Death by live TV

By choosing to die in the public eye, Jade Goody has demeaned her death. There are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ deaths. Good is dying in your sleep at a ripe old age. Bad is dying in pain. Amrit Dhillon writes.

india Updated: Feb 20, 2009 23:36 IST

So now Jade Goody is going to end her short, sad life with the ultimate freak show. It sounds like a harsh thing to say about a woman who faces an agonising death, but there seems to be no limit to her capacity for vulgar spectacle.

She epitomises the coarsening of large sections of British society marked by broken families, teenage promiscuity, binge drinking, and reality television which, of course, made Goody famous.

By allowing the cameras to film her daily battle with cervical cancer until she shuffles off her mortal coil, the 27-year-old Goody is pushing reality television to the ultimate limit of ‘everything is permitted’.

The reason she gives is predictable; she wants the money she will make from ‘selling’ her death to ‘Living TV’ to secure the financial future of her two young boys. It’s possible that Goody has no idea what is in store. Maybe she thinks she will slip gently into eternity. Maybe she has never seen the pitilessness of cancer.

But by televising her impending death, Goody, who is already bald, is stripping it of all dignity. The programme will be a version of ancient Rome’s gladiatorial circus.

Voyeuristic viewers will watch the indignities that cancer will inflict on her from the same base instincts that animated the rabble in the Coliseum. They watched wild animals tear people apart from the desire to experience a frisson, the thrill of something new, the relief of seeing others, rather than yourself, suffer.

Privacy is the issue here. The most intimate things in our lives are private. There is an episode in one of Milan Kundera’s novels, set in Stalinist Czechoslovakia, where a group of friends are sitting around in the living room casually gossiping about people they know.

The next day, they hear their conversation, which had been secretly recorded, broadcast on national radio. Horror of horrors! How terrible and wicked they sound! The moment something private passes into the public realm, its essential nature changes instantly.

I know nothing about the last stages of cervical cancer. I would guess that every cancer has its own terrible trajectory.

But having watched my brother recently die of cancer of the esophagus in the UK, I dearly wish someone would tell Goody to change her mind. Like Goody, he suffered the mental torment of knowing he had only months to live. Very soon, the diseased savaged him. Very soon, he looked like a survivor of Auschwitz.

When we looked at him, our hearts were breaking with love and anguish. Cancer patients in the last stages should be seen only by those who love them. The idea of anyone else looking at my brother in his final agony, when he was utterly defenceless, was horrifying.

Various aunties and uncles anxious to shed the regulation crocodile tears showed up at the Wolverhampton hospital where he lay dying. We stopped them entering his room. We had to, to protect his dignity. Yes, they would undoubtedly have felt compassion for him. But compassion without love would still have turned the encounter into a spectacle, diminishing him and reducing him to an object of pity rather than a beloved brother, husband, son, and father.

Yet here is Goody, prepared to spread out her suffering in front of the cameras. How far will it go? Will they film every spasm and convulsion? The whole hideous, revolting mess of dissolution? Will the camera follow her into the morgue? The undertaker’s?

If her children are filmed weeping at her bedside, will their privacy not be invaded? Will they be given a CD as a souvenir? Could this be the start of a new trend? Is a Death Channel round the corner?

By choosing to die in the public eye, Goody has demeaned her death. There are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ deaths. Good is dying in your sleep at a ripe old age. Bad is dying in pain. Slightly better is dying in pain surrounded by loved ones. Worse is dying in pain alone. As for dying with millions of strangers watching you out of morbid curiosity, well, that is just plain distasteful.

Amrit Dhillon is a British Asian currently based in New Delhi

First Published: Feb 20, 2009 23:26 IST