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13 May 2019updated 03 Aug 2021 3:42pm

The human bear-baiting of The Jeremy Kyle Show

By Anoosh Chakelian

Daytime TV staple The Jeremy Kyle Show has been suspended, as ITV reviews the death of a guest shortly after filming.

A week after the episode in question was recorded, one of the participants died. The episode wasn’t aired. The show, which runs daily on weekday mornings, has been suspended from filming and broadcasting.

ITV said in a statement:

“Everyone at ITV and The Jeremy Kyle Show is shocked and saddened at the news of the death of a participant in the show a week after the recording of the episode they featured in and our thoughts are with their family and friends.

“ITV will not screen the episode in which they featured. Given the seriousness of this event, ITV has also decided to suspend both filming and broadcasting of The Jeremy Kyle Show with immediate effect in order to give it time to conduct a review of this episode of the show.”

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I have asked for more information.

Although we have no idea what the circumstances are in this case, it is no small decision for a channel to pull a stalwart of its weekday morning schedule (pending a review).

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Jeremy Kyle, which has been running since 2005, is a live audience chat show dedicated to unravelling family rows and relationship breakdown. Because of this format, the show has faced questions over the years about its duty of care, and perceived exploitation of vulnerable people.

Twice, assaults related to the programme have gone to court and resulted in sentences. The judge of a case in 2007, sentencing a man who head-butted a lodger at the recording of the show for having an affair with his wife, said producers of the show deserved to be in the dock with him – accusing them of provoking him and asking him six times if he would participate.

“This type of incident is exactly what the producers want,” said the judge, who described the programme as “a form of human bear-baiting… under the guise of entertainment”, and “a morbid and depressing display of dysfunctional people… for the purposes of titillating bored members of the public”.

Two years later, a man was sentenced for assaulting his girlfriend at home several weeks after they appeared on the show, when they watched the episode air. It included a lie detector test about her alleged infidelity. Similarly, the judge also claimed that the programme makers were partly to blame, saying they fed the man’s “insecurities”, persuaded “foolish and gullible people” to reveal their stories, and there was “plainly an element of cruelty and exploitation in what takes place”.

In 2014, the show broke Ofcom rules for failing to inform viewers about the care and safety of a teenage participant: the 17-year-old guest appeared distressed after failing one of the show’s classic lie detector tests about stealing from her mother. The regulator noted the teenager’s “degree of humiliation and distress”; she was called a “crackhead” and “silly anorexic slapper” by her older sister on the programme.

In 2016, Ofcom found it broke the watershed for an Easter Sunday morning show, “Did You Sleep With My Boyfriend And Is He Your Baby’s Dad?”, which included content about “orgasm noises” and faces, and a description of one guest smelling of “fish and raw sex… a really, bad, smelly fishy smell”.

The episode “contained several aggressive confrontations between the participants and Jeremy Kyle, as well as sexual references and themes,” said Ofcom.

For the show’s part, it claims to help people resolve their issues, and emphasises that they choose to participate for that reason. The first question on the web page where you sign up to appear on The Jeremy Kyle Show is “Would you like Jeremy’s help?” Then it goes through all the social problems you can think of – from DNA tests to addiction to accessing your children – and producers’ contact details for each one.

There is post-show counselling, and guests can be helped into rehab on-air, but I have not had a response from ITV about the specific aftercare provided to guests. (To the contrary, stories of guests being deliberately wound up before the show were revealed in a fantastic 2011 article by the Guardian’s Zoe Williams.)

It’s a question reminiscent of the row over Love Island in March, following the second suicide of a former islander on the ITV reality dating show. Programme makers were forced to review their cast aftercare procedures after backlash from other ex-participants as well as viewers.

Jeremy Kyle has also been deplored for its reliance on poverty porn.

It curates a morbidly chaotic picture of a British underclass – for those watching at home to scoff and sneer at – with the veneer of helping them. In her Guardian piece, Williams writes that the show “created the cultural spectre of this feral underclass”, saying the trope “wouldn’t exist without this programme”.

The results of this kind of characterisation have a real-life impact, and not just for those who appear on TV.

In pursuit of Kyle-style conflict and heartache, parts of the country are regularly mined by producers for their most eccentric and guileless residents – for welfare info-tainment formats such as Benefits Street, or the most recent Skint Britain. (When I visited the northeast coastal town that hosted the latter earlier this year, residents complained that the programme had picked notorious local characters well-known for their quirks who were unrepresentative of the town.)

We have no idea whether The Jeremy Kyle Show had anything to do with the death of its guest. Yet its pantomime depiction of life’s messiest issues has created a genre that itself could do with a pause for thought.