The now-cancelled ITV show’s attitudes surrounding class and mental health are damaging and outdated.
By Alys Hewitt
After 14 years on air, the Jeremy Kyle Show has been officially cancelled, following the death of guest Steve Dymond after he failed a lie detector test on the programme. This has given rise to fresh questions surrounding the morality of the show and its treatment of guests – is their humiliation justified for entertainment’s sake?
There are a number of issues with the Jeremy Kyle Show; not least its perpetuation of malicious stereotypes of working-class people. Presenting them as unstable, idle and irresponsible, it would hardly be far-fetched to suggest that the show has helped construct a narrative that legitimises cuts to the welfare state and promotes the demonisation of those living in poverty, blaming the poor for their own problems. Working class people are reduced to crude caricatures for us to laugh and shake our heads at, to make us feel better about our own lives: ‘Thank god I’m not like them’.
Of course, Jeremy Kyle is not the only show that makes a spectacle of the poor. Programmes such as Benefits Street, which had a brief stint on Channel 4 and depicted the everyday lives of benefits claimants – including those dependent on welfare payments and reluctant to look for work – exudes a similar tone. It’s important to consider the motivation and perspective of the producers behind these shows – is it sympathetic, scathing, mocking? And what exactly do we gain, as audiences, from consuming them? These are particularly pertinent questions given the fact that working-class voices have been largely absent from the media outside of this context – they are often reduced to a soundbite, rather than given a platform to tell their stories in an honest, nuanced way.
The set-up of the Jeremy Kyle Show was also highly invasive and humiliating for those involved; with a heckling crowd and Kyle as the stern (and not exactly objective) host, often already vulnerable participants are cruelly picked apart, stories are dramatized and titillating, and tensions are played up for our enjoyment as an audience. Being publicly shamed in this way is bound to have implications for the mental health of those who appear on it, particularly given the fact that clips from the show linger on after it is aired. Former guests have spoken out about social media abuse and difficulties with maintaining employment after appearing on the show, and the reputation that comes with appearing on Jeremy Kyle usually clings to guests for a long time.
With MPs launching an inquiry into the reality TV industry, following this incident and the suicides of two former Love Island contestants, here’s hoping that broadcasters will begin to show a duty of care towards vulnerable people who appear on their shows, ensuring that participants are given appropriate support and aftercare.
The cancellation of the Jeremy Kyle show is long overdue – whilst the drama and spectacle of it might make entertaining TV, its format and the stereotypes it has perpetuated are exploitative and outdated, and its failure to address serious issues in a sensitive manner is highly damaging.