Last week the UK broadcaster ITV axed one of its most popular programmes, ‘The Jeremy Kyle Show’, following the death of one of its participants. The incident has thrown a spotlight on the nasty and conflict-driven nature of the show particularly and the reality TV format generally, and the effects that this has on participants’ health and lives.
A staple of The Jeremy Kyle Show was participants accusing partners or family members of infidelity or fraud or deceit. It often had people yelling obscenities at each other and sometimes coming to blows. This all took place before a live studio audience, in the sort of mood you might imagine would prevail at the gladiator arena in ancient Rome: spectators cheering on the fighters and baying for blood. Infidelity and paternity were obviously popular topics for the show’s producers and so they introduced a lie detector test into the format. It was this test that the participant who has died undertook — and failed.
Although it has not been established that the participant in question, the 63-year-old Steve Dymond, took his own life, many people believe that his death just a week after filming was linked to the programme. Dymond appeared with his girlfriend attempting to prove to her that he had not cheated on her and had an affair. He failed the lie detector and was thoroughly humiliated and derided.
Other participants have now come forward to recount their own experiences. One man who was in a similar situation to Dymond’s said that the show uploaded clips of his appearance to YouTube, captioning him as the “rudest” and “most hated” guest. These clips went viral and they generated a steady torrent of abuse. The man, 27-year-old Dwayne Davidson, spoke to The Guardian newspaper and says he has lost jobs because once employers found the YouTube clips they didn’t really want to have “the most hated person ever” working for them. The sustained public shaming led him to attempt suicide and he says the show was “the worst thing that has ever happened” to him.
What is very interesting is Davidson’s account of how the show handled him and encouraged conflict and aggression in participants. He says, after his original message to the show, he and his partner were called by a producer and within an hour had been whisked away to a hotel by taxi and asked to sign a contract which they were not given time to read. He says he was advised not to wear jeans on the show but to wear a tracksuit instead, presumably to make him look more loutish and slovenly and extra “hateful”.
Davidson describes Kyle’s tactics as “provoking and prodding” and “human bear-baiting”. He says that backstage participants kept being told that the host “hates people who don’t talk” and so they were put under a great deal of pressure.
The format of reality TV shows is now being criticised because much of their entertainment is generated from humiliating participants. Jeremy Kyle’s show was dominated by crass behaviour and despicable actions.
The whole story has generated a lot of controversy especially in view of the modern awareness of mental health issues and the government’s attempts to get people talking about this. The head of the UK’s parliamentary committee on digital, culture media and sports has said that TV companies have “a duty of care for the people who take part in their programmes”. But, how does one balance this responsibility with the fact that these people come on to the show voluntarily often hungry for the fame that a TV appearance can bring? The format of reality TV shows is now being criticised because much of their entertainment is generated from humiliating participants. Jeremy Kyle’s show was dominated by crass behaviour and despicable actions, as so often were shows like ‘Big Brother’ and ‘I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here’.
Thankfully, this type of show may now have had its day — in a decade and a half these shows have humiliated all of us who have ever seen any episodes of this mindless, mischievous and voyeuristic genre.
But sadly this pattern of conflict and nastiness has spread across the media like a horrid virus: in Pakistan it has seeped into political talk shows in which, till recently, politicians were encouraged to yell and shout and say nasty things about each other, and it has spread into the innocuous morning shows where ‘hosts’ are rude and condescending to the people they have invited on to the programme.
Please, please let this rudeness, crassness and absence of editorial responsibility be a thing of the past. We have a duty of care not just to participants but also to our society and our civilisation.