When the phone rang on a Tuesday afternoon with a blocked number, I knew it was London. Sure enough, The Daily Telegraph had been calling me, asking me to check out a story.
Even to the English news editor, who doesn’t speak the tricky language of Dutch, there was something off about the unbylined, 12-paragraph story from the Central European News agency.
‘This depressed 17-year-old girl who was raped as a young child and who felt she could no longer go on living has been legally euthanised at an “end-of-life clinic,”’ it began.
So why was there only one article about the death in the Dutch press, from a local paper that had published many interviews with Noa Pothoven from Arnhem and her family?
The troubled young woman, and award-winning writer, who had been sexually abused and then traumatised by her experiences of psychiatric institutions in the Netherlands, had posted a message on her Instagram account – now deleted. In it, she announced her decision to stop eating and drinking due to her constant mental suffering and saying that she was being ‘let go’. She died last Sunday.
Although the report in the Algemeen Dagblad mentioned a euthanasia clinic high up in the copy, it was clear in other articles that this clinic had said she was not eligible for its help late last year.
So I picked up the telephone to the clinic and reached out to MP Liza Westerveld, who had campaigned on Ms Pothoven’s behalf, to ask if she could confirm – or debunk – the unlikely story. The clinic, citing patient privacy, couldn’t say much but a spokeswoman for Westerveld phoned me back saying that as far as they knew, the young woman had stopped eating. Westerveld had said goodbye to her last week and was very upset about her death.
In the meantime, media outlets from News.com.au (from the News Corp Australia stable) to the Mail Online, Independent, Washington Post and The Times were reporting a ‘euthanasia’ as though it were fact – apparently having done no checking at all.
The editor of DutchNews.nl and I agreed that it was all very odd: if this were genuinely true, the Dutch media would be full of debate about it. Despite the aggressive interest from the rest of the world in the Netherlands’ euthanasia policy, cases around dementia and psychiatric issues are already controversial here – and subject to a high burden of proof for doctors, according to the Regional Euthanasia Review Committees’ annual reports. Every case is re-examined at regional and national level, and doctors who do not comply with strict laws and a set of new guidelines can be, and are being, prosecuted.
The Daily Telegraph of London, to its credit, did not publish anything about the sad story, and at DutchNews.nl we wrote a news piece about a promising young writer who had died. Although Ms Pothoven went into detail about her suffering – also in her book Winning or Learning – we wanted to write about her life with respect.
Only when a Politico journalist reached a local Gelderlander journalist to debunk the story and called out the international madness on Twitter, the clinic issued a statement, and Westerveld posted a Tweet denying any ‘euthanasia’, did international papers issue corrections. Perhaps they were sorry; perhaps they were afraid of a libel suit.
But how did the story get so out of control? Clearly, there’s a pressure on international news outlets to keep up with the competition for clicks and when one outlet follows wire copy, more may well follow. It takes time to check things, and tight budgets mean various outlets try to cover smaller countries like The Netherlands with non-Dutch-speakers from bases like Brussels.
But just because you’ve eaten Dutch cheese once, that doesn’t mean you understand the culture – and the reporting seems to have been based around a true misunderstanding of how life and death are treated in the Netherlands.
DutchNews.nl would like to extend our condolences to Ms Pothoven’s family and friends, and hope that our media colleagues around the world will be more careful, and more kind, in the future.
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