It's a curious twist of fate and it seems prescient that I've just been talking about "Big Brother", "The Verdict" and courtrooms. A week after I wrote my last blog post about the dangers of "Big Brother" and about a particular school colleague being a contestant, said ex-contestant, Shahbaz, is suing the producers of the TV show
. After my unease at the current state of reality television and seeing someone I knew going in and suffering terribly, perhaps this is poetic justice?
Only it isn't. I've never advocated a lack of personal responsibility being given free reign, nor was I completely letting the 'theatrical puppet show pulling all the strings' completely off the hook either. The fact that litigation is going ahead is a good thing. Like I said in my last blog entry, "Big Brother" stimulated debate about a number of topics, with particular reference to casual racism. Therefore, "Big Brother" should be a strong entity in it's own right to stimulate a debate about itself and the nature of reality television. Trouble is, I'm not sure Shahbaz's is the strongest case at all. There exists other reality television casualties, where the causal link of that person's distress/breakdown/depression/fill-in-other-debilitating-condition can be far strongly correlated to an appearance on the television show. There's a fair amount of legal print in any "Big Brother" contract that devolves all responsibility to the contestant.
The first point is cause-and-effect. Shahbaz had mental problems before the show and faked his psychological suitability. Oh, and I remember him in the school playground in both primary and secondary dressed... um... fairly unconventionally. And behaving fairly unconventionally. Plus, his twenty intervening years after leaving school and arriving in the "Big Brother" house don't really support him too well - most of Glasgow's West End (a fairly liberal, studenty section of the city I should add) had pegged him as mentally unstable - or 'a bit doolally' to use Glaswegian slang. He has some of my sympathy, don't get me wrong - check my last blog entry for that. But if we want "Big Brother" and other extreme examples of reality TV to be tried in a court of law, we really need an example of someone who was sane to begin with and then (within the bounds of probable causes) became a gibbering nervous breakdown after the gameshow experience.
The second point is the law itself. How much of the small print in contestant contracts hold up in a court of law? How much are contestants really properly prepared? How much counselling is received prior and after the experience? After digging around, I found a (non-Channel 4) internet discussion forum on "Big Brother" and, in particular, the psychological impact on contestants. There were several contributions to the discussion thread about the small-print in contestant contracts and how this fitted into a legal framework, as well as changes to the audition process in later (more extreme) series of "Big Brother".
It's all fascinating stuff and made all the more intriguing when two of the forum members contributing to the discussion were two former contestants, Cameron Stout
(fourth series winner) and Marco Sabba
(fifth series). There appeared to be some agreement on the change of audition process, specifically the amount of psychological screening and the emphasis on character flaws. From my own point of interest, there's been news items on show psychologists quitting during the seventh series, so the evidence certainly seems to point to 'encouraging abnormality'. As well as discussing the differences in audition process between the different series, Marco now has a Law degree and could substantially question some of the small-print in contracts - and, in particular, the company's small clause on negligence. If screening and the 'Talk of Doom' (an anti-pep talk monologue on the worse that could happen) have all been reduced, then the negligence bit of the contract could be raised within a legal setting.
The third point is one I've come up with. I've already mentioned the dangers of editing on reality TV shows. I'll now dig out the old sociological theory of 'labelling'.
It's a theory that was popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but even now it has been referenced when explaining repeat criminals' behaviour, as well as the sense of self that mentally ill people use for themselves. The important part of the theory is the self-fulfilling prophecy
; once society labels you as some easily categorizable stereotype, you're more likely to behave like that stereotype. In a modern mass-media saturated new century that didn't exist in the 1970s, I think that theory deserves to be resurrected again. If you've been forced into a TV producer's vision, edited within bite-sized morsels on TV and then spat out in front of a newspaper media only too eager to perpetuate the TV show character, that's it. That's you. Once you're out in the real world, you're now the stereotype that you were labelled with in the house. You're not even a soap opera character - only the stupidest couch potato would think the actor in "Eastenders" is the real person. But reality TV, that's gotta be real, right? Labelling might be seen as slightly out-of-date these days, but it's valid if there's an extreme - and you don't get more extreme than the 'labelling' one receives in the "Big Brother" edit facility.
Marco Sabba even references labelling theory in this article
, so I've probably been pre-empted on the "Big Brother" labelling idea being my own then. More to the point, we're in the danger zone of audiences objectifying other human beings again through use of this labelling and so we're back in the territory I mentioned in my last blog entry (namely Milgram). So, if Shahbaz does successfully take the producers of "Big Brother" to court, I suppose he could draw on everything I've just talked about in this article to muster a defence.
Hey, let's televise the whole court hearing!