After Stephen Dymond was found dead, ITV axed the Jeremy Kyle show. Dymond had recorded an episode in which he failed a lie detector test – that not too reliable technique. Stephen Dymond’s fiancée had accused him of being unfaithful and she broke up with him.
The question of how television handles so called ‘ordinary people’ was first a topic in 1986, when a then young Channel 4 produced Open the Box, a series which promised a new way of looking at television. I was making a film on victims of crime for ITV. The Open the Box crew filmed me filming in the house of a couple who had been burgled. They were so honoured to be filmed and explain how being burgled had caused trauma that they laid on a splendid feast for the two crews.
My film changed direction after I filmed Mr and Mrs Drain – their real name. I started to find people who had suffered far worse – those bereaved after a wife, a husband or a child had been murdered. In the end, I had to cut Mr and Mrs Drain from my film. I explained why to them, but I was criticised. I had led them up the garden path of fame, and then cut them out when I found more tragic stories. Luckily, they were not that upset.
Television was cruel 33 years, but not as cruel as it can be now. Open the Box did not imagine reality TV. The nearest genre it examined were game shows. No one bared their souls on The Price is Right. The main complaint against game shows was that those who took part did not get paid even though they were making millions for TV stations.
My son Reuben was eleven years old when I made my film on victims and already seriously interested in T.V. Eighteen years later he and his friend Sam Brenton wrote a book Shooting People (Verso Books) in which they investigated reality TV just as Big Brother became a huge hit. They described how the form emerged, its relation to documentary and its place in the global TV industry. They drew parallels between methods television producers used and those military intelligence did. They criticised psychologists and psychotherapists who vetted those who would take part in reality shows. They asked awkward questions about the psychologists who sometimes justified treatment that could have permanent ill-effects on the subjects.
Channel 4’s commissioning editor for Big Brother, Dan Chambers, studied psychology at Oxford and was well aware of the risks. In commenting on the death of Stephen Dymond, one telly psychologist berated producers who often did not know the difference between psychologists, psychiatrists and counsellors and I thought she was going to say, witch doctors. Chambers certainly knew those differences and took care.
I never vetted any participants, but I was an occasional ‘expert’ on Big Brother’s Little Brother, commenting on the body language of those who lived in the Big Brother house. It was clear how mixed their motives were. Some hoped to be propelled into stardom, some were vulnerable, some both.
The game of fame is full of risks. After Stephen Dymond’s death, the Guardian found more tragedies. Erica Pawson, who was a guest on Britain’s Worst Husband – don’t you love the title – a chat show Jeremy Kyle hosted, took her life six days after she appeared. Her husband followed Kyle’s advice and ended their 18-year marriage.
These tragedies illustrate the perennial problem of how you judge risk. Forensic psychiatrists know that if they recommend the release of a patient, they can never totally sure how she or he will cope. Will they be ‘cured’ of their violence or will they re-offend? Psychology and psychiatry are not exact sciences.
Television companies have a duty of care and on the whole do try though we could do with information on who they decide is too vulnerable to appear – and how they make that decision. Time perhaps for a new series of Open the Box and yet again a new way of looking at television.
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