David Wilson: Even in a 'jail' filled with volunteers, they went too far

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The Independent Online

When I was approached to be a consultant for the psychology programme that accompanies Big Brother I was intrigued and flattered. There is no better way to popularise ideas related to an academic's work than appearing on the small screen, and my son, who is soon to be 13, is a Big Brother addict.

When I was approached to be a consultant for the psychology programme that accompanies Big Brother I was intrigued and flattered. There is no better way to popularise ideas related to an academic's work than appearing on the small screen, and my son, who is soon to be 13, is a Big Brother addict.

And the intrigue? Well, at the end of the day I am a criminologist who has spent years working in prisons with repeat violent offenders. Surely Big Brother wasn't going to feature serial killers?

Speaking to the urbane and erudite producer, my mind was soon put to rest about this latter issue, but it was also clear that Big Brother 5 had learnt from the universally tagged "boring" Big Brother 4, and this year was to be "evil".

The house was going to have a third less space than in previous years; only one shared bedroom; and the housemates were going to be watched wherever they went. More than this, Big Brother was going to ensure that the housemates got up this year by ringing an alarm until everybody rose.

There were to be more surprises too, such as "pretending to evict" housemates. Evil indeed, with a passing nod to a famous - some might argue infamous - psychological experiment conducted at Stanford University in 1971 by Philip Zimbardo.

More than this, the control of space, time and labour is the very essence of what happens to prisoners when they go to jail, and given that the house is a perfect Panopticon - Jeremy Bentham's famous design for a prison - I began to understand why I was wanted as a contributor. At the very least, Big Brother 5 was going to create tension, and if the producers weren't careful, more besides.

Not unnaturally I had nagging doubts, and looking back I remember that my very first question was "do you have an ethics committee?", for clearly what was being proposed potentially put people at risk, and would not have passed my university's ethics committee if I had suggested this as a piece of research. There was no ethics committee and perhaps that should have been enough to have ended my involvement.

It didn't, however, and as I waited for my show to be aired I watched like a rubber-necker at a car wreck as first Kat claimed to have been a child prostitute (which wasn't true), and thereafter Emma and Michelle were "pretend" evicted to the "bed-sit".

"Have you an ethics committee?" I asked again on Monday, pointing out that putting these two women back into the house was clearly going to light a touch-paper of discontent. I also suggested that I would never have considered doing this if I had been working as a prison governor in comparable situations.

The inevitable happened, and an incident at the house on Thursday morning is now subject to a police investigation. My last contact with the producers before resigning from the programme was advising them how I would have gone about trying to re-establish peace after a prison riot! I talked about "legitimacy" - the sociological concept that suggests people will be prepared to accept power being exercised over them if it is seen by them as fair and reasonable, and how riots in prisons are caused when inmates no longer feel that the powerful have their interests at heart. I no longer believe that what has been happening to the housemates is "legitimate" by this sociological definition.

You might counter - and it would be true - that no one volunteers to go to prison, while the queue of potential housemates would stretch from Land's End to John O'Groats. Fair enough, but does that absolve Big Brother, or the rest of us, from dealing honestly and decently with those desperate for their 15 minutes of fame?

David Wilson is professor of criminology at the University of Central England and a former governor of HMP Grendon.

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