Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: Good riddance to Jeremy Kyle Show... it was modern-day equivalent of throwing Christians to lions

The death of guest Steve Dymond brought the curtain down after 14 years of psychological pornography, offering viewers a way of peering into others' shattered lives, writes Fionola Meredith

Jeremy Kyle
Jeremy Kyle
Investigative journalist and author Jon Ronson
Fionola Meredith

By Fionola Meredith

Ever seen the Jeremy Kyle Show and want to grab a slice of the squalid action? You're too late, by one day. ITV has decided to ditch the programme permanently after a participant died. Steve Dymond was reportedly devastated after he failed a lie-detector test on the long-running daytime show and was subsequently found dead last week.

The episode in question has not been aired - and now it never will be.

Old episodes have also been rapidly deleted from the ITV hub, as the broadcaster rushed to remove all traces of the show.

But nothing ever dies on the internet, so it's easy to go online and see the shouting, screaming, threats of violence and occasional head-butting that took place on the programme, with Kyle strutting about like a bossy ringmaster in the thick of it all, rudely ordering people when to speak and when to shut up.

Typical question under discussion: "Did my ex sleep with you, your daughter and my stepmum? Double DNA results!"

Anyone with an ounce of compassion for other people's pain must applaud the end of this grotesque circus of emotional dysfunction.

The show was psychological pornography, a form of socially-sanctioned voyeurism, offering viewers a way of peering into others' shattered lives, or mental disintegration, and getting some kind of sick, salacious kick out of it.

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There might be lots of disapproving noises and wringing hands today, now that a man has died, but the fact remains that this was an enormously popular mainstream television programme that has been on air since 2005.

Viewers in their millions tuned in to enjoy the emotional anguish of people they didn't know, while sitting on their comfortable sofas and complacently dunking ginger nut biscuits in their mugs of tea.

This is what we call entertainment. It's our contemporary version of throwing Christians to the lions.

A formal parliamentary inquiry into the British reality TV industry, following the deaths of Mr Dymond and two participants on the highly-lucrative Love Island show (soon to return to the schedules), is to be held by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee.

MPs will look at whether there should be tighter regulations concerning the treatment of contestants and they will also examine whether certain programmes put "unfair psychological pressure on participants and encourage more extreme behaviour".

Good. MPs should certainly investigate and hold TV executives to account where necessary. But it doesn't take a genius to work out what it's all about. The participants on shows like Jeremy Kyle are just fodder for the consumption of the masses, broken puppets dancing on their tangled strings.

Often from disadvantaged backgrounds, they might have been flattered into thinking their life problems were important and worthy of public attention, but the primary purpose of programmes like these is always to provide titillation to slack-jawed viewers.

The most shocking part is what happens to participants in reality shows once the hungry media monster has chewed them up and spat them out. The case of Dwayne Davison, characterised as the "most hated" Jeremy Kyle guest ever, is instructive.

This week, Davison spoke to a national newspaper about his experiences. He said that he found it hard to get a job and was mocked on the street. The public shaming became so oppressive that he tried to kill himself.

Davison claimed that the entire programme was set up to provoke conflict and edited to show participants in a poor light. It's this total lack of control that is so damaging for anyone foolish enough to take part in such exploitative reality shows.

Psychological after-care doesn't count for much if you've been made out to be completely obnoxious and are publicly reviled as a result.

Contrast this with a reality show like the Kardashians, in which the participants - the enormously wealthy Kardashian family themselves - retain all the power over what they choose to show and what they choose to conceal.

The poor dupes who threw themselves into the maw of the Jeremy Kyle Show were completely powerless, giving away the most intimate, heart-rending details of their lives. The only return for them was a brief moment of fame, and a certain sort of shaming notoriety.

More disturbing details are beginning to emerge about the way shows like these are put together. Investigative journalist and author Jon Ronson, speaking on Channel 4 news, described an "extremely manipulative" technique used by a guest-booker on a programme similar to Jeremy Kyle.

The booker would ask prospective guests what kind of medication they were on.

If it was something like lithium (used to treat serious problems like bipolar disorder, for example), she wouldn't book them. But if they were taking a drug like Prozac (a common anti-depressant), that would be considered perfect, "because that implies exactly the right sort of mental illness to be entertaining for the daytime television viewers, meaning that they're angry and upset".

How callous do you have to be to make a call like that?

Former ITV chief executive Stuart Prebble, talking to the BBC, said that "the producers of these programmes walk a very thin line and they know they do. If you are always tip-toeing close to the edge, as I think this show did, perhaps it is not surprising that something like this will eventually happen".

Supporters of Kyle say that nobody is forcing people to participate and that they are involved by their own free will. That's true.

But it's tragic that it took the death of a participant to bring ITV to its senses and realise that using human pain as entertainment is cruel, exploitative and repugnant: the modern version of ancient barbarism.

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