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The Blair Show

Late '90s and early 2000s reality TV in the UK was shaped by its interaction with a Blairite political project which demonised the working-class and cast social problems as individual failings.

The Jeremy Kyle Show has found itself under new scrutiny following the release of two-part Channel 4 documentary 'The Jeremy Kyle Show: Death On Daytime'. (ITV)

At the last Queen’s Speech before the 2001 general election, then Prime Minister Tony Blair scolded William Hague by telling him “you are the weakest link, goodbye” – a reference, according to Frank Millar, to Hague’s tendency to summarise his policies in six words

This scripted dig at the ill-fated opposition leader also provided a parliamentary stamp of approval for Anne Robinson’s The Weakest Link, which had popularised the phrase as a final put-down to contestants who were eliminated from the show. The Weakest Link had premiered on 14 August 2000 on BBC Two, with host Anne Robinson, already a household BBC name, gaining a reputation for her sardonic taunting of contestants, scratching the hopeful gazes out of their eyes by exhibiting troubled personal lives and flaws of character.

The Weakest Link holds a warm place within public nostalgia for 2000s television, but last year old footage of the show resurfaced on social media which threw that into question. In one of her ‘spiky’ exchanges, Robinson notes that her contestant is a single mother to three boys, before subsequently asking “how many ASBOs?”, “how many of your three boys have got tags on their ankles?”, “are you on benefits?”, and “you didn’t go gay did you?” after forcing the contestant to reveal details of her broken down marriages. It beggars belief how conduct like this was treated as a palatable feature of daytime television less than two decades ago. 

This intrusive reproach and degradation of a woman demonstratively of a lower social class was not apropos of nothing, neither was Anne Robinson’s archetypal scolding a particularly exceptional feature of 2000s television. Rather, late ‘90s and 2000s television marks a period where television and popular culture was most intimately shaped and influenced by the political landscape – in this case, the benefits bashing of the New Labour years under Tony Blair. 

Gameshows, reality television, and comedies were the central genres of mainstream public broadcast which offered up those seeking fame, financial prosperity, or interventions in their personal lives for ritual humiliation to gratify middle-class attitudes towards lower social classes. Blairism’s regular attacks on ‘scroungers’, ‘chavs’, single mothers, asylum seekers, and hooded youths provided a sheen of respectability to TV executives who made a career out of mocking Britain’s most marginalised, allowing it to become a pursuit of popular culture. It is not that the preceding Thatcher and Major administrations hated these groups any less, but the Conservatives did not possess the cultural cache to make hating them quite so widely accepted – this was the prerogative of the liberals.

It is not spurious or grasping to assert that the culture of exploitative 2000s television was distinctly Blairite. It is no coincidence that British shows like X Factor, Big Brother, Supernanny, Wife Swap, The Jeremy Kyle Show, Fat Families, and There’s Something About Miriam – all subject to controversy and retrospective denouncement for degrading ethnic minorities, working class people, fat people, queer and trans people, migrants, and other groups – emerged from that political era.

In fact, in 2008 the United Nations ordered New Labour to implement regulations to end the exploitation of children in reality television shows – a projected measure which, though not explicitly named, would cover the Channel 4 shows Supernanny and Wifeswap. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child made clear that these broadcasts were inextricably linked to New Labour’s Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) on children and teenagers, which enabled a “general climate of intolerance” towards British youth. 

The introduction of ASBOs by Tony Blair in 1998 followed his crass exploitation of the killing of James Bulger in 1993 after which, Peter Squires argues in ASBO Nation, he “challenged the ‘moral vacuum’ in society” with a “new call for respect”, at a time where “traditional moral and political ideas had lost their meaning.” The introduction of policies such as ASBOs enshrined an institutional response to what Blair considered the decline of ‘small c’ conservative traditional moral values.

Public moral panic over ‘ASBO’ children was indulged by Home Secretary Charles Clarke who, in 2005, announced that guidelines to police and local authorities would be issued to “name and shame” adults and children as young as 10 by publicising their names and photographs in leaflets, newspapers, television, and radio. Supernanny further enabled the public spectacle of ASBOs, which criminalised nuisance and implied that delinquent children presented an existential threat to national moral virtue. 

Premiering in 2004, a year which saw the Home Office provide 1,826 ASBOs in the first 9 months alone, Supernanny imported professional nanny Jo Frost as an archetypal scolding British figure, much like Anne Robinson, whose purpose was to discipline unruly children. The reality show helped to calcify public attitudes towards ‘unruly children’ and their ‘irresponsible parents’ with local papers reporting the introduction of ‘Supernanny plans’ to expand the ASBO regime to compulsory parenting orders. This era wasn’t just a cultural residue of Blairism, there was an active relationship between reality entertainment and popular political consciousness – with television shaping policy and policy shaping television.

Television promoting individualised interventions to fix the social deprivation which correlated with ‘bad behaviour’ could also be found in a number of shows arising under New Labour which focused on fat people and their diets. Dieting programme You Are What You Eat debuted on Channel 4 in 2004, Supersize vs Superskinny in 2008, and Fat Families aired on Sky 1 in 2010. In 2009, the Channel 4 show Girls And Boys Alone received upward of 180 complaints to OFCOM for “child abuse and cruelty,” being labelled a “ridiculous freak show” as it followed the lives of children with weight issues. 

In 2006, Blair opined that public health issues, such as obesity, routinely described as a “pandemic” amongst children, could be resolved by individual lifestyle changes, claiming that it was the job of ministers to “empower the individual, rather than command.” This neoliberal governance and responsibilisation of ill-health was true to New Labour’s maintenance of the Thatcherite consensus of good health being a matter of individual will. 

The philosopher Lauren Berlant in Slow Death describes this phenomenon as the “moral science of biopolitics, which links the political administration of life to a melodrama of the care of the monadic self.” The melodrama of self-governed care found validation in such television programmes which dramatised individual diets as extreme and shocking. Supersize vs Superskinny saw weekly meals and snacks piled on to a scale to emphasise the calories, sugar and saturated fat content of fat people’s ‘extreme diets’ –  confirming public health as a matter of individual management, rather than state strategy, to the average British audience.

Blairism’s cultural impact was significant, coming in many ways to represent the political wing of ‘Britpop’ and ‘Cool Brittania.’ But as Blair’s guitar-playing youthful appeal declined so did Britpop, as the optimism of the 1990s gave way to the War on Terror 2000s. Sure enough, shortly after the Iraq War came the X Factor. Once again, the show was built around the derogatory behaviour of Simon Cowell – who would mock the personal failings of contestants who dared to dream they, too, might have a shot at the celebrity millions Blairism persuaded so many were within their reach. This was well integrated in the grey, market-oriented landscape of 00s Britain – where talent shows like the X Factor enforced the most cramped, conformist, individualised, and competitive neoliberal views of what constituted music-making and musical talent. 

But perhaps no show inculcated the social attitudes which defined Blairism more than Channel 4’s Big Brother, which brought reality television to a new level of popularity in 2003. Descended from a Dutch original, the British version of Big Brother was produced by Endemol UK Ltd, then headed by Sir Peter Bazalgette. Even the Daily Mail, when criticising Bazalgette’s inclusion in a New Year honour list, described Bazalgette and Big Brother as having “institutionalised the disgusting culture of voyeurism, humiliation and cruelty which has so degraded television and the society it serves.” 

It is beyond dispute by this stage that Big Brother encouraged vicious vilification of the working-class. A key example was breakout star and working-class Bermondsey resident Jade Goody from the third series of the show who, aged just 20 when cast in 2002, was treated with cruel contempt by the tabloid press. This took place during a particularly shameful chapter under New Labour, where the fear of “chavs” was epidemic and their access to wealth was treated as offensive. Social mobility was a core feature of the Blairite philosophy, but only if achieved through the legitimate means of “education, education, education” – with the unsurprising consequence, as a Resolution Foundation study found, that that “those at the bottom were less far likely to move up a substantial distance than those in the middle.”

Channel 4 had radical roots – and its path from there to hosting such reactionary drivel were a long-term consequence of Thatcher’s deregulation of broadcasting. As Julian Coman writes in The Guardian, “probably not anticipating that [Channel 4] would popularise fiercely anti-establishment output” after helping to create it in 1982, Thatcher introduced the Broadcasting Act 1990 to liberalise and deregulate the broadcasting industry, and abolish the Independent Broadcasting Authority which had regulated ITV and Channel 4. 

Though it narrowly escaped privatisation, this competition-driven deregulation of Channel 4 was consolidated by New Labour and, as a result, shows like Big Brother benefited from more “light touch” regulation. Channel 4, once home to the cultural outputs of marginalised and radical voices, over time became a network responsible for savaging the lower classes – contempt for which was bred by New Labour’s particularly punitive and humiliating social policies on welfare, housing, and bizarre justice policy which at one point sought to assess every child in the country to determine their risk of offending.

The cultural imprint of Blairism means that the broadcasting output of the 2000s, perhaps unlike any other era in modern British history, can be defined by an open, pro-establishment hostility to marginalised people, in which entertainment and politics were engaged in reciprocal dialogue. The 2000s is often regarded as a relatively culture-less decade, driving interest in the internet and on-demand television thereafter, but the essence of its cultural identity is surely the shameful toxicity of reality television – and how this was enabled by the state and political class.