Over two nights this week, millions of viewers watched the horror that was ITV’s Jeremy Kyle Show exposed. The two-part investigation, Jeremy Kyle: Death on Daytime, on Channel 4, suggested that the production team lied to vulnerable participants, some of whom had obvious mental health issues, with sometimes terrible consequences. The Jeremy Kyle Show was taken off air only after one victim, Steve Dymond, “failed” a lie detector test on the show and killed himself a week later. It was also revealed that at least one other participant had killed herself after appearing on the programme years earlier – and the investigation hinted there were potentially more cases.
But the programme’s greatest shock lay not in its content but in what – or who – was not on screen. It approached more than 200 people who had worked on the Jeremy Kyle Show over 14 years, and not a single one would go on camera. Just four junior members of the production team and a camera operator agreed to be interviewed anonymously. Actors played them on the actual programme. We were told they were too afraid to appear. One commented that if they did so, they would never work again – as if the threat of blacklisting by ITV was so powerful.
Compare this with the bravery of the ordinary people who so often appear on ITV. As it happens, I began my career at ITV, and the first programme I produced was about rape in marriage, not then a crime in this country. Women appeared face-to-camera in the programme, thus identifying not just themselves but also their rapist husbands. Truly brave.
I produced many more programmes over the years in which people talked to camera about being hunted by the mafia, terrorised by murderous street gangs and raped by war criminals. Yet when journalists, producers and researchers were themselves asked to talk about their experiences working in television, not a single one was prepared to come forward. Are TV bosses really scarier than the mafia and Vladimir Putin? I felt ashamed for my profession that not a single person was prepared to put their head above the parapet.
But here is where it gets complicated. Nearly all the people who worked on Jeremy Kyle were quite new to television. For many it was their first big break. The four production team members who agreed to be interviewed anonymously were all from northern, working-class backgrounds. That’s pretty unusual in TV, where most are middle class and many from the south of England and top universities.
For the young producers on Jeremy Kyle, landing a job on a network television programme was the potential start of a glamorous career. Their own backgrounds were not dissimilar to those of the programme’s participants.
It is clear that those staff who victimised the guests should perhaps partly be seen as victims themselves. They confessed that they lied to people to persuade them to go on TV, terrified they would be sacked if they failed – in some cases they said they were explicitly told they would be fired if they didn’t succeed. “You were just, like, always acting,” said one.
The staff admitted they would put family members in separate rooms and incite them to anger by relaying damaging comments each had allegedly made about the other. “You were always winding people up.” They were supposed to subject people to a “mental health checklist” but missed out important details so they would pass. “You would quite often lie.” They would work until four or five in the morning, sometimes, up to 14 or 15 hours nonstop.
They knew what they were doing was wrong. The camera operator said, “What will haunt me for the rest of my days was that I didn’t do anything about it.” Under intense pressure, they lost their moral compasses. It was revealed that there were frequent calls from participants saying they were going to kill themselves, but the production team felt they themselves were helpless to press for the programmes to be cancelled. “There was probably a Steve Dymond type every week,” was one chilling admission.
Of course, there was a very long “right to reply” from ITV at the end of the programme saying there were proper procedures in place to protect participants. Executives have publicly called it a “conflict resolution” programme. When I was a TV boss, I always refused to obey instructions to say ludicrous things like that. And if ITV was so confident in the programme’s rectitude, why did it take it off air after Dymond’s death? A show producer involved in the programme in which he appeared also killed herself soon after.
So what should the television industry take from this hapless tale? Jeremy Kyle was photographed on a beach by a tabloid last week, presumably to symbolise that he is out of the business and all washed up. The regulator Ofcom has introduced tough new rules to protect programme participants. Broadcasters have strengthened their whistleblowing procedures.
But in the end there’s only so much outside regulation can do. It also comes down to leadership. When I spoke at training courses at Channel 4, I would say that when people felt pressure to do something wrong, they should ask themselves, “What would my granny think if she knew I was doing this?” That’s still good advice, but it’s not just up to low-ranking employees to be the moral conscience of the industry. TV bosses need to keep repeating that there’s no place for the Kyle style of culture, so the question doesn’t even need to come up.