Then to cap it all, the government’s adult education service, Learndirect, decided to pull the plug on its £500,000 per year sponsorship of the show, judging the negative publicity too much for an organisation supposedly aimed at bettering people. As one commentator in the Guardian noted, surely a show watched by lots of under-qualified and unemployed people is a perfect fit for an organisation aimed at under-qualified and unemployed people?
Setting people up for moral opprobrium for the entertainment of the masses is hardly a departure for daytime television, however. Many people will only know Robert Kilroy-Silk as the perma-tanned idiot who tried and failed to make the UK Independence Party into a national force. But once upon a time, he was a moralistic daytime host with the best of them.
Then there was ITV’s Kilroy equivalent, The Time, The Place, which I once had the misfortune to take part in myself. About 10 years ago, I was working with the Scottish youth issues group Generation and I was invited on to the show to talk about paedophiles and civil liberties. The panel of guests were: a woman involved in protests against a suspected paedophile on the housing estate where she lived; a middle-aged man convicted of a child sex offence (who foolishly believed the programme would offer an opportunity to try to clear his name); and a woman who had been horribly abused by her father (and who, as far as I could tell, seemed to be no stranger to the daytime show circuit with tales from her horrific childhood).
The atmosphere in the studio was rather scary, with the friends and colleagues of guest number one, the protester, quickly deciding that guest number two, the convicted sex offender, was ripe for a lynching.
Thankfully, I’d been placed in the audience so I only had to deal with one question from the rather greasy presenter John Stapleton (now a regular on GMTV, a show with its own problems). I managed to sidestep his attempt to force me into the role of ‘Liberal Civil Liberties Patsy’ by talking about the problems created for normal relations between adults and children by the paedophile panic – at which point, we went to the commercial break. I kept my head down for the whole of part two, then made a sharp exit for King’s Cross railway station – passing guest number two cowering in a side room, with his sister, wondering if he was going to get out of the building unscathed.
Such disreputable handling of complex human problems is thus par for the course in a TV genre which provides entertainment by cranking up the controversy factor. Nor is Jeremy Kyle the only presenter to walk into a shitstorm of negative publicity. A past queen of daytime, Vanessa Feltz, had her BBC show cancelled after it was shown that some participants had been agency actors. (The allegation that junior production staff were sent on errands to provide the, er, voluptuous Feltz with her daily fix of chocolate didn’t help, either.)
But for all the grubbiness of Kilroy, Feltz, Tricia Goddard (Kyle’s forerunner on ITV who jumped ship to Channel Five) and Kyle himself, the truth is that the judge’s comments were really a condemnation of the people who watch, and take part in, shows like this: ‘I have had the misfortune of viewing The Jeremy Kyle Show, and it seems to me that its whole purpose is to effect a morbid and depressing display of dysfunctional people who are in some kind of turmoil’, declared Berg. ‘It shouldn’t surprise anyone that these people, some of whom have limited intellects, become aggressive with each other. This type of incident is exactly what the producers want’, before admonishing people who ‘have nothing better to do with their mornings than sit and watch this show’.
Now, it is true that such programmes have nothing to do with the development of a sophisticated moral outlook. After all, many of the presenters of these programmes have tales to tell on a par with the guests. Jeremy Kyle first pricked the national consciousness while working with Birmingham local radio station BRMB. When the station organised a contest to get two strangers to marry each other (trashy enough in itself), the marriage didn’t last – mainly because Kyle hooked up with the blushing bride instead.
Yet the ever-so superior judge thinks he is alone in finding these programmes objectionable. In fact, most of the audience finds these shows objectionable, too, in rather the same way that one objects to a sick joke while simultaneously laughing at it. There’s nothing quite so entertaining as the misery of others, as long as you take the whole process with a pinch of salt. The participants on daytime TV may truly believe they will be helped by the experience, or at least gain revenge on someone who has wronged them, but mostly they just want to be on the telly. In fact, that’s the deal: you get to be on TV, we get to laugh at you. It’s basically the same principle as The X Factor but with less out-of-tune singing.
This desperation to be on TV is rather sad, attention-seeking behaviour on a par with… a judge making barbed comments about a popular TV show so he can get quoted in the newspapers. Ah yes – we all want our 15 minutes, don’t we?
Who’s afraid of…
(1) ITV defends its man in the human bear-baiting row, Independent, 30 September 2007
(2) Kyle accused of beer-baiting, Sun, 28 September 2007