The reality and the duty of care of TV production companies

Ella Rhodes reports.

An inquiry into reality TV programmes has been launched by the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Support select committee after three former participants died by suicide. It will explore the support provided to those who appear on such programmes and the duty of care of production companies.

The Jeremy Kyle Show was recently cancelled after Steven Dymond, who had taken part in a lie detector test for the programme, died by suspected suicide a week after filming. Two former contestants of the reality dating programme Love Island – Sophie Gradon and Mike Thalassitis – died by suicide in June 2018 and March 2019 respectively.

John Oates, Chair of the British Psychological Society Media Ethics Advisory Group and member of the Society’s Ethics Committee, writing for The Conversation, warned of the psychological impact and potential long-term effects of appearing on such programmes. He pointed to allegations of lax screening procedures which can miss mental health problems, ‘winding up’ of participants in green rooms prior to their appearance, and non-existent aftercare.

In 2009 concerns were raised over the programme Boys and Girls Alone which featured children aged 8 to 10 in a Big Brother-style reality show. A subsequent review led to the development of legislation and regulations which considered the psychological risks of under-18s appearing on television. Oates said, ‘I contributed to this on behalf of the British Psychological Society (BPS). Our finding was of multiple risks, including harms such as distress, trauma, negative attitude change, moral damage, lowered self-esteem, embarrassment and loss of dignity, disempowerment, insecurity, anxiety, engendered fears, mental stress/fatigue, and peer disapproval or bullying’. While this led to changes in Ofcom guidance and regulations there are no guidelines in place for adults taking part in reality TV programmes even when a person may be vulnerable.

However, as Oates pointed out, not all reality programmes are the same. ‘Ten years working with the production team for the BBC/Open University Child of Our Time series opened my eyes to the care taken throughout to ensure that the families were happy with how they were portrayed and that a thorough duty of care protocol was followed before, during and for some time after each series. This experience encouraged me to establish the British Psychological Society Media Ethics Advisory Group, made up of a group of psychologists with extensive media involvement.’

Sarb Bajwa, Chief Executive of the BPS, said he was pleased to hear of the select committee review and announced that the BPS would be launching guidance for TV commissioners and producers of the best psychological practice when working with members of the public – particularly with vulnerable people.

‘There are many BPS members who work as psychologists on television shows of all kinds, offering important advice to production teams, psychologically informed aftercare to participants and, crucially, ensuring that potential contributors are screened for mental health issues. We would always recommend that producers enlist the help of an experienced and qualified psychologist to guide them through these vitally important areas.’

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