Dead wrong: A column about assisted dying and... uh... Doctor Who illuminates The Daily Telegraph’s world view

You should be scared and know your place, you see...

You don’t need to be a priest, rabbi, imam, guru, or hold any other religious title to contribute to Thought For The Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. If you’re a writer whose personal faith is a professional advantage, you’re in.

That’s why Tim Stanley — a bow tie-loving haunted end-of-the-pier show mannequin with a Telegraph column and a contributing editor role at The Catholic Herald — has appeared in the slot so often. The god stuff gets him TftD and the conservative stuff gets him The Moral Maze and Question Time.

An atheist or even an agnostic would never get the chance to slope into the TftD pulpit but writers like Stanley, Rhidian Brook, and Anne Atkins are able to stroke their chins there regularly purely by dint of being Christian. In Stanley’s case especially it’s having it both ways — he’s a political player as a Telegraph columnist and leader writer, but through TftD he gets to pose as someone more philosophical and outside the fray.

TftD is broadcast during Radio 4’s flagship political show but it’s an island on its own. The statements and assertions contained within it are never questioned or analysed; it is a segment dedicated to a sermon and when the person delivering it is a newspaper columnist that unquestioned authority is even more of a problem than when some holy person is hooting on about their world view.

In today’s Telegraph, Stanley — as he so often does — writes a column that’s a cut-and-shut of his TftD schtick and his more clownish Moral Maze persona. He delivers a denunciation of assisted dying before pulling the handbrake and skidding into a cheaply comic bit about the politics of Doctor Who. It’s nothing particularly special but I think it illustrates a lot about the Telegraph worldview.

Beneath the headline Assisted dying may be 'exceptional' at first, but that's what they said about abortion, Stanley — who is just 39 — writes blimpishly:

Matt Hancock has opened the door to assisted dying in the UK by requesting figures for how many people have killed themselves for medical reasons, to “inform the debate”. Britain will legalise it. It’s inevitable.

Inevitable because that’s our direction of travel since the Sixties, towards full bodily autonomy; because we’re living longer, suffering and want a dignified end; and because religious conservatism has all but collapsed in Parliament. There are MPs who have qualms about legalisation, Danny Kruger wrote intelligently against it in this paper recently, but they know they’re in a tiny minority - and that they’ll be up against a chorus of emotional rhetoric. Those who are alive and suffering can have a voice. Those who have taken their own life under pressure never do. There is no lobby for the dead.

This is a classic Telegraph move — dismissing your enemies for doing something you disapprove of while doing exactly the same thing (and pretending that you are not). Stanley sniffs that MPs who oppose assisted dying will be swept away by “a chorus of emotional rhetoric” while… writing emotional rhetoric.

What is “there is no lobby for the dead” if not emotional rhetoric? And with his rhetoric sharpened by his years of emotional button pressing on TftD and The Moral Maze, Stanley ratchets it up:

It’s the same problem debating abortion - living, breathing human beings who believe it’s a woman’s right can write to their MP, but unborn babies cannot - and I see similar consequences from the proposed legalisation. Remember: abortion was legalised on the understanding that it would be specific and rare, and if anything reduce death - because now it would be safe. Decades later and the UK aborts around 200,000 a year.

For all Stanley’s faux-1940s politeness, this is the same argument put forward by screaming protestors who stalk women outside abortion clinics. And look at how he presents the number of abortions in England and Wales — 200,000 without any breakdown or context. The actual figure was 207,384 but Stanley just wants a round number that he presumes will shock his pearl-clutching, marmalade dropping readership.

There are 7 legal grounds for allowing abortion and 98% of those recorded in the latest set of full figures — which cover the 2019 calendar year — were under Ground C…

That the pregnancy has NOT exceeded its 24th week and that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman.

… and the Department of Health and Social Care figures go on to say that:

The vast majority (99.9%) of abortions carried out under ground C alone were reported as being performed because of a risk to the woman’s mental health.

But like a ‘good’ Catholic, Stanley prizes scripture over science and, as the line in his introduction suggests — “Inevitable because that’s our direction of travel since the Sixties, towards full bodily autonomy…” — find the idea of the right to choose to be anathema.

After rehearsing those old — ancient, even — excuses for a religious hold over women’s bodies, Stanley finally gets to the heart of his assisted dying argument:

But the problem with assisted dying, as with abortion or the death penalty, anything that empowers us to end life, is that it presumes that society is equal and fair, that we make decisions entirely on our own terms, in a benign context. But courts and judges can make mistakes; women can be pressured by circumstances to abort a child; and people can feel almost obliged to take their own life because they believe themselves to be a burden, or their judgement is clouded. I know of one person who, upon receiving a diagnosis of dementia, resolved to kill themselves.

In the first line, there is another common columnist technique in action — the “one of these things is not like the others” strategy. Stanley gloms together abortion and assisted dying — two policies he disdains — with a third, the death penalty which is not generally supported beyond Priti Patel’s hang ‘em and flog ‘em wing of the Conservative Party.

Stanley’s blithe comment that “courts and judges can make mistakes” comes from the heart of a trad Catholic worldview — only God is infallible, right? But it’s one that moralists like him apply selectively. Politicians and the courts are a-okay when they’re ruling on things he supports but the idea of a system that can allow people to end their lives at a time of their choosing is impossible to conceive because he chooses to think that.

The introduction of the person with dementia who thought of taking their own life is again a common columnist trick — the unquestionable anecdote. Stanley says this person exists and just happens to offer a parable that perfectly fits the point he wants to make:

They tried and failed [to take their own life], and in the process did more damage than before. Now they don’t want to die. They have been moved to a better facility; they are, I sense, at greater ease with their condition. A lot of distress is situational, we all know that, and our primary obligation should be to try to change the circumstances. Assisted dying is the “easy way out” for society. It lets us off the hook from doing expensive, difficult things, like investing in palliative care or transforming neighbourhoods to make them dementia friendly.

Or, and bear with me on this one, some individual’s genuine desire to end their own lives when facing a terminal diagnosis can be a valid position and arguing that we need better palliative care and dementia-friendly communities can both be true and exist comfortably in the same moral universe.

In the concluding section of his argument, Stanley drags out one two more columnists’ tricks — the preemptive rebuttal…

Supporters of reform will say I’m trying to hoodwink you because their laws will only relate to those suffering with terminal illnesses, with assisted dying only possible if two doctors sign off on it and if a judge approves. But even if that’s how it starts, things will go further. You know it. Abortion also relies on two doctors agreeing: evidence has been presented of doctors pre-signing forms for women they knew nothing about. And in Belgium and the Netherlands, wrote Kruger, laws first intended to be narrow now permit the assisted death of non-mentally competent adults,  disabled young children, even those with psychiatric problems.

In 2018, Dutch doctors gave a fatal poison to a 29-year-old woman who was not terminally ill but mentally ill. That’s where this ends.

… and emotional cherry-picking — selecting outlier examples generally unlinked to evidence and often heavily spun — to support your assertions. Remember when Tim Stanley warned of emotional rhetoric about 7 paragraphs ago? Well, there it is in his kicker.

The story he’s referring to is that of Aurelia Brouwers. It’s a complicated case and one that was debated intensely in the Netherlands. In 2017, the year before Bouewers died 83 of the 6,585 deaths from euthanasia in the country were attributed to people who requested it after suffering severe mental health issues. While doctors made the drugs that killed Brouwer available to her after a very long process, they didn’t “give” them to her. She chose to drink them — the last in a series of attempts to end her own life.

I offer those details because, in the neat moralising of Stanley’s column, he takes a woman’s story and distils it down to 26 words. Brouwers is denied her name and the context of her passing. She becomes a salutary lesson, a warning to be deployed by a columnist picking up a complicated issue for a weekly instalment of Tim’s Moralising Moment, his off-brand Thought for the Day alternative.

Of course, Stanley has every right to put forward his arguments against assisted dying but to do so he deploys all the tricks in the columnist’s toolbox, relying on the biggest strawmen I’ve seen outside of Edward Woodward’s burning in The Wickerman. Serious debates deserve more than the cheap emotionalism and context compression of a Daily Telegraph columnist’s weekly hit.

And just when you think Stanley’s used up all his tricks for one column, there’s a second topic — Doctor Who. Under the typically Telegraphian hyperbolic headline We right-wingers are forbidden from enjoying Dr Who, Stanley writes:

I was on Question Time last week, via the internet rather than in the studio, which was great because it meant I could do it barefoot. Most of the online chatter was about the vast collection of Doctor Who books arranged behind me. This blew the minds of Who fans: “how could a Tory love Doctor Who?” they asked, some of them quite upset at the idea. Don’t I realise that the Doctor is a socialist?

I recently rewatched all the 1970s Who, and while Jon Pertwee’s era is, to my surprise, grindingly political (green, feminist and anti-apartheid, quite rightly), all that ended when producer Barry Letts left the show. Tom Baker’s era is superficially apolitical, but for one story, The Sunmakers, that satirises the Inland Revenue. Denis Healey is parodied as a lump of seaweed with big eyebrows.

But even if Doctor Who were a pinko, I’m still capable of enjoying something I disagree with (I never miss an edition of Viz though it exists to take the mick out of people like me). One of the basic differences between Right and Left is that conservatives generally appreciate things on their own merits – but the Left will hate something, even if it’s good, because they judge it to be Right-wing and will convince themselves they love something, even if it’s awful, if it aligns with their worldview. Hence the popularity of the Mash Report. We all knew it was about as funny as the Donner Party massacre, but the Left lapped it up because it was woke.

It’s always been the case with Whovians that they don’t just want to enjoy the show, they want to own it. But isn’t socialism, at its heart, about sharing?

As before, Stanley sets up an enemy (the leftists assailing him on Twitter for his love of the show) and picks selectively at the facts to make his points (“Tom Baker’s era is selectively apolitical, but for one story…”).

I found 7 tweets about his Question Time appearance that reference his Doctor Who collection and only one of them is explicitly negative. And that tweet comes from Nicholas Pegg, who has played a Dalek on the show numerous times and is a writer, director, and performer of several Big Finish audio adventures. That may be why Stanley was stung enough to respond in his column.

As for Stanley’s claim that Baker’s run as the Doctor was “apolitical”, it seems that although his Who book collection is extensive, Pegg may be right to suggest that the Telegraph writer was not listening properly. There were plenty of other episodes in the Baker-era that were political. Genesis of the Daleks is just one example that springs to mind — a tale about the rise of fascism.

But Stanley’s game isn’t to show off his Doctor Who fandom but to make a petty generalisation about the strengths of his team (the Right) over its enemies (the Left). Hence the cheap and hypocritical jibe about The Mash Report — which didn’t align with ideology — while claiming that “conservatives generally appreciate things on their own merits.”

With its emotional rhetoric, cherry-picking of facts, and wild generalisations designed to play to The Telegraph’s pub bore crowd, Stanley’s column is the paper’s worldview in miniature — you should like what it likes, do what it says, and don’t you dare answer back. Free speech is only for right-wingers with expensive tastes… and bowties.

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