A cruel, cynical stunt in the name of ratings and grim entertainment

(c) Beacon Radio

Georgia Lewis

It is timely that I have been reading a book about the history of Bedlam, London’s notorious mental institution. It was here that in the dark days of patient care for the mentally ill, Bedlam was a particularly ghoulish tourist attraction. People would pay to stare at the inmates, to mock, to marvel, to laugh and point. It was horrific and cruel.

But have we moved on from those days? If the last episode of The X Factor is anything to go by, probably not. People do still mock the vulnerable, the afflicted, the different, the unfortunate and the deformed. Indeed, we have so many more forums to do this now with Twitter, Facebook, blogs, readers’ comments on newspaper websites and so on. 

The producers of The X Factor must have known Ceri Rees was a vulnerable woman. I stumbled upon Ceri’s audition when I was channel-surfing and didn’t realise at the time that she had been up before the cameras and judges on three previous series of the programme. Did nobody at ITV question the morality of letting Ceri be subject to humiliation on a very public level on multiple occasions?

It is hard to find any positives here. We cannot diagnose any conditions Ceri may have from our armchairs but you don’t need to be a psychiatrist to see that feeding her to the lions four times was unnecessarily cruel. It crossed the line from “funny, off-key bad karaoke audition” to the televisual equivalent of pulling the wings of a particularly fragile butterfly. Unlike some of the wacky auditions seen on The X Factor, it didn’t look like Ceri was in on the joke. She had taken singing lessons since her last failed audition – there’s no self-deprecation going on there.

As 54-year-old Ceri awkwardly auditioned, Twitter went into a predictable frenzy – there were sympathetic comments, horrified comments but also cruel comments. Rethink Mental Illness put out a poll on Twitter to find out if people believe ITV owes a duty of care to the people who audition. Reassuringly, the people who responded overwhelmingly agreed that there was a duty of care – and that ITV had failed to care for Ceri on four separate occasions.

Apparently, Gary Barlow went to check on her after the audition – that’s nice of him, I suppose, but it was too little, too late. Tulisa Contostavlos openly laughed at her audition. The looks on audience members’ faces varied from amusement to shock.

There has been speculation as to whether Ceri was paid to keep returning to The X Factor. Whether she was or not is irrelevant. What is relevant is the producers have seen fit to keep bringing her back to The X Factor knowing full well she is not going to get a single Yes from the judges. They have done precisely nothing to improve her life or her self-esteem. It is a cruel, cynical stunt in the name of ratings and grim entertainment.

Sure, we don’t treat mental hospitals as grotesque tourist attractions anymore and there is much more awareness about mental illness today. But when ITV behaves no better than a circus freak show and people find this acceptable and even hilarious – and they feel the need to share their mirth with the world – it’s a sad day for popular culture.

We should not have to become such a nanny state that the government intervenes to prevent the humiliation of the vulnerable on TV talent shows. Do we even know or care if Ceri, a widow, was able to go home to someone who loves her? Everyone at ITV who was OK with putting Ceri Rees on stage and into the nation’s living rooms four times simply should have known better.

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