Exploitation and Entertainment
By ANNE KWOK ‘21
The “Jeremy Kyle Show,” a popular British talk television program, was suspended indefinitely last Wednesday due to the recent suicide of a 63-year old guest. On his show, the host, Jeremy Kyle, invites couples and families to publicly confront each other on issues surrounding relationships, sex, family, drugs, alcohol, and most commonly, infidelity. In many episodes, Kyle brings in a psychotherapist to assist in dialogue with the guests. He uses DNA tests and, despite the lack of scientific evidence that these devices are accurate, lie detectors in infidelity cases. Guests frequently start incensed arguments that sometimes end in violent outbursts, one of which resulted in tragic consequences. A week before his death, Steven Dymond appeared on the show as a last resort to prove his fidelity to his wife. But, after failing the lie detector test that allegedly “proved” he had cheated on his wife, the Dymond couple split up; their breakup was believed to have been a major cause of Steven’s suicide.
According to News Statesman, these shows curated "a morbidly chaotic picture of a British underclass—for those watching at home to scoff and sneer at—with the veneer of helping them." Billy-Joe Newington, a former guest on the Jeremy Kyle Show, claimed that workers backstage “spent hours agitating [him], winding [him] up” to ensure that he performed a spectacular argument onstage. For the sake of entertainment, these guests are encouraged to display their worst side on television, effectively damaging their own futures and reputations. Unsurprisingly, building a popular series that mocks the damaged aspects of real people’s lives undoubtedly leads to real-life consequences.
The death of Dymond, along with the suicides of two other former contestants, raises questions about the morality of publicizing personal issues for entertainment. Many protested against placing vulnerable people in the spotlight; they speculated that these shows exploit people with mental health issues for entertainment and viewership despite the shows’ promises of “aftercare” for the guests. According to Channel 4 News, a senior researcher of a similar program said that these shows give the “appearance of diligence” in providing outside therapy that is merely used to facilitate the program. Serious mental health issues are not a dealbreaker for admittance onto the show, as “[the program] would find a way around” inviting individuals who have official diagnoses. In a conversation between broadcaster John Ronson and a researcher of a daytime talk show similar to Jeremy Kyle’s, the researcher said that there was a secret trick to book guests: ask them about their medication. Ronson relays that if candidates use “scary-sounding” medicine, their affiliation with the show is too risky; with no medication at all, they become “boring” candidates. Guests are chosen if they have “the right sort of mental illness to be entertaining for television viewers.” “You want smoke-and-mirrors exploitation,” Ronson comments. “It’s extremely manipulative.”
While Dymond’s death is a warning against the exploitation of people for entertainment, many believe that the repercussions were inevitable due to underlying problems and conditions even before the show started. In addition, guests were aware of the potential consequences before signing up. As part of the terms of agreement, guests were promised pre-show care and aftercare, which included regular therapy sessions and check-ins, but countless former guests have anonymously reported that the care was inadequate or even non-existent. Paul Pawson, husband of the late Erica Pawson, who committed suicide after appearing on the Jeremy Kyle Show, said that the couple was not “psychologically screened” despite his wife’s depression and her osteoporosis diagnosis. At the very least, the admittance of these guests should have been highly regulated by licensed professionals to ensure that guests are mentally prepared to appear on the show.
In the end, the human desire to caricature other humans are what float the rankings of these television programs. “It was a dinner staple,” says Eloise Maybank (III), who grew up watching the show. “It’s a trashy show for trashy Brits.. and that’s what most of us are.”