Johann Hari: Jeremy Kyle, a moral hero of our time

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By now, you will know whether Jeremy Kyle woz robbed last night. At the National Television Awards, he was up for Most Popular Factual Programme. To those of you who actually have to work during the day, I suppose I should explain what ITV1's agony-a-thon is all about, and why it deserved to win.

Jeremy Kyle is a SHOUTING and impatient daytime television talk-show host who appears to have spent several millennia marinading in self-love and self-importance. Every weekday, a host of distressed people are wheeled before him and his studio audience to have their wounds ripped open for our enjoyment. The guests all have problems that can be expressed in a stark strap-line such as: "I'm sleeping with my daughter's boyfriend, how can I tell my wife?" He will take about two minutes to decide who is The Victim and who is The Abuser in any given situation, and he will then spend the rest of the time SHOUTING at the abuser: "Are you going to admit you're a scumbag? YES OR NO?"

Kyle is never more than an inch away from his Dead Ringers impersonation: "Maureen, you're 58." "Jeremy, I'm 42." "Let me finish! You're 58, you're scum, and what you're doing is disgusting. Let's bring out your husband." It ends with a to-camera appeal: "Are you scum? Text 'Scum' and your name to 57048."

So, yes, I know all the reasons why I should hate this show. A judge recently called it a "human form of bear-baiting", after a man head-butted the lodger who was shagging his wife the moment that the lodger strutted on stage. Yes, it's sleazy, sucking money from people's misery. So why do I love the programme, and why does part of me think it actually does some good?

I have been watching talk shows like this since I was a child – Oprah Winfrey, Ricki Lake, The Time The Place – and very few people seem to have noticed that the morality they promote is unconsciously but wonderfully progressive. Who are the villains of these shows, the people the audience find abhorrent? Men who treat women badly. Homophobes. Misogynists. Neglectful parents. Exactly the people who deserve to have an audience booing them. Let us pluck a few random examples from recent shows. One was called "My mum hates me being gay!" Sarah, a delightful 19-year-old lesbian, was brought out to explain how her mother had thrown her out. "I'm not ashamed of being a lesbian at all," she said simply. Kyle said this was quite right, adding: "You shouldn't have to apologise for what you are, ever." The audience whooped and cheered.

Sarah's mother was brought out – and she was clearly shocked by the hostility of the audience. It was the first time she had had to consider that it was her bigotry, not her daughter's homosexuality, that was the problem. This isn't new: talk shows were the first television programmes to show gay people and transsexuals sympathetically speaking in their own words, breaking that taboo forever.

How about the show entitled "Daughter, Leave Your Beating Husband"? A fiftysomething mum is distraught that her daughter insists on staying with a thug who beats her. The defeated, timid daughter comes on stage and whispers: "I know what he's done. I know he's bad." A massed audience telling her she deserves better – that she's a lovely person – obviously has an effect on her. They strip away her delusions. She thinks he loves her. One woman asks: "Do you think he loves you when he punches you in the face?" Kyle tells her: "You can say, 'I'm going to walk away with my head in the air'." When Henrik Ibsen said that a century ago in The Doll's House, it caused riots. Today, repetition of liberal moral beliefs on shows like this has a slow, powerful effect on the viewers. They have helped to engineer the new "common sense" in our country – that women and gay people don't have to tolerate abuse. This is consciousness-raising that money cannot buy, and we need it. Even today in Britain, two women are beaten to death by their partners every week.

Everything that is condemned on these shows deserves to be condemned. But that's not the only reason why the criticisms so glibly thrown at these programmes make me cringe. There are good reasons to be worried. Why, for example, don't they offer every guest ongoing counselling, rather than just a few? There are also ugly prejudices encoded in the sneers – not least a slathering of snobbery.

In Britain today, abuse of the white working class is so frequent we don't even hear of it. A famous media figure (and, as it happens, a beneficiary of nepotism) came up to me recently to congratulate me on an article I'd written defending immigrants. He said: "They're so much better than these lazy council estate bastards. Can't we swap them for everyone in Poland?" This shift in Britain's prejudices was symbolised neatly when it was announced that Love Thy Neighbour is being remade. In the 1970s version, a white family was horrified when a "nig-nog" family moved in next door, and much supposed hilarity ensued. In the Noughties version, a professional black family is horrified when a white, working-class "chav" family becomes their neighbours after a lottery win.

We have thankfully stopped seeing ethnic minorities as the Not-Us, the Thank-God-We're-Not-Them – and have neatly slotted the white working class into their place. Their presence on any television show, wearing their clothes and talking in their voices, evinces a haughty hatred disguised in the form of sympathy: "Oh, but aren't we being beastly to the chavs?" Again and again, critics assume the (unpaid) guests are too stupid to decide for themselves whether they should appear on a programme they've seen a hundred times. Why? Why are you better qualified to judge what's good for them than they are themselves? Don't you think girls like Sarah are empowered by Kyle's show?

In the contempt for these shows, there is also a disguised longing for the age of emotional repression, when British people didn't cry or shout or scream on television. But that world had horrible flaws that far outweigh ours. Watch the 1945 film Brief Encounter now and it seems like the record of two deeply mentally-ill people. Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson meet on a train, fall in love and realise they are perfect for each other – but they are so deeply repressed they can't even bring themselves to touch, and return to miserable, wasted lives, wondering what might have been. This squalid stoicism made women feel obliged to stay with men who beat them too: the stiff upper lip was intimately connected to the bruised upper lip.

Give me Jeremy Kyle and a sassy audience yelling at a woman to leave her abuser over that monochrome, bitter Britain any time.