It’s easy to ban The Jeremy Kyle Show, much harder to reform the benighted society that made it a hit, writes Dani Garavelli
At the Gordon Aikman Lecture Theatre in Edinburgh, the irrepressible Mary Beard was holding forth on “murderous games”. On the screen behind her was a photograph of tourists in the Colosseum. In her younger days, she used to eavesdrop on teachers showing school groups round the Roman ruin. Whatever their nationality, she said, the conversations would follow the same pattern. The teachers would start by asking their pupils: “What used to happen here?”
How did we get to a place where the unemployed and the struggling were seen as legitimate targets for our scorn?
One child would stick their hand up and answer: “This is where the Romans killed people for entertainment and threw them to the wild animals.”
The teacher would ask: “Would we do that nowadays?”
The class would chorus: “No, Miss.”
“And then,” Beard continued, “you would watch this horrible self-satisfied glow of confidence in human progress, a sanctimonious fog of self-righteousness, descend on the whole group.”
The point of Beard’s Gifford Lecture – and I’m paraphrasing – was that we still get a kick out of watching violence. However morally superior we feel as a society, there is always an audience for footage of beheadings or spree shootings.
Now, just two weeks after her talk, The Jeremy Kyle Show – once branded a “form of human bear-baiting” – has been cancelled, not because someone at ITV had a belated moral epiphany, but because, after 14 years of prophetic warnings, a life has been lost.
Steven Dymond killed himself after taking a lie detector on the show; he had hoped to prove to his fiancée that he hadn’t cheated on her, but the opposite happened – he “failed” the detector and his fiancée left him.
The programme has not been broadcast, so we don’t know the specifics. But given the show’s format has been pretty much the same since its inception, we can use our imaginations. There would have been a good deal of provocation, finger-pointing and on-air humiliation.
Sadly, Dymond’s belittling didn’t end with his death; since it was announced, he has been subjected to a public post-mortem. His character has been dissected on the front pages of tabloids, and the entrails of his life pulled out and examined for some indication that perhaps he deserved his fate. His ex-wife has suggested he was a paedophile and domestic abuser. This may, of course, be true, but as he is dead, it’s unlikely we’ll ever know for sure. And in any case it misses the point.
It doesn’t matter if Dymond was a good man or a bad man; it doesn’t matter if he applied 300 times (as another guest has implied) or if he had to be dragged there by his hair: the programme had a duty of care towards him and yet it made a circus out of his troubles, as it has with so many other guests.
Topics such as “I’m sleeping with my stepdaughter, but is her baby mine?” would challenge an experienced therapist never mind a lay-person (not to mention prompting an intervention from social services). But there was no problem too complex; no set-up too dysfunctional for Kyle to pontificate on.
The most unedifying feature was the faux concern. The show was about “conflict resolution”, we were told, as if pitting feuding family members against each other was going to bring anything but greater division. Co-opting a pedestal, Kyle performed the role of moral arbiter, berating his guests for their poor life choices. But what kind of a life choice is making £3m a year off the back of other people’s misery?
Then again, The Jeremy Kyle Show could not have had such longevity without its one-million-strong audience who – like their Roman forebears – were happy to clap and cheer the dog-fight.
At her Gifford lecture, Beard talked about the process of othering; she suggested the Romans could countenance killing as entertainment, just as some of us can countenance watching a man gun down worshippers at a mosque, because of the distance created between “us” and “them”.
There is a physical distance, of course, created by the element of theatre and, in modern times, by the fact we are viewing the abuse via a screen. But there is also an emotional distance. In Rome, the gladiators tended to be prisoners, and on The Jeremy Kyle Show the guests tended to be poor. In both cases, they were perceived as inferior.
How did we get to a place where the unemployed and the struggling were seen as legitimate targets for our scorn? The answer is incrementally. For decades now, reality TV shows have been setting up those from our post-industrial towns as objects of ridicule. Since Matthew Parris made his documentary about living on benefits back in 1984, there has been a succession of ill-conceived programmes, such as The Scheme, which take the most damaged, dysfunctional individuals and hold them up as typical.
This dehumanisation process has been fed by government policy and government rhetoric; by welfare reforms and Atos hearings and by the division of ordinary people into the categories of “skivers” and “scroungers.”
In that sense, The Jeremy Kyle Show was the perfect fit for the age. Like The Scheme, it only worked as a concept if it operated at the extremes. And over the years the programme makers had to up the ante; to move on from straightforward infidelity (yawn) to paternity tests, incest and foursomes.
Some pointed out the guests were gagging for attention. That’s an easy criticism to make when you are lucky enough to have a voice and a platform. To whore yourself out to a show that has nothing but contempt for you takes a profound lack of self-esteem.
ITV insists it took its responsibilities seriously: that guests were assessed by mental health experts. But some of those who took part were so obviously in need of support, it is difficult to believe the checks were anything other than cursory.
Now the programme has been cancelled, and MPs have ordered a review of all reality TV shows, but why did it take a death to force some action? And will the politicians simply pass the buck or will they reflect on the part they have played in demonising those whose desperation is often the product of their social policies?
If MPs and TV companies are thinking about the consequences of their actions, it is incumbent on audiences to do the same as, by and large we get the TV we deserve. There is no shortage of good programmes at the moment. Dramas such as The Virtues challenge us to think about what it means to be depressed, to be troubled, to be on the fringes.
If we want to stop people being treated as cannon fodder in a low-budget Hunger Games, then we should boycott those programmes and encourage others to do the same. But we should think beyond reality TV shows to the way the poor and the dispossessed are framed more generally, and ask: “Who benefits?”
So long as those people are portrayed as feckless, sexually incontinent losers they will be judged as architects of their own downfalls, rather than victims of circumstance, thrown on the slagheap by a government intent on feathering its own nest.