The macabre spectacle of people being forced to fight each other to provide entertainment for others; in these more enlightened days we look back at the gladiators of ancient Rome with horror and bewilderment. We wouldn’t countenance such a thing, would we?
Last week, it was revealed that a recent participant on the Jeremy Kyle show was found dead days after appearing on the programme.
There have been a number of interviews in the media of people involved in the show up to the time of its cancellation and previously, both of which have presented a disturbing picture.
Questions have to be asked about the people who were sought out by producers to come on the show as guests and whether they were simply too vulnerable.
More questions need to be asked about the production side, with accounts of people formerly involved in the show describing guests being separated from each other, their emotions apparently being stoked up, all as part of the alleged tactics to provoke confrontation. The show’s makers have always denied any wrongdoing and spoken about their ‘duty of care’, but it’s hard to be convinced when confrontation was such a feature of the show.
Beyond the inevitable bust up, the deeper attraction of it all was the fuel it provided to mock others, to enjoy a sense of superiority over them and ultimately to issue judgement over the type of people they were.
It took a death to stop all of this.
The show had been running for 14 years. It was ITV’s best rating daytime programme with 8 million people watching. It will have made Jeremy Kyle a rich man. But it was money made from others’ misery – the commodification of cruelty. Talk of aftercare is a smokescreen for justifying the inhumane rationale of serving up conflict as a form of entertainment.
The Jeremy Kyle Show is not unique in any of this. Other shows have used the same tactic. More fundamentally, we should recognise just how much of ‘reality’ and ‘celebrity’ TV is rooted in inviting people to judge others. How many shows are based on voting for those you like and voting punishment or ejection on those you don’t?
The ultimate success of one person, couple or group is founded upon the rejection of others, with the whole thing surrounded by a circus of debate about who deserves to stay or go. It goes beyond quality of performance (where there is a performance) to forming a view on what someone is like.
Ironically, given the church’s reputation for being judgmental, the Bible is very unambiguous on the subject. ‘Do not judge,’ said Jesus. Just don’t do it.
Jesus goes on to say that if we judge we will also be judged by the same standards and we will be found wanting. The hope of the Christian message is not that you have to try to be better but that you can receive help with not being good enough. When we get that we can get some help with our faults. Then our bit of the world will be a bit that is bearing and sharing good fruit.
The lure of judging others is something to spot and resist.
We live in worryingly polarised times – austerity has widened the gap between rich and poor and Brexit has set people against each other.
One of the lessons here is that shows like Jeremy Kyle are not any sort of basis to understand other people – they are a stereotyped pantomime and not a fair representation of working class communities.
I have been reflecting on gossip recently. This started with breaking my daily habit of reading the BBC football gossip page, not because it was evil but because it was not a good use of my time. That’s the point for me – gossip is a massive waste of time and energy. It’s speculation, not action. It boosts our ego to be in the know, to have an opinion. It makes us feel important, but it achieves nothing positive.
Gossip is a feature of every workplace. It is corrosive, drawing people away from getting stuff done and pitching people into camps. Gossip based on the lure of judging others is a huge part of the media, whether it’s about sport, politics or the cult of celebrity.
We are well aware these days of people who are famous for being famous. A whole industry creates and sustains this, including magazines that do nothing else. This is life as a freak show where people make money by baring their souls and playing out every new crisis in the public eye. Hardly healthy, is it? In some ways the surprise of the two Love Island contestants that took their own lives is that there haven’t been more.
How do we react to all this? It’s clearly not my place to judge what others watch and read but we should recognise that we have a choice whether to join in with the circus.
Personally I want no part of it. The challenge for me is that if that’s my desire, I need to look at my attitude and behaviour in all the places where I am. I need to consider how I speak of others, including those on my telly.
The book of James in the Bible talks about the power of the tongue. I remember reading it as a young Christian and deciding I would never speak ill of anyone ever again. I wish I could say that has been the case.
I learnt that it’s only God working in me that makes a change so I need to invite him to do that, not as a one off decision but constantly. I need to pray ‘your kingdom come, your will be done’, for God’s heart to flow into and out of me to speak words of hope to a broken world. Jeremy Kyle invited us to believe that others are beneath us. They’re not. Whatever the story, they are precious and made in his image. In all of this, the choice is to tear people down or build them up.
This article first appeared on www.christiantoday.com