Today, it was announced that The Jeremy Kyle Show, a mainstay of British morning television for fourteen years, has been ‘suspended indefinitely’ following the death of a guest. ITV took the show off the air and replaced today’s episode with a repeat of Dickinson’s Real Deal, an antiques themed series. The channel released a statement saying that everyone at the show was ‘shocked and saddened’ by the news, and that their ‘thoughts are with family and friends.’ According to the BBC, the guest died a week after recording their episode, but no other details were given. They also said that ITV will not air the episode and that they are conducting a review into the series.
Let me make this clear: The Jeremy Kyle Show is one of the most despicable and disturbing shows to ever air on television, both in the UK and around the world. It is an exploitative spectacle of classism that milks trauma and complicated personal issues for entertainment value, turning fully rounded and troubled human beings into cartoons that viewers are encouraged to jeer at. This show is nothing but modern day bear baiting dressed up in antiquated moralizing that strives to pass itself off as an authentic display of concern for those it manipulates. This format of television is not one that allows for much in the way of empathy or basic human decency, but The Jeremy Kyle Show took that to new depths of disgust and callousness. I, like many others, have been waiting for the news that one of the show’s ‘guests’ either died tragically after appearing on the show or went on to kill someone. It has been an inevitability since the show launched in 2005. I’m just depressingly surprised it took this long.
The onus of The Jeremy Kyle Show was simple: Let’s find a way to make it okay to hate poor people, or at least to exacerbate such disdain that is already prevalent in our society. The typical guest on Kyle’s show would be a white working class individual born or raised and/or currently living in a council estate and receiving benefits from the state. The more children they had by more than one father or mother, the better. They’ll be dressed casually, preferably looking unkempt. Whatever troubles they are experiencing in their lives at that moment in time will be the sort of issues that are easy to write off as the struggles of ‘scumbags’. There will always be villains to boo as if the audience are attending a pantomime. The series bills itself as the last chance saloon for families on the brink, the only solution to their tangled lives and the only people who truly care. In 2007, a Manchester district judge, Alan Berg, while passing sentence on a man who head-butted someone on the show, said of its host and producers, ‘These self-righteous individuals should be in the dock with you. They pretend there is some kind of virtue in putting out a show like this.’
Jeremy Kyle, a former salesman and radio host who has talked about his own addiction to gambling and OCD frequently, acts as judge, jury and executioner, a man whose voice never falls below the volume of bellowing, inflecting every word with a sneer. He instinctively seems to pick out one person as the baddie, regardless of evidence of empathy, and encourages the audience to treat them as the cause of the world’s ills. It’s theatre, of course, but it refuses to acknowledge itself as such. At least Jerry Springer and Maury Povich, whose shows are equally as exploitative and reliant on bigotry, are open about their garish camp nature and everyone seems in on the joke. As various publications and testimonies can relate, Kyle’s approach and that of his show is far more insidious than that. Jon Ronson interviewed a guest booker for the show in one of his books, who said they would ask people what medications they were on and ‘assess if they were too mad to come onto the show or were just mad enough.’ Today, Twitter was full of comments from people who had dealt with the show’s researchers, been in audiences and encouraged to boo vulnerable people, and ones like the tweet below, alleging a safari-like approach to finding guests.
Good. My gf used to work in mental health in a pretty deprived area of Manchester and was always hearing about their researchers tapping people up in pubs and shopping centres about their family grievances, trying to get them to come on the show. https://t.co/KuOHjB5mnn— Buckfast at Tiffany's (@DismalChips) May 13, 2019
The show’s evils were seldom isolated to its guests. This endless parade of baseless cruelty and shaming actively made our world a worse place. For nearly fifteen years, it profited from the exploitation of issues that our society already views with disdain and offers little to no support for. It wanted you, the viewer, to feel good because at least you weren’t one of ‘those’ people. At least you and whatever struggles you dealt with weren’t this pathetic. Maybe you’re working class but you’re not one of those working class scumbags. At a time when our political conversations became dominated by the demonizing of the working class, especially those who were unemployed, disabled and/or on some form of government assistance, The Jeremy Kyle Show acted like the state’s unofficial propaganda network. The easiest way to dehumanize the most at-risk and trodden on people in our society is to have an endless broadcasting of inflated grotesques to point at and condemn.
And yet The Jeremy Kyle Show was hugely popular. As noted by the BBC, it was the most popular show on ITV’s daytime schedule, pulling in a million viewers per episode. Poverty porn has always done dishearteningly well with British audiences, from series like Benefits Street to Channel 5 reality show Can’t Pay? We’ll Take it Away!, which follows bailiffs repossessing objects and the homes of those who have fallen into debt. These are shows that reinforce the idea that to be working class is a fate worse than death and that to openly struggle is to invite the world to deride your every move. Britain may never overcome the sickness in our society that centuries of classism has poisoned us with, but at least putting a show like this in the trash where it belongs is a small sign of success. It just shouldn’t have taken this long and it shouldn’t have cost someone their life.
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