The last taboo comes into focus for changing TV times

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Cancer may no longer be a taboo subject, but Sarah Freeman asks do we really need to see one man’s dying moments on television?

It’s hard to believe that it’s almost 15 years since John Diamond began a diary which chronicled his battle with throat cancer.

Written with heartbreaking honesty, his thoughts were later compiled in a book C: Because Cowards get Cancer Too. It won Diamond various awards, but, more importantly, it gave other sufferers and their families a voice.

His was a no-holds-barred approach. Diamond described radiotherapy as “worse than the disease itself”; he talked of his despair at “dribbling like a 90-year-old”. At times, he was also very funny

As a broadcaster and journalist, Diamond always said he felt he had no other option but to write about the cancer which eventually killed him in 2001. It was his way of dealing with the successive rounds of treatments, but writing at a time when cancer was still considered something of a taboo, those columns were also ground-breaking.

Much has changed since Diamond penned his final thoughts. Many others have turned to the written word, online support groups have been created and cancer is discussed openly. In a final breaking down of barriers, the BBC will now show the final dying moments of an 84-year-old cancer sufferer.

Known only as Gerald, viewers of the science series, Inside the Human Body, will see his final breath as he dies at home surrounded by his family.

“It’s important that life-threatening illness and death are discussed and understood more in society,” he said when filming began last winter.

“I don’t want to die, but pretty evidently, unless some miracle happens, I ain’t going to be here very long.”

Gerald died on January 1. Like him, his family hope the programme will help others, and its presenter, Michael Mosely, has been quick to head off criticism. In an interview with the Radio Times, he said: “There are those who feel that showing a human death on television is wrong, whatever the circumstance.

“Although I respect this point of view, I think there is a case to be made for filming a peaceful, natural death – a view shared by many who work closely with the dying.”

It’s no doubt been sensitively filmed, but with nothing now seemingly off-limits for the cameras, many campaign groups have begun to wonder whether such programmes are setting a dangerous precedent. One has gone so far as to accuse the BBC of “crossing the Rubicon”, concerned that such programmes are more a matter of winning ratings than education.

The broadcaster has already been described as a “cheerleader for assisted suicide” after filming the last moments of a man at a Dignitas clinic in Switzerland for a Terry Pratchett documentary.

The programme, due to be screened on BBC 2 in the summer, follows a 71-year-old in the latter stages of motor neurone disease as he takes a mixture of drugs to end his life.

“Both these programmes had the consent of all those involved,” says Vivienne Pattison, of Mediawatch-UK, the organisation which was born out of Mary Whitehouse’s National Viewers and Listeners Association.

“They are not turning death into Big Brother-style reality TV, but it is a question of balance, and I can understand why concerns are being raised, particularly by the Dignitas programme.

“Quite a number of programmes have already been screened which have taken a pro-euthanasia stance. It’s an emotive subject, but there are just as many people who oppose it, and their views don’t seem to be represented. Our job is to campaign for socially responsible broadcasting and against content that is offensive and harmful to viewers.

“I don’t think showing someone’s last moments is necessarily harmful, but the goal posts on what is acceptable on television have shifted greatly over the last decade.

“During the last 10 years, it seems the watershed has quietly been eroded. So much so, that Christina Aguilera’s sexual X Factor routine was recently cleared by the broadcasting watchdog of being inappropriate for a young audience.

“Ofcom did say it was ‘at the very margin of acceptability’, but it does make you wonder what they would have to do to breach the guidelines. The argument goes that society has changed and, therefore, what’s acceptable on television has changed.

“However, in recent years, far too much emphasis has been placed on ‘freedom of expression’ with little or no emphasis on the corresponding responsibilities.”

sarah.freeman@ypn.co.uk