wonders whether the BBC has any interest in treating this subject impartially.”

BBC viewer, writing on the corporation’s Points of View message board:

"What a brilliantly paced, thoughtful, informative and fascinating programme that was. The contributors' accounts were very moving and strangely uplifting. Uplifting in that it was THEIR decision to die.”

Damian Thompson, Editor of Telegraph Blogs:

“As for the BBC, I wonder what the moral status is of exploiting a writer with a degenerative brain disease to nudge us towards a creepy change in the law – at our expense, of course.

“I would threaten to withhold my licence fee in protest, but the Beeb is utterly relentless in tracking down evaders and the last thing I want is to wake up in a Swiss clinic with a syringe staring me in the face.”

BBC viewer, writing on the corporation’s Points of View message board:
“I’ve watched it and applaud Terry Pratchett for allowing us to debate this important issue. I hope we will look back upon this era in a few years time and wonder how we could have allowed people to die without dignity.”

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