The Jeremy Kyle Show has officially been axed by ITV following the death of a “guest”. (“Guest” is such a weird word to use for these abused and exploited people.) It’s been a long time coming — a long, long time coming — and it feels like something of a victory that has come at far too great a cost.
The Guardian, forever quick off the starting line, has already published two “exclusives” about the show’s shady practices — one with a former guest who attempted suicide after being overwhelmed by the hatred he received following an appearance on the show; another with someone who worked on a different show but with the same format and who found the whole thing quite distasteful actually.
The latter comes across as the sort of face-saving no-one-asked-for-this opinion piece that has caused some big arguments in journalistic circles in this country in the past, containing echoes of op-eds with titles like “I used to work for tabloid newspapers The Daily Mail and The Sun but not because I wanted to, I didn’t have a choice actually if I wanted to succeed in this industry, everyone has to start somewhere, but now I work at The Guardian so let me tell you how shitty it was in order to atone for my past discrepancies and give you something to gawp at.”
These two articles, taken together, present a strange but telling disconnect. One man is caught up in a process which he feels he can’t escape and by the time he’s spat out the other end his life is over. One woman works behind the scenes of a show all about casting judgement on people’s lives who appear in front of a camera and writes a column casting judgement on people who appear behind the camera which includes herself but she’s transcended that swamp now so it’s okay.
This is not to say that those people don’t deserve some sort of judgement — undoubtedly they’re all terrible people — but is she the one who needs to be doing it?
In their important study Reacting To Reality Television: Performance, Audience And Value, Beverley Skeggs and Helen Wood argue that much reality TV posits an implied bourgeois gaze, which judges working-class participants as lacking, by comparison with the middle class. Moreover, this lack is understood in heavily moralised terms; it isn’t to be explained by the working class’s lack of resources or opportunities, but by a deficit in will and effort. This implied perspective — seldom actually stated, but informing the whole way in which programmes are produced — is typical of the post-reality TV documentary.
In many respects, post-reality TV documentary — like reality TV before it — goes out of its way to conceal the class differences between those who are making the programmes and those who feature in them.
Isn’t this precisely what these two articles are doing in themselves? Presenting the complaints of a working-class victim alongside the complains of a middle-class television industry new-starter straight out of university only perpetuates with erasure of difference. It’s saying: “We’re the same actually, just from different sides of the tracks.” To this reader, the middle-class confessional in the Woke Newspaper doesn’t hold much water.
I don’t expect the conversation around the show’s cancellation to wrest itself from this sort of mind-numbing feedback loop but it feels like a spectacle worth pointing nonetheless. It might just lead to the death throes of a televisual sub-industry that, 5 years ago, felt like it might be a fixture of our daytime TV schedules forever. As Mark wrote: “I’d like to think this decline isn’t irreversible, but there aren’t many reasons for hope at the moment.”
However, elsewhere, it seems to be alive and kicking. In another interesting twist, “star” of Benefits Street “White Dee” has come out in support of The Jeremy Kyle Show which she said was really nice to her when she went on to talk about her own suicide attempt after having a comparable experience on Benefits Street… This is truly bizarre logic but it is also the logic that this kind of classless post-reality programme encourages, with its judgements and shady ethics nested inside other shows like a giant Russian Doll for the television-industrial complex.
Here’s hoping we might finally might be able to dig ourselves out of the mess.
Update #1: The forth corner of the bad take bingo has been completed by this article for The Guardian:
I understand why the show was bad. That’s difficult to dispute. But it was one of the few times I saw people like those I grew up with, people whom you never see on television, speaking with their own voices. It didn’t confirm my prejudices; because I didn’t have those prejudices to begin with. I saw real human sadness, need, pain and people who had really got their lives in a mess.
The show was exploitative, not because it parcelled up poor people for middle-class people to feel repulsed by, but because it promised help it perhaps couldn’t deliver to people desperate for something to make life OK, and from someone who won’t make them feel small or stupid. The real moral failing of the show was that it gave the impression it only cared about working-class life as a novel spectacle that ended when the participants exited the stage. It dangled exposure on television as something transformative, extending an offer of aid that could only be gained by performing. The real drama was back at home where the cameras never go and where people who can help without judging are thin on the ground.
I can see why Jeremy Kyle was reviled, but for me it was also a corner of television to hear real people’s problems in their own words, people on their own terms trying to get something of value from a situation cynically structured to devalue and debase them. Their lives and pain were real, even if the setting was awful.
Exploitative? Certainly. Preying on people? Yes. Untrue? Not really. It’s not the programme I would make, but people like me don’t often get commissioned to explore the lives of other working-class people with respect, concern and unflinching honesty five times a week on national television.
This really — really — ain’t it, mate.