I was shocked to read about the death of Hana Kimura. She now joins an increasingly long list of reality tv talent driven to depression and suicide.
It is awful that this has happened.It is personal. It is tragic. It has happened- again.
There are many reasons why this seems to happen -so often. On the one hand, there is the trolling and online abuse which is ear-marked by very fine campaigners like Bobby Norris, but on the other, there is an institutional abuse that seems to have ringfenced the reality tv world since the early days of America’s “Survivor”. However mild its form, it never seems to go away.
For the record, I think I was fortunate to have been selected to participate in the British show The Circle. I never applied to be on the show- I was headhunted by a producer and I had not watched that show nor much reality tv at all before I agreed to enter the apartment as a contestant. Put bluntly, I could as easily have been head-hunted by a programme like Traffic House. I could as easily -now- have been a victim of social media trolling as Hana was. My heart, therefore, goes out to Hana and to her family.
It is time to wake up to a double reality-
Firstly, that if this is the sort of tv we want to see, and I would suggest it is a very interesting and creative approach to tv, then we, the viewers, need to show responsibility to those people who are providing our entertainment. We can never send hurtful messages. A hurtful text is never just a joke- it is always hurtful. We must think before we send. The adage about “sticks and stones” which I remember repeatedly as a child is complete rubbish. Words always hurt. We need to be kinder.
Secondly, we need to ensure that those who produce reality tv operate under a more transparent code of practice. This means proper and effective aftercare, but it also means a level of honesty throughout the production that might compromise the way these programmes are currently made- maybe that needs to be an adjustment we should be ready to make.
I am doing a weekly podcast for an American group devoted to the “Survivor” franchise. As far as I know, I am not to be paid but as the programme is now in it 20th year and 40th season, there are literally years’ of episodes to go before I even get half-way through the broadcasts. That may demonstrate naivite on my part but it also, I hope, gives me licence to speak out fairly boldly.
What is odd is that, unlike “the Batchelor” and “the Batchelorette” which were infamous for suicide, the “Survivor” series seems to have got by on what is frankly a diet of appalling abuse without much of an adverse affect on its contestants. Certainly, their early contracts were absurd in their attempt to silence and suppress the talent after the show, certainly the level of nasty tasks makes almost any other reality tv show seem tame, and, at the moment in season 1, though I am told not so in future seasons, the commentary is fairly modest in its irony and in the way it presents a storyline. Later series, I am told, will see a more nuanced recap at the beinning of episodes and a narrative bias from Jeff Probst -allegedly- that would make Emily Maitless’ line of reporting seem very lame indeed.
If you go to the podcast here-
you will hear a debate with the wonderful Mario Lanzo (not the singer but the writer, Survivor historian and psychiatrist) about an alleged manipulation of a vote- it is only an allegation though it is backed up with books and I understand with a court case, so the allegation might be well-founded. We are very trusting in the way we accept what we see on tv. It is not reality at all.
For my part, as I say, I was very lucky indeed. The story that I was shown to be part of was actually, for the most part, the story that happened. Of course, there were scenes that never made the edit and I am sorry that the audience never got to see my conversations about tractors, ordure and farming with Sy: I think this omission explains why he visited me after he was blocked. No other narrative works in fact. I was also looked after terrifically well on the circle. Reality TV is a spectrum and I was fortunate enough to have found myself at the positive end of that spectrum.
I think Hana Kimura has been very unlucky but the industry itself, the whole spectrum, must take stock. Every time there is a death in the industry, people like me call for change. But change is dismissed and a few more sticking plasters are clumsily applied to the way this very profitable industry progresses. It cannot be just that people “have difficulty adjusting to fame”, or responding to “trolling”. By 2016, there were 21 deaths recorded in the States among reality tv contestants. That count is significantly higher if it is computed globally. It shows a serious problem in the making, or actually in reality and it does not take account of the innumerable counselling sessions that have dealt with depression brought on directly as a result of participation in one of these shows- counselling in other words that has stopped that appalling suicide rate being even higher than it already is.
It is not, to me, at all surprising that there should be problems: this is an industry that needs guidance- that has two or three different and contradictory images as Hollywood had in its own hay-day(sic). So, I have to ask, with all honesty, how can we have a business model marketed as entertainment that is predicated on such a high level of misery? In some shows, contestants have been wilfully humiliated, or manipulated to be party to the humiliation of others, they have been victimised by sleep deprivation, plied with alcohol and they find they have been selectively edited or they bitterly regret what they said in moments of weakness. They have been promised all maner of future success. Moreover, whatever screening process may have been conducted, everyone knows that emotional instability makes for good tv.
It is not enough to shrug and say “this was a Faustian pact.”
As I said, I was lucky.
Sadly, Hana Kimura was not.
Cummings got it wrong in the Rose garden.
He got it badly wrong and Boris will be damaged the more he tries to hold on to the man.
There may still be time to claw this one back but the route is very simple. The explanation as he gave it is arrogant and self-serving. What he should have said is this, “I am sorry. I have let down Boris and I have let down the country. I know I fouled up but there are important jobs to be done and I would like to get on with them if the PM will let me.” If he needed to justify himself further, he could have added his chronology with the following rider, “For the record, I felt, at the time, that what I did was within the letter of the law that I helped to draft. But I must be held to a higher standard and I failed.”
In this context, he would have been allowed, even encouraged to stay, to make amends.
The only reason to appear on TV was to make him likeable. So he failed.
More than that, he exposed much of the Government machinery to failure in their attempt to support him.
There were a number of attempts to bury the story, some more outrageous than others. All failed, but his cack-handed appearance in the rose garden was intolerable. It also flies in the face of the special advisor code which argues against people like Cummings making public statements in this way.
The only reason ever for a politician to appear on tv is to put a face to a story, to humanise an issue. TV supports emotion or action. Therefore, any “explanation”, in that context, comes across as deceptive and weaselly, no matter how true and valuable it may actually be. Nobody wants to listen for an hour to an explanation, and particularly not to a man of privilege offering an “explanation”. TV is not a courtroom. That is precisely what we were given. The only emotion we saw came from the reporters. the only action was to drink water. Tiresome.
It gets worse. The more useless Cummings becomes because of his lockdown run, the more Boris has to assume the mantle of earnestness. He is better being shambolic, and charming but he cannot play the shambles when all around him is crumbling. What an unqualified mess this special advisor has created.
We have now had Cummings’ defence, which was rambling and really very depressing to watch. If Cummings is such a master of presentation, he should take lessons, maybe from Alastair Campbell.
One thing that came up, though, was that he categorically denied that he or his wife had symptoms of COVID before they went up to Durham. This is a game-changer. the fact that he also said that they did not stop on the way is reassuring but less significant.
He also said that his son was tested for COVID and was negative. Neither he nor his wife were tested.
One issue that did not come up was something that had been circulating for a while, specifically that Cummings’ son had been diagnosed with autism. I understand that this rumour has no foundation in fact, but really I wonder if it would have changed much if it had? There are innumerable people who have made huge sacrifices during the lockdown and being in lockdown has been very difficult for many.
The reporters who asked questions simply looked angry. Cummings is not a man who commands affection yet the moment with the boom mike as he negotiated his way to the car this morning was poignant. Somehow, I think he does not do sentiment.
One of the reporters at Number 10, Beth, talked specifically about children with cancer who had been unable to visit hospitals and get vital treatment during the lockdown.
Others pointed out that people were unable to meet their families and that loved ones had died in isolation. This, I think, again slightly misses the point but it does so in a very interesting way. It confirms that if one person suffers, then we all suffer. That is quite true, we have a shared national and international crisis, but there is something else too: that we must all suffer in the same way, that we must all queue for the same treatment and so on. The UK is rare in that even private medical insurance is generally linked to some aspects of the NHS. It is a single machine that drives our national healthcare and on which we all depend.
We all suffer, however, in different ways and our pain threshold is unique.
We can make a very strong case for exceptions to any national lockdown, but it does not change the fact that any exception mocks the enormous sacrifices everyone else has made, and compromises the effectiveness of the lockdown effort.
I think there have been a number of high-profile lockdown breakers- In this country, Stephen Kinnock, Neil Ferguson, Kyle Walker, Catherine Calderwood, Robert Jenrick, Piers Corbyn, possibly Nigel Farage and now Dominic Cummings so it is spread across the political spectrum. Of these, I think Corbyn must me among the most shameful for his scuffle with police officers and his complete disregard of social distancing. We look to our leaders to give an example and these people have manifestly given a poor example whatever their excuses may have been. I suppose in the end we must think of Caesar’s wife- those in, or connected to the public eye are held to a higher standard of behaviour.
The problem is that in Politics, there will always be someone ready to blow a rasperry. That is partly what is happening to Cummings, and it is amazing that he has lasted so long. He is evasive, superior and rude. He is also, I understand, brilliant. None of those qualities would endear him to the Westminster crowd or to the media. Even the Conservative press has its knives out for Cummings – “No 10 svengali who flouted the PM’s own strict lockdown rules” is how the Daily Mail reports his actions.
There is another quality Cummings has- he is indispensable. He masterminded the Leave vote, he has a plan for the exit and a plan to whip the civil service into line. None of this can be done without him.
Boris has gone out of his way to support him.
That tactic worked in the past. It is astonishing, really, that Priti Patel survived at all a few months’ ago but Boris supported her in the face of the odds, and she is still pottering about, misreading the auto-cue and muddling up basic maths. Of course, her comic highlight almost redeems her and at any other time than in a national crisis would make her a figure of fun- that during lockdown, with the closure of stops, “shoplifting has gone down”. But otherwise, her performance at briefings has been likened to “a motorway pileup”. I suppose though that being thought a fool is better than being thought a bully.
Priti Patel is useful for the moment: her gaffes take the attention away from the real media headline- the huge number of deaths from COVID 19 in the UK.
The more we complain about her, the less we focus on the real issues. She is a distraction even if she might perhaps be a dunce, or she might be a bully.
There seems to be one thing worse than bullying though and that is deceit. While Boris was busy defending Cummings, the anonymous civil service tweeter wrote, “imagine having to work with these truth twisters”, then that message got speedily deleted. But it did its job.
In this case, it is deceit that is directly linked to COVID 19 and the lockdown. It is relevant deceit.
Cummings is not a maths’ dunce, or a clown.
Because he is so important to the Government project, his activities are not going to be bruished aside lightly. It was foolish, therefore, with hindsight, to ask Grant Sapps to fumble about the details. This is what Grants said to a question put by Sally Ridge and that he had been given in advance,
“I don’t want to disappoint you, I am transport secretary and I am expert in building our infrastructure, but I don’t know all the times and dates for you. I understand that he will have travelled there around the end of March, stayed there for 14 days and didn’t leave the property in isolation as per the rules in the guidance.”
The Government has moral and legal authority. It is entirely undermined by Cummings and, more than that, he has directly put our safety is at risk. Three issues scream for attention: (1) His disdain for the law is one thing and (2) his example that others may follow is another, but (3) he knowingly went out on a lengthy journey with the virus. On that trip, a minimum of 4 hours’ driving, 360 miles from London to Durham, did he never once pause for petrol, for a snack, or for a loo break?
The problem is that neither Cummings nor Boris understand the issue. It is very simple to demonstrate this with the headline over the weekend which claimed Boris thought his advisor had the right “intention”, that it was not as if “he was off to see a lover”. This would put him, of course in the same bracket as Professor Neil Ferguson. Ferguson resigned (such a dramatic fall indeed that the police decided he did not need fining).
But the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and in this case, the policy is not Kantian but utilitarian in its essence. We do not even need to weigh up different “imperatives”. It is monumentally simple: one person who is infected and breaks the quarantine puts everyone else at risk. It is not about intent but action. Boris has misunderstood the philosophical base for the coronavirus lockdown. He has also misread the mood of the people.
As does Cummings. When asked by the press camped outside his house if he was “considering his position”, he said, “obviously not.”
Why “obviously”? I am always entertained by anyone who uses this word. I think Cummings has never attended my lectures- if he had, he would know that I believe this is an adverb that should never be used. If something is obvious, it does not need to be stated, and if something is not obvious, the word is misused. It is very simple. It is a word that can only ever be used to establish superiority. It is an arrogant word. It is a put-down. In the interests of developing a kinder English, this is one word that I think should be erased for ever from vocabulary (obviously).
He went on, “you are as right about that as you were about Brexit. Do you remember how right you were about that?.”
Grant Sapps defended Cummings’ trip with an appeal to his 4 year old baby. This is what Sapps said,
“This is somebody who followed the guidelines by going to lockdown in order to be in the best place to ensure that provision was made for a four-year-old, who would have not been able to look after himself, and as the guidance makes clear, you must do in this situation the thing which would look after children for their welfare in the best possible way.”.
As if to reinforce this image, today, Cummings took the self-same baby out to meet the press. It was not even a “no comment” moment. Cummings had lots to say before making a point about a boom microphone (which was actually quite touching- the man has more heart than I had expected).
Piers Morgan, the moral heart of tv-land, has therefore banned all Cabinet ministers from his show, unless they “didn’t publicly support Cummings breaching a lockdown that the Govt forced on the rest of us ‘to save lives’”.
The problem is that this appears to be cut and dried. It appears to be very simple.
Like Priti Patel, Cummings projects a far from favourable image. The rumour-mill is rife. Their big critics are the civil service who are targeted in new reforms. Whoever wrote about “twisted truth” may well be out of a job in a few weeks’ time if Cummings has his way. And it is no secret that Priti Patel had been squabbling with her own civil servants. So, the civil servant who leaked has respect from peers- “this brave heretic has already become something of a civil service legend”.
So far, we have judged Cummings without hearing his side of the story.
So far, he has yet to speak.