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.