Last year, when a guest on The Jeremy Kyle Show killed themselves in the week following the show’s filming, ITV acted swiftly. Kyle’s show spent its entire 14-year existence weathering controversy – a judge once described it as “human bear-baiting” – but when a person directly connected to the show had taken their own life, a quick decision was made. The show was taken off air, never to return.
Love Island is not Jeremy Kyle. It may be manipulative, it may even cross a line at times, but it does not seize on and then amplify serious, complex and often tragic issues in people’s lives in the same brazen way. Yet it has been associated with the suicides of two former contestants – Sophie Gradon and Mike Thalassitis – and now its longstanding host, Caroline Flack. Gradon’s partner, Aaron Armstrong, also killed himself shortly after her funeral. Rather than cancel the show following Flack’s death, ITV2 plans to continue airing the current series tonight after only two nights off. Is that really something it should even consider?
To lay all this solely at the show’s door would be wrong. Each person had their own specific issues they were working through. All were vulnerable, although how much the show sought out such people, whether consciously or not, is worth considering. Fragility on screen is what brings viewers, after all.
Following Thalassitis’s death, ITV announced plans to improve its aftercare for contestants: psychological assessments; social media training; post-series therapy sessions; better management of cast expectations. Dealing with the sudden fame – and the equally sudden disappearance of it – is something many former reality stars say they found hard to cope with – even on more “gentle” shows such as The Great British Bake Off. Last year, Rylan Clark-Neal told me how the intense glare of attention that came from winning Celebrity Big Brother vanished in a flash: “I went back home and it was the first time I’d been in a room on my own for eight months, without anyone watching me. I remember waking up at 4am and thinking: ‘It’s over.’ If the phone hadn’t rung with the Big Brother job a few weeks later, I don’t know what I’d have done.”
All of Love Island’s attempts to help contestants deal with these huge adjustments to their lives have been welcome. And, of course, Flack’s case is unique – she was facing a domestic assault charge unrelated to the show. Whether or not ITV dropped her for its winter edition, or she felt unable to continue as host, is not entirely clear.
But making a judgment about whether to continue with a show isn’t simply about attributing blame. The question also has to be: how does it feel to continue? Does current host Laura Whitmore – Flack’s friend, who has savaged the media for its role – simply stroll back into the villa and, after delivering what has been billed by ITV2 as “a tribute to Caroline, who will be forever in our hearts”, carry on as usual? Are the contestants to be informed of the tragedy, or are they expected to cavort around the beach in a weird bubble of ignorance, as if the whole thing never happened. (And if they are informed, how on earth could that be justified as acceptable TV?) What happens if someone else, further down the line, dies after appearing on the show? Nobody could say they weren’t warned.
Of course, the tabloid press, who splashed pictures of Flack’s blood-stained bedsheets and ran stories so glaringly insensitive about her they’ve since taken them down – the closest thing that might pass for shame in their quarters, even if it is in blatant self-interest – would gladly like to deflect blame from themselves. The CPS is in their firing line for not dropping the case due to Flack’s vulnerability (and would no doubt have been in their firing line for dropping a celebrity case for the same reason). Some tabloid journalists have attacked ITV for appearing to drop her, with no comment on their paper’s own history of publishing damaging articles about their so-called “friend”.
But taking the show off-air is not to pin the blame on ITV, and certainly not to let the tabloids off the hook. It’s simply a sign that a pause and some reflection are needed. Because at the moment the juggernaut that may have contributed to this tragedy rolls on: the show is back on air; the tabloids are still targeting vulnerable women with no regard for their mental wellbeing; one publishing company has even announced that a new book – Caroline … The Short, Sweet and Tragic Life of Caroline Flack – will be released in April. (The publisher says a portion of profits will be donated to charities addressing cyber-bullying.)
Everybody, from the tabloids to the TV stations to the online trolls, and even to ourselves as viewers, have to look at this tragic situation and consider what part they played in it. How can anyone be expected to do this when the show is still on the road?
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.