The row over the Jeremy Kyle Show will have come as manna from heaven to some ITV executives. Although the show regularly still attracted one of the channel’s highest morning audiences, after fourteen years its lowbrow image and confrontational style have appeared increasingly tired and dated. It also looked out of step with the public mood and the sharper and more upmarket image ITV Director of Television, Kevin Lygo, is trying to create to attract valuable advertising. This latest row – likely to run and run if ITV did not take decisive action – was the final nail in the show’s coffin.
With all the headlines following the sad death of Steve Dymond a week after taking a lie detector test on the programme, there have been – some might say predictably – loud cries of ‘something must be done’ about the care of adults who appear on reality TV show like Jeremy Kyle and Love Island. The DCMS Commons Committee was quick to announce it is to hold an enquiry into the subject. Ofcom – keen to show it is a watchdog with teeth and capable of being the regulator of choice for social media companies when the government is consulting on this issue – has asked ITV for urgent background information and says it may introduce a new code of conduct for broadcasters, imposing a duty of care to look after adults taking part in programmes. But the MPs and Ofcom will have to tread very carefully.
Based on current legislation, Ofcom has specific powers to impose rules on broadcasters to protect children. These are in Section One of the Broadcasting Code. See Rules 1.28 and 1.29 in particular, which impose a duty of ‘due care’ on broadcasters to look after the welfare of under 18s ‘involved in programmes’. It was under these provisions that back in the 2000s, as a result of the treatment of children on the Kyle show, Ofcom first introduced and then revised its lengthy code of conduct after consultation with childcare experts and the industry. Very sensibly Ofom steered away from extreme voices linked with a few local authorities which sought draconian limits if not a ban on children taking part in TV programmes at all.
Ofcom however has no statutory powers to regulate the treatment of ADULTS involved in programmes unless they are shown DURING A BROADCAST to be humiliated, caused distress or discriminated against so as to cause offence, AND the broadcaster cannot justify that offence. See Rules 2.1 and 2.3 of the Broadcasting Code. Above all it has no statutory powers to regulate what goes on behind the scenes – before or after broadcast – involving adults (except as regards invasions of privacy). ITV has voluntarily introduced its own behind the scenes procedures to take care of vulnerable adult participants in reality shows like Kyle and Big Brother, both before and after broadcast. But to go further and impose new obligations on broadcasters would require new legislation and needs to be thought through very carefully. Once the moral panic caused by the tragic death of Steve Dymond has subsided, sensible voices may be heard pointing out the strong arguments for keeping the current rules as they are, but broadcasters taking extra but proportionate care over potentially vulnerable adults taking part in programmes.