“THE problem wasn’t the show,” said Caroline Flack’s replacement as host of Love Island, Irishwoman Laura Whitmore. “The show, to work on, is loving, caring, safe, and protected. The problem is the outside world is not.” That’s been the mantra since Flack tragically died by suicide last Saturday.
This condemnation of the so-called lynch mob on social media, which had targeted Flack as she faced trial on the charge of assaulting her partner, has been all over the mainstream media this week.
As if the mainstream media do not have questions to answer.
While it may have been true for Flack that “the problem wasn’t the show”, Love Island, and shows like it, are a big problem for the rest of us.
ITV’s show constitutes a potential lynch mob of 2.39m viewers, down from 3.7m for last year’s summer series. The final of the winter series is on Sunday and the contestants have not been told about Flack’s death.
I’d been smiling benignly as my teenage children had discussed the show over the last couple of years. I’d never watched it myself. Then again, I’d never even watched Big Brother.
I was something of a reality TV virgin when I tuned in to Love Island in the last week to find out what all the fuss was about.
I was horrified.
I could hardly believe that a mainstream TV channel like ITV (or Virgin here) could chuck a group of barely-clad 20-somethings into a luxury hotel and watch them, through hidden cameras, as they couple and uncouple.
I know my outrage makes me sound like Mary Whitehouse, but 20 years of reality TV have lowered audiences’ ability to tell right from wrong in this matter.
These kids are vulnerable before they enter the ‘vill-aw’; otherwise, they wouldn’t dream of participating. They crave the attention they haven’t gotten so far in life and they must not understand the value of privacy.
The show never gives us more than the broad brushstrokes of the young people’s personalities. They are presented as meat on legs: The girls blinking their false eyelashes and shaking their uniformly long hair; the boys brandishing their six-packs and baring their white teeth.
It’s a frightening reduction of sexual attraction to ‘Me Tarzan, you Jane.’ Except that this particular jungle is full of Tarzans and Janes, who must first compete for partners among themselves and then compete to be the best couple, by public vote.
The ‘dumpings’ bring me straight back to a gym class in the late 1970s, when the two captains had to pick their teams. I lurked in the shadows, because I knew I would be one of the last chosen, just before the girl who had been dropped on her head as a baby. You only know I was nearly last to be chosen for teams at gym class because I feel secure enough to tell you, however.
The rejections suffered by the Love Islanders are viewed by several million people and will never be erased as long as there is an internet.
In this latest series, we viewed the ‘dumping’ of 25-year-old local authority employee Shaughna Phillips. She suffered her first indignity when she chose to stay faithful to a certain Callum Jones, when he went for a bit of R&R to the ‘Casa Amor’. Within 24 hours, her lusty lad was showing interest in pretty Molly and their first kiss was relayed to the waiting millions.
Shaughna was made to express her fidelity to Callum and hope he would come back to her. Then, the cameras zoomed in on her as Callum walked through into the ‘vill-aw’ with new girl Molly in tow.
The cameras hugged Shaughna’s face as she struggled to keep on her mask-like smile. “Should never have trusted a scaffolder, anyway,” she muttered.
Call that entertainment? I call it cruel.
Shaughna’s indignities didn’t end there, either. She achieved some sort of understanding with Luke Mabbott, who was then asked, in a ritual straight from Lord of the Flies, whether he would choose her or another girl. He chose the other girl. Shaughna was — whisper it — single. There was no place for her in the vill-aw. She was ‘dumped’.
Don’t try to tell me it’s alright because Love Island has consultant psychologists. It’s not alright. It’s cruel and so is the show.
Whitmore has explained that the show was important to Flack because, “It’s about finding love and friendship and having a laugh”. God bless Caroline Flack’s innocence, if that was what she thought.
This was a woman who had told an interviewer that she’d offered a former boyfriend that she would give up working in TV if he would only stay with her. That’s howvulnerable she was. He didn’taccept.
If she thought Love Island was about finding love, her concept of the proper domains of public and private must have been seriously muddled and that can’t have helped her cope with online harassment.
Love Island is not about finding love. It’s about entertaining millions, and making millions, by exposing to cruel public scrutiny young people whom it would be impossible to prepare for such exposure.
Of course, the programme’s team say they carefully screen their candidates. Reality TV is, however, a hugely contentious area for journalistic ethics.
THE Brussels-based media expert Jelle Mast argues that “informed consent” should not let reality TV makers off the ethical hook.
The contestants’ consent may not be fully informed, in that they may not understand how exposed they will be. He interviewed one editor, who said this very innocence adds to the viewers’ enjoyment. There is what Mast calls a “power imbalance” between the contestants and the programme makers, who edit the filmed material into the formula they want, so “commodifying” the personalities of real people.
Without humiliation, reality TV is not entertaining. It is TV’s last stand against internet entertainment and its standards are not much better.
None of this commentary refers to Love Island alone, but to all competitive reality TV; there are questions to be answered, too, about the exposure of contestants inseemingly innocent shows likeOperation Transformation, as they bulge out of crop tops beside the fully clothed presenter. And is it correct to expose minors in reality TV shows, even those shows which are meant to help them, like RTÉ’s Families in the Wild?
Flack’s next TV show was to have been Surjury, on Channel 4, with contestants competing to have their bodies transformed for free.
“In a world where you can be anything, be kind,” tweeted Flack’s bereaved partner, Lewis Burton, at the weekend.
In a world dominated by reality TV, do we even know what ‘kind’ means?