Robyn Vinter 16th May 2019
Many of us have, at some point in life — perhaps working shifts, being unemployed or a student — been at home during the day and caught some of the Jeremy Kyle Show. It was a well-worn format, usually featuring troubled people, a lie detector or paternity test and a lot of shouting.
While entertaining, there’s no doubt that Jeremy Kyle and shows like it were exploitative, finding vulnerable and desperate people and manipulating them into humiliating themselves on national television.
From terrible singers who are begged to audition and then lambasted by X Factor judges, to those who are berated into doing things they don’t want to do on Love Island, to the Made in Chelsea stars who are not actually paid enough to live in Chelsea, we’re finally opening our eyes to exploitation in so-called reality TV — to the point Parliament is now launching a review into the genre.
Working-class people are not a vulnerable group
So it’s right that, after the Jeremy Kyle Show was cancelled following the death of a participant, voices all across the news media have been condemning the programme as cruel and manipulative.
The problem is how they’ve been doing this.
It’s frustrating to see well-meaning but ultimately ignorant commentators say Jeremy Kyle “exploited working-class people”.
It’s the same as saying the show exploited people who have two arms or exploited people who eat sandwiches — technically it’s probably correct, but it’s very misleading.
There’s an underlying insinuation here that the programme was somehow representative of working-class people, that it was a simple display of normal working-class life, scraped up off the street and put in front of an audience. Perhaps it needs to be said — Jeremy Kyle guests are not even remotely normal working-class people.
On top of this, while many who appeared on Jeremy Kyle were vulnerable — they had addiction problems or serious mental health issues — working-class people themselves are not a vulnerable group.
They’re not a group any more easily hoodwinked or conned. Working-class people are now CEOs, politicians, journalists, police chiefs, solicitors — they’re people who are as capable of making astute decisions, of being leaders and demonstrating good judgement as anyone else. They’re not an unsophisticated, infantile underclass who need to be protected or supervised.
Soap-dodging, shagging-around yobs are no more working class than I am
Soap-dodging, shagging-around yobs are no more working-class than I am — someone who has edited a section of a quality national newspaper and is now director of a company. I can, and do, make decisions as well as if I’d grown up in a detached house in Hampshire. (I’d argue better because I’ve had to navigate extra hurdles).
It’s important to note this because there is a subset of people in this country who still believe the ridiculous notion that working-class people are inherently less intelligent and more foolish. There are people who think we cannot be trusted in positions of power. This has a knock-on effect on social mobility and, to an extent, everyone’s perceptions of the competency of working-class individuals.
Middle-class people are no less mentally ill, no less addicted, no less troubled
The reason guests of these shows were working-class was not that they were the only ones stupid enough to be tricked, it was that researchers deliberately targeted deprived areas. They didn’t call up people in middle-class places, presumably because of the assumption that middle-class people need to be bribed with a lot more than a nice hotel to air their dirty laundry in public. If you know any middle-class people, you’ll know that they are no less mentally ill, no less addicted, no less troubled. They simply were just not targeted.
Though Kyle himself had a privileged background, being privately educated before he made a living out of sneering at people whose lives were in turmoil, many of the production team were working-class.
If the Jeremy Kyle Show represented working-class people, it’s just as much in the largely working-class staff who made it happen — selecting and manipulating guests, filming it and putting it together. I’m not suggesting that’s a better or more flattering representation, only that it’s just as accurate.
There are stupid people in every social class
While many guests were vulnerable and the tactics used to get the “most” out of them were insidious, the simple fact is that essentially the only thing Jeremy Kyle guests had in common was that they were stupid — and there are stupid people in every social class. (It probably should go without saying but it’s no better or morally okay to exploit stupid people than any other group.)
These people are so exceptional that if you asked those who lived on the same estates, who worked in the same places, who had been to the same schools as guests on the show whether they’d go on Jeremy Kyle too, they’d laugh — and probably be quite offended.
Robyn Vinter 16th May 2019