THE Jeremy Kyle Show was partial to a juicy title. Had the programme not been axed yesterday it might have examined the scandal in which it was mired with the on-screen caption, “Blood on our hands, but we pulled in the viewers!”

It took ITV an unconscionably long time to do the right thing following the suspected suicide of a man who had appeared on the programme.

Initially, the company’s chief executive, Dame Carolyn McCall, took the show off the air pending an inquiry into how Stephen Dymond, 63, had been dealt with before, during, and after the show where he was publicly accused of infidelity.

Yesterday, ITV woke up, finally smelled the anger, and acted. Even then, Dame Carolyn paid tribute to the show’s “dedicated production team” and said the channel would continue to work with Kyle on “other projects”.

Kyle show to go off air

Just as newspapers took far too long to spot the iceberg marked “phone hacking”, so it will take time for broadcasters to fully appreciate the implications of what has happened this week. Mr Dymond’s death was shocking enough. That it should be the fourth to be linked to a programme is appalling. Previously, two former contestants on ITV2’s Love Island were found dead, plus one of their partners.

Given the tin-eared response to previous warnings that no good would come from exploiting vulnerable people for the sake of ratings, one wonders if even now the message is finally getting through. After all, ITV has pulled the plug on Jeremy Kyle, but Love Island is expected to return soon and the show has been signed up for the next five years. Anyone would think the record ratings for the ITV2 show were clouding executives’ judgement.

Lest there is any doubt about it: telly is not supposed to result in people dying. It is meant to be entertainment. A bit of fun. Yet in the blink of an eye we have gone from The Truman Show to Black Mirror. How?

Programme has previous

It did not happen overnight. Reality programming has largely been an import from the US. It was American broadcasters who first realised that lots of cheap television could be had by putting their own viewers to work. People are interested in people, after all. So it began some 30 years ago with what now looks like the soft stuff, The Jerry Springer Show. Society was so appalled by its mix of violence and sleazy subject matter two bods wrote an opera about it. That would show ‘em.

But the pit got deeper. As more channels arrived and competition for the ad bucks intensified, broadcasters went in search of ever more sensational ways to pull in viewers while spending as little as possible. The drip, drip, drip of tawdriness became a torrent. It was not enough to have rumours of a romance between contestants on a reality show; viewers had to see them having sex. Hosts could not simply put one side of an argument against another; someone had to take a lie detector test (as Mr Dymond did). The stakes grew ever higher, the standards lower. Even when the first suicide occurred last year there was much murmuring about the need to take proper care of participants. If it had been animals being treated like this there would have been justified outrage and action taken immediately.

So why was nothing done? It is no accident that the participants in such shows are by and large from working class, disadvantaged backgrounds. Appearing on a reality show has become the equivalent of boxing, football, and joining the Army – it is a ticket out.

The Jeremy Kyle Show had a keen appreciation of class and vulnerability. Its researchers recruited from the poor, unemployed, and educationally disadvantaged. The show paraded them and mocked them to make the million plus viewers at home feel superior. Here was David Cameron’s “Broken Britain” laid out for all to see. These people did not merit compassion; they deserved benefit sanctions and all the austerity the Conservative Government could dish out.

Participants – let’s cut straight to it and call them victims – were vulnerable in other ways. Mentally ill people were meat and drink to ambitious young men and women in broadcasting, there to be eaten up and spat out. Depressed, anxious, grieving, desperate, lonely, struggling: sign up here. Both the BBC and Channel 4 have run programmes about people who hoard things. At first they did so in a purely exploitative, “look at the state of that” way. This was despite experts in the field telling them that such behaviour was a sign of mental illness. Broadcasters still make the shows, but now they frame them as pseudo therapy which “shines a spotlight” on the condition. Telly folk love a spotlight, unless it is on themselves.

At least television noticed mentally ill people. Until relatively recently the rest of society largely ignored them or medicated the problem into the margins. It is a further disgrace that some people have come forward to say they only went on such shows to get help, perhaps for an addiction, because it was not available from the state. How much help, if any, did people receive? Programme makers pointed to after care this and welfare that, but it always sounded like so much insurance against possible future claims. Claims that never came because, well, the poor and mentally ill don’t tend to use lawyers (another reason to recruit them).

Tempting as it is to lay most of the blame on the wretched likes of Jeremy Kyle and company, it is no accident that television has sunk to such depths just as standards of behaviour in general have fallen. People have become more abusive and less tolerant. Twitter is an open sewer at times. Leavers and Remainers snarl at each other outside the Commons. Inside, MPs do the same. Confrontation is king.

I would like to believe that the deaths of Mr Dymond and others represent a watershed moment for broadcasting, but then television reflects the society it serves. If it can happen “out there” it can happen on the box. As long as we continue to be cruel or uncaring to the weak and vulnerable, television will do the same.