I only ever dipped into The Jeremy Kyle Show by accident, but I always felt a mixture of morbid fascination – as you do when passing a road crash – and an uneasy feeling about its mix of stage-managed misery and character assassination.
Everyone was pumped up ready for action, people rushed on to stage literally spoiling for a fist fight and master of ceremonies Kyle was key driver and participant in these awful confrontations, like a modern-day Spanish Inquisition.
Audiences gasped in horror and delight at each shocking revelation or outburst, but could not get enough of drinking in this cocktail of raw emotions, such was their addictive power.
A judge once reportedly described it as a “bear pit”.
But it was a macabre house of horrors built on volatile foundations riddled with cracks of the worst human weaknesses – rage, jealousy, vengeance and brutal retribution.
These white-hot emotions ebb and flow or can even dissipate as quickly as they arrive.
One emotion which I have not mentioned so far was present in bundles in every episode, but its effects could disable someone for life and become never-ending – and that emotion is public humiliation.
Many psychologists agree that dark and insidious after-effects of public humiliation can eat away at a victim relentlessly, causing serious mental health issues and even tragedy.
A fascinating series on mental awareness in the P&J last week reported on damage that emotional torment and humiliation has caused to people in Scotland in their everyday lives – from child sexual abuse to being humiliated publicly over body image as a teenager.
Vicious, humiliating remarks can be over in seconds, but stay with some victims for a lifetime, while distorting their personalities.
As we know, a 63-year-old participant in The Jeremy Kyle Show died a week after a recording in which he failed a lie-detector test.
With pressure building to breaking point, ITV bosses scrapped the show after a 14-year run. It is hard to see what else they could have done. Otherwise, they would have limped on with a permanent shadow hanging over everything they did – and what if another tragedy occurred?
This once-invincible show crumbled to dust and vanished almost overnight with all trace of previous episodes removed from public gaze, but the debate about mental health and extreme reality shows rages on with a Commons inquiry under way.
One top television executive said it had been an “accident waiting to happen”. If that was the case why did they wait 14 years? Did it demonstrate how good the programme was at vetting participants or was it pure luck nothing this bad had happened before?
A co-presenter of Kyle’s on another daytime show pointed out that people knew what they were letting themselves in for before agreeing to take part, but that does not hide the fact that the show’s raw materials were all chipped from the same block – some of society’s most deprived and vulnerable people.
Yes, they all knew they were about to jump off an emotional cliff-edge, but that did not make them any better at coping with the drop.
Other defenders of the show remind us that it was ITV’s best-rated daytime programme with a million viewers.
But all that highlights is a human trait or weakness for being fascinated by other people’s misery and suffering, from Roman gladiators to public executions, torture and floggings.
Daytime porn would boost the ratings, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
Some argue this sort of entertainment holds up a mirror to society’s problems and might even help solve them. Jeremy Kyle executives say some people benefited from the experience, but I fear that for many more it only got a lot worse when they returned to their dysfunctional families or communities.
I applaud ground-breaking journalism in all its forms, and delving into the dark side of life without unnecessary restrictions is important for freedom of expression, and genuine public interest. Much of the dark drama in Charles Dickens’ work was him raging against the social deprivation all around him in everyday 19th Century life.
But the advent of social media bullying and reality TV such as Jeremy Kyle, Big Brother and Benefits Street, to mention a few, show the professional responsibility and self-discipline required to avoid accusations of exploiting vulnerable people who are at their mercy, and may never recover from the experience of public humiliation. Even in the workplace or schools in our daily lives this can happen.
Some are conditioned to cope with it because it is part and parcel of their professions.
Look at the horrendous abuse directed at football players and managers whenever they step out of the tunnel. Politicians, too. Even journalists, dare I say it. The first line in a booklet I read about how to become a journalist told me I needed a thick skin.
But we are all human, after all. Emotional bullying can be devastating. Some things said in “jest” or the infamous and morally bankrupt racial “banter” we have heard so much about can raise a laugh when uttered in public (a Holocaust survivor said there was no such thing as banter, only racism).
But the mental pain for those on the receiving end of public humiliation never goes away.