The Irish Times view on the Jeremy Kyle Show: shameful reality

It’s doubtful the welfare of participants in reality TV will gain priority in a ratings-driven industry

This week ITV announced it was ending the Jeremy Kyle Show, presented by Jeremy Kyle (above), after a man who failed a lie-detector test on the programme took his own life. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA Wire

This week ITV announced it was ending the Jeremy Kyle Show, presented by Jeremy Kyle (above), after a man who failed a lie-detector test on the programme took his own life. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA Wire

 

The influence of the church may have declined but there has been no let up in public moralising. A current of judgmentalism runs through society which has been supercharged by social media – the flow of indignation largely relieved of that religious cry to first take the log out from your own eye before trying to remove the speck from another’s.

Who today speaks in praise of mercy? Shaming is instead a virtue under modernity’s dominant ethical code. Sometimes shaming is merited – the #MeToo campaign was born out of desire to hold seemingly untouchable public figures to account. But shaming can carry unexpected moral costs. New technology has allowed shaming campaigns to spread quickly, without any reverse gear. Context is often lost, and psychologists have warned that leaving a permanent mark against someone’s reputation online risks causing deep distress – far in excess of any punishment that’s theoretically warranted.

Whatever about measures to rein in media excesses, a rethink of the value of shaming is long overdue

Shaming can be pleasurable, though; it gives the spectator, retweeter or “liker” a hit of moral superiority, which helps to explain the popularity of reality TV shows featuring ritual humiliation. The Jeremy Kyle Show was a perfect example of the genre but this week ITV announced it was ending the production after a man who failed a lie-detector test on the programme took his own life.

Producers say they will learn from the tragedy but it’s doubtful that the welfare of participants in reality television will gain sudden priority in a ratings-driven industry. The scope for charity is even more bleak in an online realm that is utterly unregulated and where the big players effectively answer to no one. Whatever about measures to rein in media excesses, a rethink of the value of shaming is long overdue.

The moral philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that shaming diminishes both its recipient and administrator. Shame is a form of cruelty, she suggests, which denies the individual’s capacity for atonement and recovery. To err is human. A small step to a more civil society would be to accept that when someone says “I’m sorry” they may actually be sincere.

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