On talk-shows the democracy of pain reigns supreme. We may not all be famous, but we have all suffered

I must say that my life has been much more real since I have been on TV. The man in the corner shop said: "You never told me you were on TV". No, I hadn't. Perhaps I should have said: "Twenty Silk Cut and, by the way, I occasionally appear on obscure programmes when they need a token female". He wants me to give him notice so that he can drag his wife out of bed to point me out even though I have never met the poor woman. So, yes, TV has changed my life and I haven't even been on one of those trashy talk-shows where I admit that I sleep in a coffin with my gay step-brother or wonder if I am too fat to be a drag queen. I haven't even answered the ad in the trash-free Guardian that says "Orgasms? Whether you have them constantly or never at all, we want to hear from you".

Yes, yes, oh yes, it's another desperate TV documentary. And, yes, God yes, we want it harder, faster, deeper than ever before and that means real people telling the nation what they have never told anyone else.

But wait, now the queen of talk-shows, the richest black woman in the world, the mother of all dysfunction, Oprah Winfrey herself has said that even she thinks talk-shows have gone too far: "How low can we get?"

She thinks we might see people having sex or killing each other on TV. For real. She is worried about the likes of Jerry Springer and his circus of vulgarity. A lot of people are. Springer represents the apotheosis of all that concerned, liberal, rational people detest, which is as good a reason for watching as any. It is a blast of obscenities, a modern-day freak show that usually includes some sort of violence. Springer himself stands well back, guarded by henchmen, goading his guests into doing what they know they must do because they have seen enough talk-shows to enact a formula imprinted on their tiny minds.

Actually, the most offensive thing aboutJerry Springer is the homily that he gives at the end, the pretend moral concern, the inane psycho-babble. Yet I don't find this any more offensive than the kind of tosh that Bill "Feel my pain" Clinton or Tony "Trust me, I'm a prime minister" Blair spout regularly. Nor am I convinced that the guests on Ricki Lake or The Vanessa Show are any more exploited than the "ordinary" people I see on TV.

Talk-shows are easier to attack than the current rash of docu-soaps, easier to get outraged about than intrusive news coverage - though both may ruin lives. Talk-shows, though, make us uncomfortable: we are uncomfortable with the rowdiness of the talk-shows, as well as our own voyeurism at this form of emotional pornography.

Yet talk-shows are only the most prominent symptom of an increasingly confessional culture, one in which the democracy of pain reigns supreme. Everyone may not be rich and famous but everyone has suffered. Everyone is in possession of their own story. The world of the talk-shows frightens the horses because it is a world of feeling, disclosure, excess, purging. Nothing is private. Everything is permissible. Boundaries are broken in the name of some sort of catharsis - but the only catharsis that counts are ratings.

Oprah herself must recognise that this deeply feminised form has its virtues. The discussion of eating disorders, sexual abuse and dysfunction in her own shows has been educational. We all talk more about such things because we have seen others talk about them. Springer, on the other hand, is pure entertainment. There is nothing much to be learnt except that people are strange and will do anything to get on TV.

A culture ultimately gets the talk-show it deserves. In the country that produces what critics see as an atrocious exhibitionism, the president and his lover are on TV talking about their sex lives as part of a huge trial. For all the mock oratory, do the impeachment proceedings amount to anything more than the guests at the end of a Springer show hitting each other over the head with chairs?

Over here, touchy-feely Blair has decided to bypass the nasty media and sit with Richard and Judy on This Morning, telling us about Cherie's bathing suit but not the bombing of Iraq. All the world is a talk-show that has such players in it.

The collapse of distinct political ideology may mean that we are more interested in the private lives of public figures than we have a right to be. But let's face it, we are more interested in the private lives of private individuals than we ever thought possible. We know too much, we see too much.

Call it pleasure, call it pain, call it postmodernism if you must. Daytime TV is a glut of adoption, addiction, impotence, sheer unadulterated misery, not to mention Robert Kilroy-Silk. But who can say that those who are there to spill the beans don't feel better afterwards? They tape themselves crying on TV and play it back. It makes them feel more genuine. It gives their tears some meaning.

I've witnessed this happening. It's no use saying these people are victims or that they are stupid. They know how TV works, unlike the media virgins who whinge about exploitation. Look at the way the fully-fledged characters from the docu-soaps hustle their way on to the Lottery show. Don't tell me that ordinary people don't know what they are doing.

Those who worry about TV think it is a medium that trivialises everything, those who appear on it know the opposite: television makes things seem real and important. It can make you a better person. But only if you take it seriously enough.

Suzanne Moore is a columnist with the "Mail on Sunday"; she will write for the "NS" fortnightly

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kick out the image-makers