Long-overdue change taking place

TVNZ pulled The Jeremy Kyle Show off air after it was permanently cancelled in Britain following...
TVNZ pulled The Jeremy Kyle Show off air after it was permanently cancelled in Britain following the death of one of its guests. Photo: supplied
Is this the end for TV shows that goad the vulnerable for laughs, Barbara Ellen asks.

Is it possible to be cautiously optimistic that the not-so-golden TV era of bear-baiting people in the name of entertainment is finally passing?

The digital, culture, media and sport committee viewed leaked backstage footage of The Jeremy Kyle Show, going on to condemn the programme's "bullying methodology'' and "complete abdication of the duty of care''.

The committee was set up after the death of Steve Dymond (who killed himself after appearing on the Kyle show to take a lie detector test) and the suicides of two Love Island contestants.

However, while television networks have long been guilty of putting "good television'' before participant welfare, this is also about us, the viewers, and the wider culture of dehumanisation that made exposing and goading often uneducated, generally skint people feel like acceptable telly.

This went far beyond The Jeremy Kyle Show.

Over the years, even as the numbers of working-class actors have dwindled for lack of funds and opportunity, there seemed to be little about real-life working-class culture that couldn't be plundered for television, with shows such as Benefits Street confirming sneering prejudices.

Although Kyle's type of show called those being exploited "guests'', other reality genres started refashioning people as "cast members''.

This culture of treating human beings as free or cheap, small-screen livestock hit its nadir with shows such as Love Island (watch them at it!), which was supposed to be fine, because - yay! - sunshine and bikinis were involved and contestants made money at the end.

Other reality shows have been coarser, verging on pornographic, yet were still clearly considered appropriate to commission, film, broadcast and watch. All of which exposes a fundamental disconnect at the heart of collective morality.

On the one hand, the recent use of nude images of US congresswoman Katie Hill to shame her was rightly universally condemned.

Yet, in Britain, it's become routine to film young, working-class people fighting, vomiting and copulating, with debasing footage that could haunt them forever.

There's still no shortage of such shows, particularly when you deep-dive into the satellite television channels. However, things do appear to be changing and for the better.

While Love Island used to be a high-profile part of the problem, now it's evolved into something closer to a solution. Operating under the new guidelines, the most recent series was vastly improved, with a drastic reduction in exploitative sexual content.

Elsewhere, while there's still a cynical fascination with people on benefits (that grisly low-budget addiction to poverty porn that never quite goes away), there at least appear to be genuine attempts to enlighten people, rather than relentlessly pushing the scrounger angle.

Moreover, not only was The Jeremy Kyle Show axed after Dymond's death, ITV made it clear it would not be commissioning similar programmes.

Am I imagining it or is the treatment of people, especially working-class people, on television becoming marginally fairer and kinder? It's just a tragedy that people had to die before we got there.

• Barbara Ellen is an Observer columnist.

- Guardian News and Media


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