Over the last two nights Channel 4 have shown a documentary about the demise of the Jeremy Kyle Show and the devastating effect it had on some of its participants but also some who worked on it. The focus was on the suicide of Steve Dymond but it also uncovered other suicides which could be at least partly attributable to the show.
It was a very sobering watch not just because of the Mr Dymond’s terrible death and the circumstances around it but also because of what it reminded us of what many saw as valid entertainment and in doing so showed some uncomfortable truths about the prejudices many of us still hold around class, education and those deemed by the press as ‘scroungers’ etc. The truth is if you watched an episode you were guilty of judging those that took part and I accept that of myself. Be it from what they may have worn, their level of communication skills, their behaviour on stage, even their teeth or lack of. The programme played into all the stereotypes of lower working class people often with drug problems, poor social skills and very often those not working. All designed to make the viewer feel superior and with lip service to any real compassion or empathy.
Many years ago the Vanessa show was filmed in Norwich and each Friday there would be some very loud, badly behaved people on the train on their way back up North after filming. I am guilty of sitting there feeling they were somewhat trashy and glad my journey was brief. But who I am to sit and judge? I too come from a working class background and a single parent family and I know very profoundly the effect mental health can have on people’s lives. My feeling is I was reacting emotionally to their behaviour rather than them as individuals. Similarly, all these programmes shamelessly exploit this, engineering arguments and outbursts, making people tired and emotional to make for more dramatic TV and the truth is we all fall for it on some level. But who cares for the participants once they have ‘performed’ on TV, not many is the answer.
The documentary showed how people like Steve were effectively used for ratings then sent home with their tails between their legs, sometimes like in his case an important defining relationship destroyed by a lie detector result or something said in the heat of an engineered conflict. I personally am surprised there were not more deaths or other consequences. Many of these people were vulnerable and open to exploitation and yes many were desperate to be on TV but that doesn’t make it right. We have a responsibility as a society to be kinder to each other, to listen to everyone’s voice without judgement and not to use those voices as exploitative entertainment. We can only look to ourselves and be honest about our prejudices and challenge them.