The most charitable explanation one can afford to the news that Channel 5 producers have proposed signing up Justin Lee Collins for Celebrity Big Brother is this: the producers are shamelessly and desperately fishing for controversy and attention.
The comedian and recently-convicted domestic abuser is a worm, dipped in the tabloid pond to draw attention to a forthcoming series. Perhaps Endemol and Channel 5 have no intention of following the proposal through, or no expectation that Collins will accept, the job is already done. It would be tempting to ignore the story altogether - obvious troll is obvious as they say on the message boards - but the news is out, social media is buzzing, and there is little choice but to rise to the wriggling, squirming bait.
If that assumption is correct, the makers of CBB are cynically, ruthlessly exploiting a case of brutal criminal harassment for commercial gain. Without regard to the likely reactions of people who live with or have survived intimate partner abuse, not least Collins’s victim Anna Larke, they are playing people’s anger, outrage and disgust for publicity and ratings. As I say, that is the most charitable interpretation.
How much worse would it be if they are actually sincere? That the producers have become so subsumed in moral degradation that they actually think it is a good idea? That it would make good television, and that is the only thing that matters? Just on the off chance that this proposal is serious, it has to be spelled out why it would be profoundly wrong.
Just a few weeks after being convicted of domestic abuse, there is talk of Collins being offered a fee of £100,000, not to mention the career value of wall-to-wall TV coverage. It is being offered explicitly as a consequence of his conviction. While this might just about stay within the limits of legality, it flies far past any boundaries of morality. It would at the very least imply that partner abuse can be a lucrative career boost for some.
Big Brother, perhaps more than any other reality show, thrives on simple narratives of goodies and baddies, conflict and redemption. Part of the success of the show can be explained by the development of those narratives in a clinical, controlled, manipulated environment. Key to that is the creation of pantomime villains. Witness the gleeful booing when an unpopular guest is evicted, jeers are hurled through smiles in a ceremonial parade, and it’s all just a bit of a laugh. One can imagine the programme-makers viewing Justin Lee Collins as perfect casting for this role.
They would not be more wrong. Collins is not a pantomime villain, and to treat him as such would be a serious misrepresentation. He is a minor comedian and an ugly, misogynistic bully, who has shown a side to his character which is as unpleasant as it is well-publicised. He should not be rewarded with attention, but with contempt and disdain.
I strongly believe in rehabilitation. People can make mistakes, and even people who have done very bad things can turn their lives around. That is as true of TV celebrities as for anyone else. There’s a rather ritualised route to redemption for celebrities who have done bad things: a period of dignified silence, followed by a confessional interview or two on a daytime sofa, some charity work and then perhaps a late night slot on local radio until memories fade and a career can reignite. One can be cynical about this, but it does make a degree of moral and cultural sense. The proposal to put Collins on CBB jumps straight from the conviction to the rewards, while missing out all that awkward stuff about contrition and remorse in between.
So far, we are told, there has been no response from Collins and his management to the invitation. If he is serious about salvaging his career, if he wishes to be rehabilitated in the public mind, far less his own, then he has an opportunity here to make the first step. If he has any remorse for his crimes, any insight into his own past behaviour, then he can demonstrate a small glimpse of that with just one word: No.