Hannah Bardell: We must challenge government policy around reality TV

Posted On: 
17th June 2019

The instant fame offered by reality TV often has tragic consequences. We must challenge government policies that have created a society where vulnerable people are targets for abuse, says Hannah Bardell

Last year’s Love Island winners, Jack Fincham and Dani Dyer, arrive home to paparazzi
Credit: 
PA Images

When Big Brother exploded on to our screens in 2000, reality TV as we know it was born. In many ways I grew up with it – watching as new ideas of how to show people at their best and, more often let’s face it, their worst, evolved; stretching the definition of reality until it’s come to mean a group of celebrities camping in a jungle eating cockroaches. Not a reality most of us would relate to, I think it’s fair to say.

Some argue that reality TV has enhanced lives; others would say it has destroyed them. One thing the tragic death of a recent guest on The Jeremy Kyle Show has highlighted is that, too often, reality TV preys on vulnerable people, on insecurities, jealousy and misfortune.

Others say that for those who aspire to celebrity status, reality TV has provided an “in” – access to an exclusive and elusive world that most will never know. Yet it’s important to note that the privilege so many seemingly crave doesn’t include immunity from poor mental health, as the devastating deaths of two recent Love Island contestants also show.

No matter the show, what reality TV seemingly does is open up individuals to scrutiny, praise, fame, money, abuse and more. Nothing about an individual is off-limits – their personality, appearance, weight, illness, addiction, intelligence.

"Nothing about an individual is off-limits - their personality, appearance, weight, illness, addiction, intelligence."

We’re supposed to delight at the stupidity of those who ask a silly question on TV – take for example the contestant on last year’s Love Island who asked if Essex was a continent – yet I don’t know a single person who has never said something daft, myself included. Maybe it goes with the territory and the paycheck, but I can’t help feeling that in many ways it brings out the worst in us.  

Since Love Island launched its fifth season this month, to an audience of over 3.3 million, social media has been awash with brutal comments, jokes and judgments about the contestants; one’s supposed cosmetic surgery has seen her likened to a character from a well-known pasta sauce advert. It’s relentless and it’s personal.

The contestants on Love Island are chosen for specific reasons; they subscribe to pretty much every prized, and largely unattainable, beauty ideal going in our society, and I can’t help thinking it’s not a coincidence that it’s aired right before summer.

Where there is insecurity, there is profit. There can be no doubt that money will be made from exploiting the insecurities of a society where, heartbreakingly, according to Girlguiding, girls as young as seven are said to be trying to diet because they don’t like their bodies.

A recent YouGov survey released by the Mental Health Foundation said that reality TV is fuelling young people’s anxiety about their bodies, which can lead to suicidal thoughts. According to the survey of 4,505 UK adults, almost one in four people (24%) aged 18-24 said reality TV makes them worry about their body image, more than one in seven (15%) said they had self-harmed or deliberately hurt themselves because of concerns about their body image, and 23% had experienced suicidal thoughts because of concerns in relation to their body image.

So how much of a responsibility should these TV companies have? How can it have taken the deaths of three people before action was taken?

Outrage is cheap. I was outraged and had long felt that Jeremy Kyle’s programme was crossing a line that should never have been drawn. So The Jeremy Kyle Show was taken off air and we could all get down from our self-righteous, privileged, soap boxes.

Yet, Love Island producers issued new guidelines and the show continues. Is it because it’s more appropriate and socially acceptable to cancel a show that objectifies the poor than those promoting a certain body image and lifestyle? Or is it because the advertising attached to a programme like Love Island is far too lucrative to take off air? I suspect the latter.

In a recent article, Scottish journalist Dani Garavelli said it is easy to ban The Jeremy Kyle Show, but much harder to reform the benighted society that made it a success. She hit the nail on the head.

We must challenge the devastating policies of the current UK Conservative government because it has created a society where the poor are objectified and demonised, giving some in the media the twisted opportunity to glorify and monetise their tragedy.

While it may not be for government to dictate what’s entertainment, it is for parliamentarians and governments to shape and create a society that is fair and decent.

Hannah Bardell is SNP MP for Livingston and spokesperson for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport