Toby Young: The harsh reality of letting Susan Boyle sing

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The Independent Culture

As someone who has served as a judge on various reality-TV shows (including BBC2's Eating with the Enemy and ITV's Hell's Kitchen), I followed the story of Susan Boyle's admission to the Priory clinic with a good deal of interest. Were Simon Cowell, Piers Morgan and Amanda Holden – the judges on Britain's Got Talent – in some way culpable?

The short answer is no. All reality- show judges worry that a failed contestant will suffer some sort of breakdown after being eliminated and that they will then be held responsible for causing him or her psychological harm. But that wasn't what happened here. Susan Boyle was never eliminated from Britain's Got Talent. She came second and that was a decision made by the public, not the judges. In their comments on her performance in the final, they were typically effusive, not saying anything that might have conceivably upset her.

The question arises, then, whether Susan Boyle should have been allowed to appear on the programme in the first place. Deprived of oxygen as a baby, she was, as a result, diagnosed as having learning difficulties. So the real issue here is whether it can ever be right to feature people like Boyle on reality shows.

My view is that it turns on the degree of mental impairment. Should Susan Boyle, who volunteered to appear on the show, have been ruled out by the series' producers on the grounds that she was not capable of making an informed decision about the costs and benefits of taking part in the show?

The problem with that criterion is that it would rule out 95 per cent of the contestants on reality shows. Surely, if someone is capable of looking after themselves – is allowed to vote, get married, drink alcohol, and so forth – then they should be allowed to compete on a reality show.

To deny Boyle that chance would be to say that she isn't allowed to participate in certain activities in virtue of her mental disability.

We wouldn't want Susan Boyle to be prevented from having children. So why should she be prevented from appearing on Britain's Got Talent?