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David Sawers: In defence of Jeremy Kyle

Yes, it’s “time to talk” about mental health – so why has a talk show that did that been gagged?
Health Insurance & Protection Editor David Sawers

“It’s time to talk” – so goes the mandatory mantra of the all-powerful mental health lobby. Except it’s not really, unless it’s done in a certain way – and the health insurance and protection industry should take note.

Television talk shows are about – or meant to be about – talking, so let’s talk about two of them, shall we?

First up, “The Graham Norton Show” with, erm, comedian Graham Norton, which is a hugely successful, micromanaged, carefully-choreographed talk show where the eponymous host asks pre-agreed questions and does quickly-rehearsed gags with celebs on global PR tours, all sat on his famous sofa for the evening.

Actress Dame Judi Dench always seems to be on Norton’s show (well, nine appearances since 2012 isn’t bad-going), often alongside other established and emerging national treasures like comedian and children’s author David Walliams (eight since 2014), that actor bloke off Harry Potter who-now-seems-to-be-as-old-as-me (nine since 2010), actor James McAvoy (10 since 2011), actor Benedict Cumberbatch (six since 2013), polymath Stephen Fry…

…you get the picture.

I’m not really knocking it; after all, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If that’s what licence fee payers want, fair enough, let them have it. In any case, the over-75s will soon also be helping to pay for the party. Lucky them!

And so as the BBC and Norton’s production company So Television peddle and promote the party across the UK and Europe and to places as far flung as Sri Lanka and Bhutan – reportedly it even entered discussions with the Weinstein Company (yes, that Weinstein – one appearance since 2015) about US distribution rights – the establishment blob makes sure that another popular talk show – you know, one with real people talking about actual real life – gets the boot.

So let’s take a look at that different – although similarly stage-managed – talk show.

Jeremy Kyle: Did his show exploit mental health frailties – or did it actually help people with nowhere left to turn?

“The Jeremy Kyle Show” with, erm, broadcaster Jeremy Kyle, was a talk show where members of the public from so-called “lower” rungs on the ladder of social demographics are urged to thrash out personal disputes and problems on stage, over everything from mental health issues to marital infidelity to substance use and abuse and from broken families to stolen jewellery and domestic violence, with lie detector, sexual health and pregnancy tests thrown in for good measure. There was lots of shouting and screaming, with burly security guards breaking up fights and a choreographed audience alternately laughing and looking aghast.

Mention “The Jeremy Kyle Show” in some circles and faces will contort with horror, contempt and disgust. Then those same faces – the ones that often prattle on each day about “championing diversity” – will snarl out unpleasant expressions like “feral” and “underclass” before the inevitable virtue-signalling, hand-wringing kicks back in with self-indulgent soundbites like “bloodsport”, “gladiatorial” and “exploitation”.

The show, broadcast on a daily basis, was hugely popular, pulling in one million viewers per episode – pretty stunning for a mid-morning weekday show, especially at a time when the UK’s traditional television channels are struggling in a multi-channel age.

But it had more than its fair share of critics too – and they were quick to say “told-you-so” following the suicide of one of the show’s guests who had earlier failed the infamous JK lie detector test about an alleged infidelity.

As an apparent result of that suicide, the show in question was not broadcast, amid howls of self-righteous outrage from the usual woke quarters – and yes, some of those howls came from individuals who confirmed that they had never even actually watched any episodes of the programme.

Then the ITV board made the decision to can the show completely. There may be a number of reasons for doing so; none, other than the suicide, have emerged yet.

In any case, one million people will now have the chance to watch the show’s “temporary” replacement – something called “Dickinson’s Real Deal” – each day instead (although only 360,000 ended up doing so on the first day it replaced the Kyle Show). Never mind addressing issues like family mediation, relationship counselling or problems around violence or substance abuse and addiction; how about watching members of the public haggle good-naturedly over old tat instead, egged on by a flamboyant perma-tanned antiques expert. That’ll help.

And so the “pauper’s funeral” of the suicidal guest took place a while back with a “handful” of mourners in attendance.

Some reports suggest that he was an especially unpleasant individual. I don’t know if he was or wasn’t and it’s besides the point anyway. Suicide is hardly something to be celebrated.

Anyway, sadly Kyle declined the invitation to appear in front of the Select Committee last week (he must have missed his own “time to talk” memo) – although he is yet to make the reasons for that decision clear (a decision which resulted in this hissy fit from Select Committee chairman Damian Collins (although perhaps Collins is still smarting from the humiliating moment Arron Banks walked out of a previous meeting that the MP was chairing).

ITV executive chairman Peter Bazalgette and ITV chief executive Dame Carolyn McCall were asked by the Select Committee to explain why events that took place during and after the broadcast of a single programme meant that the hugely successful Kyle Show was dropped after more than 14 years

So the Kyle Show’s production team and members of senior ITV management instead were the ones to give evidence to the Select Committee, and did so in the wake of widespread media coverage over events not just relating to their programme but also to suicides committed by contestants in ITV’s “Love Island” reality show.

But why does any of this matter to the health insurance and protection industry?

Because “time to talk” is a phrase that keeps doing the rounds in our sector; and quite right too. With any luck we’ll get to a stage where there will be no need to say “there should be no stigma about talking about mental health”. It just shouldn’t be an issue that can’t be talked about. Talking about the stigma of not talking about mental health has become almost a self-perpetuating parody of itself.

So, before the health insurance and protection industry joins the chorus of disapproval over shows like Kyle’s, it’s worth asking: if the sector likes to talk the talk about, erm, talking about mental health – is it actually walking the walk?

For example, are off-the-shelf employee assistance programmes (EAPs) as useful for a recently bereaved, book-reading bus driver who has gone off the rails as they are for a high-flying wealthy banker who can’t stop gambling and guzzling vodka and cocaine and cries herself to sleep at 4am?

Likewise, are most EAPs flexible enough to meet the different needs of a church-going, successful City lawyer who has persuaded himself that it’s not his fault that he hits his wife?

Or a diligent – or a lazy – night-shift factory worker who drinks eight cans of superstrong cider a day while his wife chooses to stub out cigarettes on him when he eventually falls asleep?

“Off-the-shelf EAPs can’t be all things to all people”

Probably not. In any case, the woeful average take-up rate of most EAPs perhaps tells its own story. Off-the-shelf EAPs can’t be all things to all people.

But it’s not just cheap-and-cheerful EAPs that seem to be failing to cut the mustard. Even eye-wateringly expensive, tailor-made, top-of-the-range counselling-plus-medication propositions haven’t stopped blindingly rich bankers with seemingly perfect lives from hurling themselves to their death from a restaurant balcony across the road from the Bank of England on a frequent basis in the past.

Sure, the rhetoric goes, it’s “time to talk”; call that EAP (only a certain number of times though). Just don’t call Kyle.

Because on the Kyle Show, there is no more time to talk. Everyone has been gagged; silenced by a prejudice which seems to be little more than a grotesque display of class bias.

Individuals from all walks of life can, obviously, suffer mental health problems. But to point the finger at the Kyle Show for actually causing them is something that exposes an unspoken, uncomfortable truth.

What, after all, about private and NHS healthcare services, designed to address problems that could result in suicide, but fail to stop tragedies from happening? Should they be hauled over the coals to explain the suicides or other mental health-related incidents that take place after individuals engage with them?

Or expensive, bespoke, high-end psychotherapy providers? Or charities – the ones that offer support services to individuals on the brink of suicide?

Should they have to explain themselves to a Select Committee if someone jumps in front of a train after talking to their helpline?

Maybe. But I’m not sure they’d get as tough a time as the Kyle Show is getting from all quarters.

The Kyle Show has helped a lot of people to pull themselves back from the brink and entertained millions along the way; equally, it has failed to help some individuals who were intent on self-destruction no matter what anyone tried to do to help; equally, too, there may be yet-to-be-revealed reasons as to why ITV canned such a popular programme.

Or maybe it’s a good thing that all that kind of talking about mental health is stopped. After all, as Professor Sir Simon Wessley, President of the Royal Society of Medicine and a Past President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, has suggested, the “time to talk” mantra about mental health is helping to swamp an already-overloaded public and private healthcare system with demands for help about “conditions” that are, well, just part of the human condition.

Family bereavement, lack of confidence, fear of unemployment, infidelity; all can lead to feelings of sadness, despair and, sadly, sometimes suicide.

Royal Society of Medicine President Professor Sir Simon Wessley: ‘Every time there is a mental health awareness week, my heart sinks’

But “time to talk” is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future.

Like Professor Sir Simon, I agree that “every time there is a mental health awareness week, my heart sinks”. As he argues, the rush to classify normal human emotions as “mental health” problems is driving up demand, unduly, for services which are already creaking at the seams and is belittling the plight of those more in need of help – and denying it to them too.

Fortunately, the major private medical insurance (PMI) providers and employers are ramping up their efforts in a big way to provide more resources to plug the resultant mental health care gap. They won’t be able to help everyone, but their efforts might just free up time for GP and other services that are coming under unbearable strain from the tidal wave of mental health awareness drives.

“The massive current effort from PMI providers might just free up time for GP and other services that are coming under unbearable strain from the tidal wave of mental health awareness drives”

It’s unlikely – and also presumptious – to suggest that many individuals that took part in Kyle’s show would have been covered by PMI.

Nevertheless, they were just that – individuals, with their own personal agency. The moral imperative that some others feel should be theirs because they “know better” than participants on the Kyle Show might feel like a duty to them; but suggesting that it is a duty and not a shot of self-indulgent wokeness belies the fact that they are simply imposing a cultural diktat on different types of people.

For all the criticism levelled at the Kyle show for “bear-baiting” and winding guests up before broadcast, it did in fact provide access to counselling and care services over its 14 year existence that many individuals would otherwise have gone without. Now, many individuals with similar problems won’t have access to that kind of help or be aware that it exists.

Not that any of that matters, though, because back over on Norton’s sofa, on marches a relentless phalanx of millionaire celebs (not necessarily the aforementioned ones) “opening up” about their problems with their mental health.

Yes, some of them might have had mental health problems of their own.

But for some reason it doesn’t really matter if they have or not. They’re “brave” for “opening up” (even though they may have only done so for a fee or to kill a tabloid story or to push their brand).

“Celebs talking about mental health on telly? Brave. Plebs doing the same? Exploitation. That’s the mindset of more people than you might think”

Celebs talking about mental health on telly? Brave. Plebs doing the same? Exploitation. That’s the mindset of more people than you might think.

Let’s not get prissy about this. If only Kyle – who registered something called “Hales Media” at Companies House (watch this space) just as his show was getting pulled – decided that his new venture would be a national health and wellbeing programme with a get/stay/return-to-work focus.

Perhaps then, more people could get work, stay in work or return to work and more individuals and families – and businesses – could be happy, healthy, wealthy and productive.

Team Kyle – although they and most other people might not realise it – could very well have the answer.

Now – that really would be something to talk about.