The Gilderdale Case: The Right To Die

Is there one law to be followed, if Britons assist their relatives to undergo suicide overseas and another to be applied when the assisted suicide takes place at home? That would seem to be one conclusion to be drawn from the Crown Prosecution Service’s prosecution on an attempted murder charge of a mother who provided a cocktail of drugs allowing her bedridden daughter to end her life.

The case of Kay Gilderdale, who was found this week by a Sussex jury not guilty of attempted murder, is a dismaying indication that the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, is unlikely to follow with consistency his own breakthrough guidelines on assisted suicide that he issued last year.

Yet again it remains unclear where people stand when it comes to assisting the terminally ill – or desperately sick – to end their suffering. Clarity is what Mr. Starmer offered with his guidelines but apparently they are not worth the paper they were written on for they do not clarify the situation but muddy it. What are we to make of such a harsh prosecution? Mrs Gilderdale wasn’t even prosecuted for assisting a suicide but was charged with the even graver offence of attempting murder.

When Mr Starmer unveiled his guidelines I for one applauded them. Three years earlier my mother, Barbara Dettmer, had committed suicide in Switzerland with the assistance of Dignitas, and the loving support of my sister, myself and our father.

My sister, Anne, and I remain furious that our mother was unable to end her life in her own home surrounded by family and friends but had to drag her pained and wrecked body to a foreign country to do as she wished. She had been virtually house-bound for years, had suffered greatly with no end to her pain in sight and she believed passionately that no one – governments or churches – had the right to tell her that she could not select the moment and means of her death (see earlier blog posting).

Along with the decades-long crucifying pain she suffered she was made by the law to go through another crucifixion — to seek death in a foreign country far from the familiar and from her husband of 55 years.

When Mr. Starmer issued his guidelines I wrote: “Despite his cautious wording and assurances that the law in England and Wales against assisted suicide has not changed, he has in effect advanced civil liberties when it comes to the right to die.” I did note I was troubled that the law itself hadn’t been altered and I highlighted the odd situation of having guidelines that in spirit and humanity pulled in one direction while the law against assisted suicide pulls in another. “That is a recipe for trouble down the road and there remains a lack of certainty. The guidelines could be changed later,” I warned.

I did not think the problem would come from Mr. Starmer, who gave the go-ahead for the prosecution of Mrs. Gilderdale. The DPP’s guidelines, which detailed when the UK authorities will prosecute a spouse, relative or friend who assists in a suicide, emphasised that a prosecution would be unlikely as long as those who assisted the suicide do not maliciously encourage the act of suicide or stand to profit and assisted only a “clear, settled and informed wish” to end life.

Mrs. Gilderdale had sought to dissuade her bedridden daughter, Lynn, from wanting to end life. She was a reluctant participant. But her 31-year-old daughter, who had been suffering from Myalgic Encephalomyelitis for 17 years and whose body was wrecked, was determined. She made her views clear both verbally and in writing – the writing took her weeks and months to pull off – that she had had enough.

“Imagine being imprisoned inside the miserable existence that is your life,” she wrote. “I don’t have to imagine that. My body and mind is broken. I am so desperate to end the never-ending carousel of pain and sickness and suffering. I love my family. I have nothing left and I am spent.”

Another passage from Lynn: “I really, really, really want to die and have had enough of being so sick and in so much pain every second of every day…This is something I have thought long and hard about…I’m sure it’s what I want. I have discussed and continued to discuss with my parents at great length. Although they obviously desperately don’t want me to go.”

The emphasis and focus of the Starmer guidelines were spot-on: the DPP stressed that he wanted to protect the vulnerable from manipulation or coercion or trickery. There was none of that involved in the suicide of Lynn – the prosecution showed no evidence to the contrary.

Under the guidelines Mrs. Gilderdale should not have even been prosecuted for assisting the suicide. Despite the fact she had pleaded guilty to assisted suicide, she was brought to court for attempted murder. A charge that irritated the trial judge, and two other judges previously who sought to persuade the CPS to cease prosecution. Mr. Justice Bean, who oversaw the trial, praised the jury for “common sense, decency and humanity” on acquitting Mrs. Gilderdale of attempted murder.

The guidelines were issued after the Law Lords backed in July a call from Debbie Purdy, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, for a policy statement on whether people who help someone commit suicide should be prosecuted. Purdy wanted a clear policy on whether her husband would be prosecuted for helping her travel to Switzerland to go through assisted suicide at a Dignitas clinic.

More than 100 Britons have ended their lives at Dignitas clinics, but, until the Starmer guidelines friends or relatives could not be sure whether they would face prosecution for assisting. Can they now, in the light of the Gilderdale prosecution? No prosecutions have been mounted of those who have helped Britons to commit suicide overseas. Hence the initial question of this posting: are you free from the dangers of prosecution, if it is an overseas suicide, but will face the full weight of prosecution, if the act takes place in the UK?

According to UK Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe, Mr. Starmer turned the Gilderdale case into a “showpiece” to promote the legalization of assisted suicide.  I don’t believe that Mr. Starmer is as Machiavellian as Mrs. Widdecome supposes – he could not know that the jury would acquit and I doubt he would have been as cruel as to risk the imprisonment of a woman he thought was innocent. No, what we have here is a mess and one that is going to add to the suffering of those who want to die.

Good Looking But How Will i-Pad Fare

I am unconvinced by the i-Pad. You can’t use it as laptop, and it is a bigger version of an i-Phone without phone capability. E-readers are cheaper and my lightweight Apple Macbook is already an “entertainment experience” that I walk around with.

Steve Jobs can rely probably on Apple fans to buy thereby stopping it becoming a flop but I think the company should be producing a good Netbook, which, of course, Apple executives sneer at. Maybe the product will be better the second time round: it will have to be able to cope consistently with flash and be able to multi-task.

Now Who Is Spinning!

In the current issue of PR Week (UK), former Tony Blair aide Darren Murphy, now an MD at APCO Worldwide, argues that his former boss should be used by the Labour Party in the upcoming general election campaign. “There’s no doubt Tony Blair would help,” he says.

He adds: “Blair is capable of touching the parts other Labour politicians simply cannot reach.”

A nice try but that’s pushing it a bit. Blair is radioactive — especially so with the current Chilcot Inquiry throwing up embarrassing details into the background of the decision to involve Britain in the 2003 Iraq invasion. Britain’s economic doldrums are blamed by many on Blair and the tabloids are full of angry stories about the costs to the Treasury of the former Prime Minister’s security coverage.

Blair himself recently acknowledged how unpopular he is at home, arguing the rest of the World likes him (hmm not so sure about the Middle East, Tony).

Killing The Goose

The Times has a photograph above its story on President Obama’s populist lunge at the banks with a protester holding up a placard reading: “Greed Kills.” Stupidity does, too. The real facts are that the tremendous economic growth and globalization unleashed in the 1990s did more to reduce poverty in the World and open up opportunities for the young than all the talking shops in Washington DC, New York, Brussels and Geneva achieved in the previous three decades.

Of course, there needs to be more regulation of the banks but “animal spirit” is what drives capitalism and for all its many faults capitalism has the potential to do more good for mankind that the Luddite and statist systems can ever accomplish. Obama’s proposals to limit the size of banks and return the clock back to Glass-Steagall — supported apparently by John McCain and applauded by the Conservative leadership in the UK — will, if put into effect, result in the following consequences:

Banking profits will be reduced, resulting in individual customers having to pay more for personal banking and small business will find it harder to secure loans at favourable rates.

New York and London (if the Conservatives or Labour follow suit in the UK) will see more banks, hedge funds and finance houses relocating outside their jurisdiction and benefiting Gulf and Asian countries (and Switzerland) – they will be happy to welcome them. The move in short will encourage a quicker shift in the balance of economic power away from the West.

There will be tax losses to the US and the UK, putting even more pressure on ordinary taxpayers to pay down the national debts.

Economic growth will be slower and it will take longer to recover from the recession.

The housing market will remain anaemic.

A better way to reduce risk without bringing about the consequences above would be to increase the capital reserves the banks have to hold. But that sounds less purposeful than denouncing “fat cats.”

The Banks and Massachusetts

Today’s earnings reports from US banks point to a recovery when it comes to the investment side of the business but their retail operations are showing only slight improvement. This would suggest that the economic recovery in the US is not as vigorous as the administration has been suggesting. The Massachusetts Senate setback for the Democrats surely can be linked to the sluggish pace of recovery: voters appeared to be saying that Obama and the congressional Democrats in Washington are not getting the job done — or not as quickly as they would like.

Haiti and TV (cont)

CNN International has now some rivals in terms of human-focused TV coverage of the consequences of the Haiti earthquake. BBC World News has had some tremendous pieces in the last 24 hours including a feature on a pregnant woman who was helped to a hospital by the BBC crew and gave birth – two lives in the balance and they came through. CNN International has been using its web site effectively by creatively explaining how ordinary people can have an impact on the crisis with donations.

Fox News had an excellent feature from Jonathan Hunt graphically illustrating how the earthquake has impacted the government of the country with shots of destroyed government buildings. Hunt pointed out that no one knows how many members of the legislative assembly are dead or buried in the rubble.

Aid logistics remain a problem – as does overall coordinated leadership – but the BBC and others now seem to appreciate the scale of the tragedy and the huge challenges posed. They are being less knee-jerk and more thoughtful in their coverage of the aid problems.

One striking thing in this crisis, though, is how the UN leadership has failed to be proactive in explaining what they are doing and what efforts arte being made to coordinate and prioritize. Why no morning press conference in Haiti by top UN communicators? Why no thoughtful daily messaging?

Most senior UN spokespeople appearing on television are not even based in Haiti but are in Switzerland or New York and seem not to be coordinating the information they are putting out and are very light on real-time details. As ever the UN is naïve in its public and media relations work, allowing others to define the space.

Haiti — BBC So Superior?

How depressing the UK and US TV news coverage has been of the Haitian earthquake – and I don’t just mean of the human tragedy of the disaster. US channels, led by Fox, have covered the horror through the prism of American domestic politics, focusing this weekend on why President Obama called in both of his predecessors. He must have some underhand reason for doing so is Fox’s assertion.

The BBC and Sky liked to cover everything with the sub-text of how bad the international organizations are performing. Aid not getting through.  A lack of coordination between the aid agencies. And this from news organizations based in a country that collapses when there is half-a-foot of snow!

There was, in short, a tremendous absence of mature judgment in the coverage. Few reporters offered serious analysis of the logistical nightmare it is to cope with an earthquake of this scale in such a poor country. The distances involved. The consequences of a country losing a functioning government. A port that is hardly operating, A one-runway airport trying to cope with huge traffic without a control tower, etc. The standards of journalism just fall and fall. Obviously there are criticisms to be made of the coordination but the focus just on this detracts from the extraordinary efforts of aid workers and organisations and the ignores the heroism of rescuers and survivors alike.

Too many of the journalists thrown in appear to lack experience and have no stories to compare. And the profession as whole is determined to analyse (without judgment and maturity) and they forget that they are at root just story-tellers and reporters. The superior attitude of BBC journalists is just totally insufferable. Interestingly, the BBC reporters tended to stick close to the airport and not travel as much as journalists from some other news outlets.

By far and away the best practical coverage came from CNN International, which while acknowledging the frustrations of the survivors, preferred to explore the practical and threw up individual stories. CNN International journalists spent less time on making assertions and apportioning blame and more time on securing actual detailed stories. One report focused on a supermarket and looked at the challenges of digging people out, explored who the rescuers were and the people who were rescued.  Their reporters seemed to understand that the scale of the tragedy would throw off any aid effort.

Al Jazeera was also disappointing. Normally the outlet performs well with on-the-ground reporting, although admittedly in its home region of the Middle East or in the nearby Indian sub-continent. This time it kept on securing the services of obscure academics to debate in the studio whether the Americans are good or bad guys.

So my plea to my former colleagues is tell me the story and leave out your pre-programmed ideology, please. And I have another suggestion. Every journalist should be required to leave the profession for a year or so every few years to do a job outside journalism. It would inform their reporting tremendously when they returned. Otherwise we are going to rely increasingly on citizen journalism via social media technology to get the facts.

The Katrina Effect

Snow hit the UK last night and continues today following a government call to councils to reduce by half what little gritting they have been doing. The snow emergency in the UK will have the political effect, I suspect, that Katrina did in the US but on a larger, national scale.

Certainly, the government needs to rethink what it is communicating. Take the latest from HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), who have just announced farmers could face fines if they grit snow-blocked roads using tractors powered on red diesel, the reduced-tax fuel permitted farmers.

Under current rules farmers can only grit roads if using tractors powered by white diesel – the standard fully-taxed diesel for trucks, vans and cars.

Geoff O’Connell, a parish councillor in Belford, Northumberland, told the Daily Mail newspaper: “Doesn’t anyone at HMRC realise that we are experiencing a national emergency, one of the worst outbreaks of Arctic weather for decades? Our farmers are doing their level best to feed their stock and get their produce to our supermarkets. Are farmers supposed to plough, then be unable to grit, sand and gravel their driveways to prevent further drifts because their tractors run on red diesel?

“To suggest that they return to their farms to drain fuel tanks to re-fill with fully-taxed white diesel before carrying out any other, sometimes lifesaving, ploughing activities for their friends and neighbours is unforgivable, heartless and totally impractical.”

Gone Fishing…

It is hard not to feel a tinge of sympathy for the Royal Bank of Scotland’s chief executive Stephen Hester. Today, he endured a grilling from MPs over proposed bonuses — about a billion pounds in total — that RBS will be handing out. His point is that the bank has no alternative, if it wants to remain competitive by retaining top staff.

He insisted before the Treasury Select Committee in the House of Commons that his policy was to pay “the minimum we can get away with in the market place,” adding: “Shareholders have raised concerns about our ability to keep and motivate good people.”

He may have a point, but citing shareholders was a tad undiplomatic when RBS is now 84 percent owned by British taxpayers, and the new owners seem more concerned about bonuses being paid out at all than whether RBS can keep “good staff.”

At least Hester appears to understand that persuading the public otherwise is going to be a huge challenge — some would say impossible. Asked by one MP about what plans he had to persuade the public of the need for the forthcoming bonuses, Hester said with a rueful smile that he had been thinking of going on holiday, although even if he did he wouldn’t be able to escape the fallout.

So can we take it that RBS like other banks still has not fathomed out a communication strategy to cope with the public’s disdain?

The Media, Politicians and The Press

A thoughtful analysis from Matthew d’Ancona in today’s Telegraph in which he warns that politicians’ obsession with news cycles assists terrorists put me in mind of an article I wrote back in July 2002. I run it here complete — it still holds up…

“Combating terrorism is a desperate undertaking for any democratic government. Fight with merely military might and the struggle can be lost – as the Reagan administration belatedly learned in Central America in the 1980s and the Russians have found in Chechnya.

As every successful antiterrorist expert knows, an essential ingredient in defeating an insurgency or terrorist group must involve mounting an effective, two-pronged, hearts-and-minds strategy that aims, on the one hand, to wean supporters away from the terrorist opponent and, on the other, to maintain the morale and backing of your own people. Repression or overreaction and curtailment of civil liberties risks undermining the hearts-and-minds effort.

The Bush administration did a fine job on the keeping-up-morale front in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, steadying jittery Americans and urging them to get back to business. The speedy toppling of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan certainly helped to convince Americans that the Bush administration knew what it was doing and was on the right track.

But in its efforts to ensure the continued support of Americans and to garner backing for proposals such as the establishment of the Department for Homeland Security, the administration risks falling into the trap that other democratic governments fighting terrorism have slipped into to their cost. Bush officials are giving the terrorists what Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s liked to call the “oxygen of publicity.”

Thatcher had in mind more the media’s role during the troubles in Northern Ireland – troubles which, of course, spilled over to mainland Britain in the form of car-bombings and assassinations. She blamed the media for over-covering the Irish Republican Army [IRA]and other paramilitary groups.

As far as the Iron Lady was concerned, the media and the terrorists became locked in a symbiotic relationship. The terrorists needed the coverage; reporters and TV producers needed the stories. She had a point. The aim of terrorists is to prompt fear; by closely covering their actions, foiled plots and threats, the media in Britain became a hugely important element in scaring the British public and even in sapping the political will of the British establishment.

But shutting off that oxygen supply can be a tricky thing for a government to pull off. The attempt can lead to a greater enrichment of the terrorist atmosphere, as well as leading to an undermining of the very values a democratic government purports to be defending.

Take the Iron Lady’s bid to “suffocate” the IRA by prohibiting British broadcasters from transmitting the voice of paramilitary leaders such as Gerry Adams. The ban, of course, merely prompted the broadcasters to seize on a loophole and guaranteed the Sinn Fein president even more airtime, albeit with a voice-over enunciating his words.

Nowadays, with 24-hour news cycles, cable and satellite TV and editorial standards that allow too much speculation and ill-informed analysis to pass as news, the pernicious side of the media’s role in confrontations with terrorists has increased. With its voracious appetite needing to be satisfied, the TV media remain in hyperactive overdrive, giving the impression that the United States is on the brink of turning into a Belfast or a Beirut at the height of their troubles. The public is being scared witless.

But it isn’t all the media’s fault. In recent weeks, the administration, led by Attorney General John Ashcroft, appears to have done everything it could to ratchet up the scare factor, too. The disclosure in early June of the May 8 arrest of the feckless terrorist wanna-be Abdullah Al Mujahir, otherwise known as Jose Padilla, is a case in point.

Few experts believe Padilla was anywhere near capable of fulfilling his dirty-bomb mission. Nonetheless, that didn’t stop the administration from speaking in apocalyptic terms. The manner of the announcement by a live TV linkup for Ashcroft in Moscow and a star-studded news conference at the Justice Department added massive drama. With the surprising exception of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, aides and officials appeared determined to talk up the dirty-bomb threat.

Ashcroft subsequently was criticized for hyping the radioactive menace by the White House [via off-the-record briefings to the press, of course]. But the disclosure nonetheless fits into a recent pattern of dramatic statements from senior administration figures that have only added to widespread public alarm.

Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and FBI Director Robert Mueller all have made startling comments of late. All have endorsed the idea that it is inevitable terrorists will get their hands on nuclear weapons. The media, of course, add to the hype.

It is hard not to have sympathy with some Democrats when they argue that the Bush administration seems intent on deflecting attention from the claims of pre-Sept. 11 intelligence lapses and laxity. Others maintain the administration has increased its warnings of future terrorist outrages to help garner support for major measures, such as the establishment of the Department for Homeland Security.

Arguably there is nothing wrong with a massive public-relations effort – the United States needs to prepare to defend itself and to prevent future attacks. But hyping the risks, whatever the motives, remains a dangerous game to play as public fear easily could swing out of control and force the government into more extreme actions at home and abroad. Governments can provide the “oxygen of publicity” for terrorists as well as the media.”