watched Channel 4’s documentary Jeremy Kyle Show: Death on Daytime out of morbid curiosity. In the days since it aired, Kyle has released a statement saying that “the false and damaging allegations made against me by Channel 4 are with the lawyers now”. But surely it just spells out what we’ve all known for years: that it was an odious show which humiliated its guests and called it “tough justice”.
I knew some of those guests. I grew up in Rotherham in the mid-Noughties, the era of the child grooming scandals (it had yet to be called “grooming”), two roads from one of the area’s biggest children’s homes, and two doors from a notorious heroin dealer. I wasn’t exactly friends with the people who ended up on Jeremy Kyle but knew them well enough to feel an uncanny emotional vertigo when one of them appeared on TV. Why would anyone do this to themselves, I wondered, as a poor girl was belittled about how many men she’d slept with.
What the documentary does well is highlight the flattening effect that The Jeremy Kyle Show had — guests were offered little in the way of compassion, reduced instead to their worst behaviours. A few years after I left home, someone mentioned another girl I’d gone to school with had become an alumna of the show. All I could think about was the day she came into school with her head shaved. Her dad (who was an alcoholic) had done it to her in the night. We were about 10. Later that day she wet herself in class. How much of that made it into the episode? The shame and fear. The feeling of living in a profoundly unsafe world.
While “previously unseen footage” of Kyle calling guests “thick as shit” is sad, it’s hardly shocking compared to the tirades that were actually aired. The clips in the documentary of him berating a young woman who was addicted to heroin — “What are you?”, “You’re disgusting” — are some of the most confronting.
Another girl from Rotherham, Laura Wilson (someone I didn’t know), featured in an episode about “out-of-control children” when she was 13. Four years later, she was murdered by a boyfriend and an older man. It would later transpire that from the age of 11, local authorities had deemed her to be at risk of sexual exploitation. The show characterised her as “out of control” — did anyone stop to ask why?
As viewers we are culpable too. Perhaps the show’s popularity came down to the fact that there is something comforting in the “tough justice” narrative. It tells us that when bad things happen to other people, it is their fault — reaffirming that when good things happen to us, it is because we deserve it.
The truth, of course, is that mental ill-health, drug abuse, unstable relationships — The Jeremy Kyle Show’s bread-and-butter themes — overwhelmingly happen to people who are born in tough circumstances, implying that the problem is not the individuals but the system. But I guess that doesn’t make for very good television.