10 December 2008

The continuous Craig Ewert

Long, long ago (though apparently, looking at the publication date, not as long ago as I thought), when I if not the world was young, I read and was greatly affected by D G Compton's cautionary The continuous Katherine Mortenhoe.

Tonight, Sky News shows a John Zaritsky documentary in which 59 year old Craig Ewert, suffering from MND, switches off his own life in Zürich's Dignitas clinic.

There are profound differences between Mortenhoe and the Zaritsky documentary. Katherine Mortenhoe refused permission to have her last days of terminal illness filmed, and took steps to ensure her privacy, but the network pursued her anyway. Zaritsky, by contrast, made his film at the request of the Ewarts, and it is aired by Sky at their express wish.

I personally believe in the right to choose one's own time and manner for shuffling off this mortal coil, approve of open discussion, empathise with the Ewarts' reasons for making this death public, and approve the shedding of light on the undiscussed. But ... I am less happy about the motives of broadcaster and most viewers.

Sky News, I confidently assume, is interested less in demystifying the philosophical light and shade of a moral issue than in a topic which will attract publicity and large numbers of viewers. And while there will be many viewers concerned with the issues, attraction of a mass audience will depend upon the ghoul effect which can always be relied upon to draw spectators.

I am not with those who would try to prevent showing of this (or any other) documentary. But nor can I share the optimistic view that a million viewers equate to a million enlightened souls. In a murky world, effective pursuit of even the very best and purest aims and objectives inevitably involves supping with the devil; all we can do is use the proverbial long spoon.

Philip Astley, "father of the modern circus" in the late 18th century CE, claimed educational values for his spectacle which, no doubt, it did serve; but they were never the main draw or the underpinning of its success. Phineas Barnum (whether or not he really said "no one went broke underestimating public taste") was more honest. Both of their spectacles were, in more sophisticated times and terms, spiritual heirs to the circuses of Rome; and so is Sky News.

Mortenhoe was also published under two other titles, Death watch being one of them.

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