Psychologists in trouble for 'Big Brother'

Cahal Milmo
Tuesday 01 August 2000 00:00
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THe Show Big Brother, the "social experiment" that mixes voyeurism with prime-time TV, is to come under scrutiny itself after a complaint that two psychologists on the hit programme have broken their ethical code.

THe Show Big Brother, the "social experiment" that mixes voyeurism with prime-time TV, is to come under scrutiny itself after a complaint that two psychologists on the hit programme have broken their ethical code.

The British Psychological Society confirmed yesterday that it is investigating allegations that two university professors are guilty of professional misconduct by involving themselves with the Channel 4 production.

The move follows a claim that Professor Peter Collett, of Oxford University, and Professor Geoffrey Beattie, of Manchester University, are legitimising the "exploitation" of the programme's contestants. An "investigatory committee" will now be set up by the society to decide whether there is any substance to the complaint.

Both academics appear on the show once a week to offer on-camera analysis of the behaviour of the 10 "captive" contestants in the show whose every movement is recorded by security cameras.

Professor Collett also acts as a consultant to the programme, providing general psychological guidance to the producers, Bazal. Neither of the two psychologists has any direct involvement with the competitors.

The 10-week series, which began last month, follows the daily life of five men and five women in a secure communal living space, with one contestant being evicted every week.

Viewers saw their first eviction on Friday as Sada Walkington, 27, lost her chance to win the £70,000 to be awarded to the last person left in the secret north London compound.

The programme has achieved large audiences, in excess of 5 million viewers on some nights, despite a panning from the critics.

But a formal letter of complaint from a Glasgow sociologist that the programme could ultimately damage its contestants is threatening to tarnish the show's carefully constructed appeal.

Dr David Miller, research director at the media research iunstitute at Stirling University, said: "What we are seeing night after night is a game show, not a serious attempt to explore human nature.

"What's more, the participants are themselves being placed under enormous stress that could lead to long-termdifficulties. These two professors are lending credibility toa crass and exploitative gimmick." Dr Miller said he believed the two academics had committed a "serious breach of ethical behaviour" and broken the code of conduct set out by the society in 1985. The society declined to comment on the details of the complaint but confirmed it would investigate.

During the run-up to last week's eviction vote by viewers and competitors, there was clear evidence of the stress on Sada and another participant, Caroline, after they were shortlisted to leave. Caroline was seen lying on her bed crying, while Sada vowed to leave in any event.

Professor Beattie expressed surprise at the complaint. "I'm astonished at the basis for the complaint," he said. "It's like saying it is a breach of ethics to interpret a politician's hand gestures. I have no direct contact with the participants."

Bazal Productions, the company making Big Brother, highlighted the safeguards built in to protect the participants.

A spokesman said: "Each of the contestants has been psychologically screened and they are fully aware of what Big Brother involves. There is a team of counsellors and a psychiatrist available at all times. We have set up a stringent safety net that many other programmes lack."

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