In 2013, more than 1 million people watched a 17-year-old girl being called a “crackhead” and a “silly anorexic slapper” by her sister on national television while a well-known TV presenter informed them that the girl had “slept with 33 men”.
The girl then took and failed a lie-detector test – a controversial device which measures blood pressure, breathing patterns and sweat – while crying and in distress. But who wouldn’t be, with all this being broadcast to the nation on the Jeremy Kyle Show? One concerned viewer complained to Ofcom and the media regulator found that the show had breached the broadcasting code, a rare event in its 14-year run.
Last week, it was axed by ITV after a participant, Steve Dymond, was found dead a week after he also failed a lie-detector test in front of a live audience. The decision came just two days after the show was suspended; yet, it seems fair to ask what took ITV so long to cancel a show that a judge called “human bear-baiting” as long ago as 2007.
The precise causes of Dymond’s tragic death are still unknown – indeed Dymond’s fiancee, Jane Callaghan, told the Sunday Mirror his apparent suicide was unrelated to the show. Yet his death has prompted a parliamentary inquiry and an Ofcom review of television’s duty of care to participants.
Last week, ITV’s chief executive, Carolyn McCall, said that “now is the right time for the show to end”, and by acting so quickly ITV undoubtedly wanted to reflect the seriousness of a death which shocked a TV industry used to employing “no one died” as a glib phrase for times of stress.
It is also keen to stop harm spreading to other, more valuable shows such as Love Island. This may be difficult, not least because regulatory and political concerns started to build years ago. In launching his parliamentary review last week, the MP Damian Collins referred to the recent suicides of the former Love Island contestants Mike Thalassitis and Sophie Gradon (though both were at least 18 months after appearing on the show).
Regulators suggest complaints from the public about alleged bullying or harassment have also been steadily increasing since the ruling on the 17-year-old in 2014 and the launch of Love Island.
It may come as a surprise to those who could hardly bear to watch Kyle for its gratuitous manipulation of obviously vulnerable people, that ITV’s decision to bring an ex-girlfriend in to tempt the boyfriend of Dani Dyer on last year’s Love Island prompted far more complaints. More than 2,600 viewers objected, compared with only one complaint about the 17-year-old being insulted by one of the best-paid men on television.
Love Island accounts for just 1% of all ITV adult viewing, half the total for the almost daily Kyle show. (It does account for half of all 16-34s during its slot, however, which partly explains ITV’s determination to ringfence it from Kyle.)
Ofcom’s report on the earlier complaint helps understand why the Kyle show was only subject to 11 investigations. It ruled against ITV only in the matter of failing to “assist in avoiding or minimising offence”. The teenager’s distress was not seen as a problem, partly because she knew what she was signing up for and “had no complaint about how she had been treated”.
Yet complaints about the treatment of other reality TV contributors since had risen to such an extent that last month Ofcom’s content board decided to consider extending duty-of-care rules. Regulators and broadcasters alike know that change following the review is more or less inevitable. Earlier this year ITV changed its procedures to make producers proactively check on contributors rather than wait for a call. Their concern, however, is that there will be no cut-off point for this after-care of the suddenly famous left at the mercy of social media and more.
Broadcasters argue they are in an impossible situation given the loss of audience to web rivals such as YouTube, which are allowed to show appalling things without so much as a nod to regulatory standards. Yet surely public service television should be held up to higher standards. And it can never win a race with the web to provide the most voyeuristic, violent or otherwise upsetting content.
Which is partly why dropping the Jeremy Kyle Show was easier for ITV than would appear. Its audience, older and less affluent than for its other reality shows, had started to decline anyway. In 2017, average daily viewing figures were 1.2 million, according to Enders Analysis, 20% higher than this year.
The brand has become toxic – witness the number of guests and employees who went public to talk about being egged on, traumatised and then in effect abandoned.
For ITV, born out of northern working-class roots and keen to attract aspirational viewers, it was off message, parading an underclass as feckless dolts willing to be shamed for 15 minutes of fame. Viewers failed to complain because they felt participants must know what they sign up for.
Yet reality TV is a brilliant invention, giving ordinary people a chance to have their say, and maybe even become stars. It would be wrong to tar all with the same brush.
There has been an attempt to suggest that the timing of Dymond’s death, at the start of the nationally designated Mental Health Awareness Week, was significant. If increased awareness of mental health teaches us anything, it’s surely that people should not be manipulated in the name of entertainment. This is a lesson for all broadcasters.
Perhaps the dropping of the Kyle show less than a year after the last Jerry Springer Show aired in the US will mark a cultural turning point. Yet this is unlikely. Springer will launch Judge Jerry this autumn, a reality court show. God help us.
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Black’s Trump card
I’ve always thought the power of a press baron was in his (or, very rarely, her) power to destroy reputations, not flatter them. And then, like the ghost of hot metal past, along comes Conrad Black.
The former owner of the Telegraph and Spectator had previously emerged from his prison sentence for siphoning off millions of dollars from the sale of newspapers to write a book called Donald J Trump: a President Like No Other. Then there were the newspaper columns with headlines such as “The genius of Trump”, “Trump is already the most successful US president since Reagan”, and “Trump invokes sacred duty to raise up America’s magnificence”. Such grandiloquence deserves credit, and last week it was rewarded when the US president pardoned his No 1 fan.
In my next media column: “Ma’am, you’re wonderful, and now can I become a dame?”