Mental Health on TV and Radio to Stay in the Spotlight as New Ofcom Rules Announced

Ellen Lees
By Ellen Lees,
updated on Jul 30, 2019

Mental Health on TV and Radio to Stay in the Spotlight as New Ofcom Rules Announced

As this years’ series of Love Island comes to an end, Ofcom have announced a new set of rules to ensure people who participate in television and radio are properly cared for by broadcasters

The announcement follows an inquiry held by the Department of Culture, Media and Sports' Select Committee (DCMS), prompted by the death of Steve Dymond, after his participation on The Jeremy Kyle Show. The series was subsequently taken off air.

After DCMS' public call for evidence, a hearing was held in late June, with evidence submitted from broadcasters and organisations, including the BBC, Channel 4, ITV, Fremantle Media, leading mental health charity Mind, and The Association of Clinical Psychotherapists (ACP-UK).

In a piece of written evidence submitted to the committee, Mind stated: “The impact of reality and entertainment TV shows on participants is rightly under scrutiny and forces us all to question where the line should be drawn.

“For many years, reality TV has played on the problems of ordinary people for our entertainment and it is questionable whether this entertainment is appropriate in a modern society, particularly when it is impacting on and potentially damaging the mental health of participants.

“By continuing to pressurise and exploit people for the purposes of entertainment, the reality TV industry is arguably behind the rest of society in terms of understanding the importance of mental health.

“The recent cancellation of The Jeremy Kyle Show feels like a watershed moment for attitudes to mental wellbeing. We hope that this will be a wake-up call for the industry, which will lead to broadcasters prioritising the welfare of participants over the entertainment value for the audience.”

DCMS inquiry

Speaking of the cancellation of The Jeremy Kyle Show earlier this year, DCMS Committee Chair Damian Collins MP said: “Programmes like The Jeremy Kyle Show risk putting people who might be vulnerable onto a public stage at a point in their lives when they are unable to foresee the consequences, either for themselves or their families. This kind of TV featuring members of the public attracts viewing figures in the millions but in return for ratings, the broadcasters must demonstrate their duty of care to the people whose personal lives are being exposed.

“With an increasing demand for this type of programming, we’ll be examining broadcasting regulation in this area – is it fit for purpose?”

The inquiry into reality TV follows the death of Steve Dymond, a guest on The Jeremy Kyle Show, and also two former Love Island Contestants, Mike Thalassitis and Sophie Gradon. DCMS requested submissions consider the psychological support provided to participants in reality TV, including what might be considered a best practice; issues of responsibility; possible psychological pressures on reality TV participants; and the wider context of reality TV and mental wellbeing.

“Generally, there are multiple potential psychological risks to taking part in reality TV,” stated The Association of Clinical Psychologists. “These include, though are not limited to, the potential for psychological abuse during or subsequent to participation; traumatisation (including via events that might not be broadcast); difficulties in adjustment, e.g. to subsequent public attention and loss of normality; changes in relationships; and pressure to remain relevant as a media personality.”

When asked for examples of best practice, and where there is room for improvement in the support that is offered to participants, Mind stated: “Production companies and broadcasters should, at the very least, be having an upfront, formal discussion with participants about mental health and exploring the potential impact of participating in a reality TV programme on their mental health.

“As part of this, broadcasters should support people to prepare for the pressure of sudden fame and particularly attention from the media and on social media. Participants should be offered advice and information about how to deal with these pressures as well as signposting to appropriate forms of support.

“Mind also believes that production companies and broadcasters should be going further by providing dedicated, specialist support during filming and for a period of time after a programme has aired. For example, production companies and broadcasters should consider providing a counselling service, which can offer bespoke support to participants for any issues that arise during or in the period after their appearance on reality TV.”

The new Ofcom rules

While there are already rules in place for broadcasters around participants in programmes and safeguards for participants under 18, Ofcom announced yesterday that two new rules have been added to their broadcasting code.

  • Due care must be taken over the welfare, wellbeing and dignity of participants in programmes.
  • Participants must not be caused unjustified distress or anxiety by taking part in programmes or by the broadcast of those programmes.

Ofcom stated that they decided to review their existing protections following the “growing openness and concern about mental health and wellbeing” and due to the increase in complaints “expressing concern about the welfare and wellbeing of people who take part in programmes.”

The new rules have been added with reality TV in mind, to “protect the welfare and wellbeing of people taking part in programmes on TV and radio”. However, thesenew safeguards will also protect participants involved in documentaries, news and current affairs, phone-in and quiz shows, talent contents and other forms of factual and entertainment programmes.

Ofcom also announced plans to issue guidance to help broadcasters interpret and apply the new rules. The new rules and guidance are designed to “ensure that broadcasters apply a consistent standard of care to people who take part in shows.”

Following the news, Tony Close, Director of Content Standards at Ofcom said: “People who take part in TV and radio shows must be properly looked after by broadcasters, and these rules would ensure that happens.

“These new safeguards must be effective. So, we’re listening carefully to programme participants, broadcasters, producers and psychologists before we finalise them.”

Ofcom are inviting feedback on the new rules and guidance until September. Final decisions on future guidelines will be made in the winter.

While there is plenty of work still to be done, we are pleased to see the subject getting the attention it so rightly deserves in the hope that future programming will be safer for both participants and audiences.

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