Big Donor: dismember me when I’m gone

Why did Jade Goody's mildly chauvinistic remarks about Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty attract more opprobrium than a Dutch death lottery?

Guy Rundle

Topics Culture

Is the relationship between reality TV and actual reality gathering towards some ultimate showdown – a point where the genre will either be abolished by angry mobs storming the network offices, or alternatively become the sole and central authority by which we set our cultural values from now on?

In the week that the British media regulator, Ofcom, and the London police charged into the fray again over a few nasty remarks in UK Celebrity Big Brother (see Ofcom: Mary Whitehouse in liberal attire, by Neil Davenport), the Australian franchise of the show became the centre of controversy when it turned out that one contestant entered the house while her father was terminally ill with cancer. The man has since died and been buried, but his daughter is yet to be told. Apparently that was the family’s previously agreed-upon wish. And just when you were digesting that class act, the Dutch show us all how to do it by screening a show – from the makers of Big Brother, Endemol NV – in which three people with renal failure compete to win the kidney of a 37-year-old terminally-ill woman, with the lucky donee to be chosen by the audience at home via an SMS vote.

What is one to say?

Such are the bizarre outcomes when our utterly confused moral categories are applied to the weird world of reality TV. Every type of behaviour or choice manifested by the genre’s participants is being drawn into a one-dimensional plane, where a snide and mildly chauvinistic remark – such as Jade Goody’s description of her Indian housemate Shilpa Shetty as ‘Shilpa Poppadom’ – attracts as much or more opprobrium and calls for intervention as the use of the life, death and health of four people as raw material for a gameshow. And central to this deep confusion is the focus on the representation rather than the reality, on what is being shown, rather than what is being actively chosen.

In Australia, 24-year-old personal trainer Emma Cornell went into the Big Brother house while her father was in the final stages of cancer, from which he died weeks later. In a letter posted on the show’s website, Emma’s brother assured viewers that this was the family’s decision taken collectively, and that their father’s dying wish had been that Emma was not to be told of his death or removed from the house. Presumably, this was to ensure that his death did not interfere with her chances (possibly now vastly improved) of winning the $1million prize money.

Moral debate centred on two issues – whether the show’s producers were obliged to tell Emma of the death, and whether, were she not to be told, she would suffer the psychological effects of delayed grieving and incomplete mourning. Falling between this discussion of broadcast responsibility and therapeutic care was any notion as to whether the decision to be sequestered in a gameshow house for 10 weeks while your father is dying constituted a decision that could be morally criticised. Emma’s brother didn’t seem to think so, saying that they had all assured Emma that her grieving could be delayed without it being in any way diminished. Such is the culture of narcissism in modern society – the lifeblood of the reality TV – that grieving, an involuntary act directed towards the loss of another, is reduced to an entirely self-focused form of therapy to be slotted in when convenient.

The Australian producers duly wheeled out a cultural studies academic, Catherine Lumby, whom they keep on retainer, to argue that Big Brother was ‘encouraging ethical debate’. What she will say if a network buys the The Big Donor Show format remains to be seen. Endemol NV claims that this new kidney-winning show was inspired by the death of one of its producers while waiting for a donor kidney. ‘Some people will think it’s tasteless, but we think the reality is even more shocking and tasteless: waiting for an organ is just like playing the lottery’, BNN network chairman Laurens Drillich said.

There were calls by MPs for the Dutch government to ban transmission of the show on the grounds that it amounted to an illegal private arrangement for organ donation. The process by which each of the three people needing a kidney present their case in terms of their virtuous past and their social worth is a violation of the blind and altruistic process which is meant to govern the allocation of organs. As with all such shows, the producers have arranged it so that the decision of the show’s audience is legally non-binding, thus violating no laws.

Yet what is most striking in the debate over the issue, as in Australia, is the inability to talk in fully moral and critical terms. John Feehally, the outgoing president of the UK Renal Association, said the show would cause ‘confusion and anxiety’ among people awaiting a donor, while Paul Beerkens, director of the Dutch Organ Donor Association, said: ‘We are happy that the problems we have in finding donors is receiving publicity thanks to Endemol. But the way it is being accomplished is certainly not the way we would have liked.’ And Kidney Health Australia chief executive Anne Wilson said such a TV programme ‘would… place the donor and kidney patients under enormous stress during a highly emotional time’.

What could not be given voice to, even by a party like the Christian Democrats, which presumably has a religious base, was that the effect of the broadcast on individuals was beside the point. It was the very concept of the show that was abhorrent. The matter was not one of what should and should not be broadcast, but how vigorously it should be attacked for its inherent content.

The Big Donor Show marks a new stage, and a qualitative development, in the extension of health and body TV, which draws its charge from playing to and playing up cultural anxieties about all the diseases one might potentially have or all the hideous things one’s body could morph into. From un-Doctor Gillian McKeith’s forensic faecal examinations, to Channel Five’s unending supply of body horror shows, British TV focuses overwhelmingly on illness and malaise as identity, the pathological as the normal.

In The Big Donor Show it meets another trend, which is television’s use of a culture of death. It was always likely that such a show would come from the Netherlands, the home of freely applied voluntary and involuntary euthanasia. The Big Donor Show is simply an extension of the cultural transformation that euthanasia makes, where death comes to be installed at the centre of life. Something quite distinct must have happened for us to be living in a culture where no one in the development and production of The Big Donor Show thought its basic premise to be objectionable.

Yet criticism becomes canalised into issues of broadcasting limits because euthanasia has been judged a morally neutral phenomenon by liberal-minded people – such that the dominant issue comes to be its legality, rather than its cultural impact or import – and because talk of a ‘culture of death’ often comes from the Vatican. The fact that Jade Goody mouthing off can earn a TV show a watching brief from the police, while a death lottery is treated as standard controversy fodder, demonstrates a widespread incapacity to see moral issues through anything other than a politics of fear and a discourse of therapy and vulnerability.

Shows like Big Brother and The Big Donor Show rely on an easy formula for what constitutes free thinking – that any taboo or social sanction is, by definition, something to be bulldozed, rather than reflected upon in order to sort our deep and necessary moral structures from contingent ones. The result is a conformism of thought – and one that fits with the nihilist grain that runs through much of contemporary culture.

Guy Rundle was an Australian TV producer in a previous life, and is European editor of Australian political magazine Arena.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill looked into the international handwringing about Celebrity Big Brother while Neil Davenport believed it was time to evict official anti-racism. Frank Furedi looked at how a regime of uncertainty stifles human thought and action. Kevin Yuill said ‘no thanks’ to the ‘right to die’. Or read more at spiked issue Euthanasia.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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