Jeremy Kyle with his wife Carla Jermaine. Photograph: Getty Images.
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When will Jeremy Kyle's day be done?

The Jeremy Kyle Show has been given a slap on the wrist by Ofcom, but will this signal the show's demise? One can dream.

Leah and Kelly are sisters. Kelly, a reformed drug addict, is pregnant. She thinks that her younger sister Leah, 17, and Leah’s boyfriend Matt have been stealing from their mother’s house. If Kelly’s suspicions are proved correct, Leah “will be kicked out of the family for good. It’s a big day for her”. Cue rapturous applause.

So begins the largely typical episode of The Jeremy Kyle Show that was broadcast on 23 September last year. The one anomaly of this particular episode was that it sparked a viewer complaint to Ofcom, which the media regulator upheld. The viewer questioned the validity of the lie detector test, which Leah, a “crackhead slapper” according to her sister, failed. Leah appeared “very distressed”, and Kyle "made comments that clearly reinforced a negative view of the 17-year-old, which at times, rather than limiting her distress, added to it,” said Ofcom. Such comments included the fact that Leah has a “reputation”, and has “slept with 33 men”.

ITV offered support to Leah before, during and after the production process, and at no point did Leah complain about her treatment. But, Ofcom ruled, ITV did not adequately inform viewers of the counselling services that were available to Leah and her family. ITV clarified this, no serious penalties were handed down, and The Jeremy Kyle Show happily trundled along with its eighth series, with “more fiery confrontations and dramatic revelations to come!”.

But what about Leah and Kelly? And what about Steven and Traci? Whose domestic dramas surrounding whether or not Steven was the father of their child, and Traci’s subsequent drug taking and prostitution spawned two appearances on the show within a matter of months? And what about the thousands of other families, fractured and falling apart at the seams, that Jeremy Kyle has been welcoming and bullying  since 2005?

For those of you who are not one of the 1.5 million viewers that the show regularly draws in, it essentially a show that takes poor, mainly white, always working-class families that have suffered any array of domestic breakdowns, and parades them: “Look!” Kyle gleefully sublimes. “These people are dirt! You, we, are better than them! Now let’s applaud their adorable efforts to make something of their paltry lives.” You can even get it written on a T-shirt.

Sadly, however, Kyle’s formula is a winning one. A privately educated, middle-class boy from Berkshire, he has made a fortune out of “human bear-baiting”, as one judge in 2007 called it. By bringing people like Siobhan and Onyx, sisters who haven’t seen each other for nearly 16 years, back together for “one, final confrontation”, or by shouting into the face of Melanie, who is on the show with ex-partner Craig (who has recently served jail time for domestic abuse), “you are not a good mother and you have a drug problem”, Kyle carefully cultivates real life soap operas for your viewing pleasure. The people Kyle vilifies include, but are not limited to: prostitutes, the poor, the unemployed. That final category is ironic, considering that his show is broadcast at 9.25am on weekday mornings and so is viewed primarily by this supposedly demonic underclass. “You’re a drunken bum sponging off the taxpayer and people like you should be put out on the street,” he told 19-year-old Ryan in 2008. Or perhaps on a sofa.

The Ofcom ruling is limited to say the least; ITV only broke one of the regulator’s rules. Standard practices of human decency may be left in shatters, but that is another matter – although disapproving, its business is not in censorship. In an (read: my) ideal world, the nation’s media would be ruled over by a kind of benign dictatorship that would mould our tastes so comprehensively, and feed all our basest desires so benevolently, that shows like Kyle’s would be rendered obsolete. Or, even more ideally, the current system would remain as it is, but just with the absence of Kyle.

But, perhaps there is hope. This is the first time that a complaint about the show that wasn’t related to offensive language has been upheld by Ofcom. Granted, the complaint was primarily questioning the technical effectiveness of the show’s methods, but it has raised a more pressing issue: the welfare of its participants. Sure, counselling is available to people who appear on the show throughout the process, and sure, no one is forced to be ritually humiliated by a smug man in salesman’s suit, but no reasonable person can watch an episode of Jeremy Kyle (at all) and conclude that the men and women screaming tears across the stage have benefitted from the experience. Television companies will always come up with something to satisfy the human appetite for schadenfreude. But perhaps now that Ofcom, an independent regulator, has ruled that “the humiliation and distress of the 17-year-old” is “potentially offensive” (strong words indeed), Kyle might feel the pricklings of a conscience growing somewhere in his central control system. Evolution would be a wonderful thing.

Amy Hawkins is a freelance journalist based in Beijing. You can follow her on Twitter @DHawkins93.

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Young people want big ideas – that's why I refuse to dumb down Radio 4

My week, from finding a way through the fog to getting the quarterly audience figures.

I walk to work through Regent’s Park, when possible accompanied by my dogs, which my husband then collects on his bike ride and takes home. If there is time we have coffee together in the small hut just before the inner circle. This is a good way to listen to the Today programme, I find, as I can keep one ear in, achieve a rational, critical detachment and still enjoy the birds, and then add the other ear if a strong interview demands immersion, or take both out altogether when despair creeps up. On the subject of Today, I hope to have some fun with Sarah Sands, whom we have just appointed as the programme’s new editor; it’s good to see an experienced woman brought in at a senior level to the BBC.

 

A winter’s tale

The park through the seasons has become something of an addiction, measured out by inspired planting of appropriate annuals, the names of which I note and discuss with the gardeners when I dare interrupt them.

Memorable events occur quite frequently during this walk: I once stumbled upon a proposal of marriage involving a beautiful young woman who once had worked for me; an elderly Chinese gentleman practises t’ai chi regularly at a certain spot and I imagine talking to him about the changes he has seen in his lifetime back home. I have seen a rare green woodpecker on the grass pecking boldly in plain sight, and hopeless ducks, silent, puffed up, marooned in the fountains, unable to find their way back to the ponds, so close by.

At the start of winter, while walking home one day, I got stuck in the park, with a group of other stragglers, as the gates locked with the onset of darkness. Rather than retreating the way I had come, I accepted the offer (from a rather good-looking stranger) of a lift down from the top of the gate. The atmosphere then was alive, exhilarating, with crowds heading for the Frieze Masters marquee. How different it all is now, in 2017. There’s a new mood, a new American president, a new era.

 

Musical interlude

Recently, Roger Vignoles – the glorious pianist and a close friend – was playing, as he often does, in a lunchtime concert recorded for Radio 3 around the corner from Broadcasting House at the Wigmore Hall, with the baritone Roddy Williams. French songs: Fauré, Poulenc, Honegger, with a handful from Caplet (the latter quite new to me). All thoughts of politics fled, giving way to “L’adieu en barque”, set late one summer’s day on the river, a moment to clear the fog, both within and enveloping us that day in London.

I left an hour later in clear sunshine, feeling smug because we have commissioned Roddy’s Choral ­History of Britain for Radio 4 later this year.

 

Power trip

Waiting for coffee to brew, I was discussing Book of the Week with Gill Carter, commissioning assistant on this slot, when my drama commissioner, Jeremy Howe, put his head round the door. “Clarke Peters (yes, the one from The Wire) is here reading The Underground Railroad for Book at Bedtime.” Assured, deep tones rang out from a tiny studio on the third floor. “I have to keep stopping,” he said, as I thanked him.

Who could not be overcome by this story of slavery and bravery at this moment in American history? I am so glad to bring it to listeners this month. “Can you help?” the producer pleaded as we left. “We’re about to be thrown out of the studio.” That’s real power, I thought, as ten minutes later Jeremy had conjured up the extra time.

Clarke Peters will be back in the autumn with a series about the real history of black music in the UK which, he says, is little understood.

 

Culture and anarchy

This is the time of year when we launch the commissioning round calling for big ideas for next year. It’s a humbling thing to stand in our beloved art-deco Radio Theatre in front of hundreds of programme-makers, hoping that they will be inspired to bring “the best which has been thought and said in the world” (my guiding principle from Matthew Arnold).

I try on these occasions to lay out a little of how I see the shape of the world in the commissioning period ahead. This year the Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner overcame me. Better perhaps simply to outline the way we commissioned the first week of 2017 to catch the mood. T S Eliot, more or less all New Year’s Day, read by the formidable Jeremy Irons, raised an echo of the Thirties, then a factual series of considerable documentaries across the week described The New World, followed by writers around the globe Imagining the New Truth.

Finally, inspired by Twelfth Night and the spirit of misrule, the comedy writer John Finnemore, one of our favourites, took over as the Lord of Misrule himself.

The imaginative world and writers have never been more needed. Whether it is truth or post-truth, I suspect that dramatic, imagined and creative truth when properly achieved is probably the nearest we can ever get to truth itself.

 

Tuning in

It’s the week of Rajar. These are quarterly audience figures for radio. In the past few months, they tell us, over 11 million people have listened each week to BBC Radio 4, setting new records. Just under half are below our average age of 56 and 1.5 million are under 35. At the moment we seem to have over two million weekly visitors to the website and roughly 20 million monthly global downloads.

Who says young people don’t want intelligent content? Who says that dumbing down is the only way to attract big audiences? We at Radio 4 try to be all about smartening up. We mark Rajar Day (whether the numbers are up or down) with cake, so I make my way to Paul for two tarts, pear and blueberry this time.

Gwyneth Williams is the controller of BBC Radio 4

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times