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The ethics of celebrity car crash TV

October 27th, 2008

Dr Petra

A while back I was approached by the production company who were making the ‘Crazy in Love’ TV documentary with celebrity Kerry Katona.

They wanted me to come on the programme and show Ms Katona (and partner) some positions and tips to spice up their sex life. At the time Ms Katona was heavily pregnant and there had been some well-publicised media reports of problems with the pregnancy and within her relationship.

I got the impression that it was the series producers who were looking for some different ‘televisual’ things they could do each week in the series to liven things up. I did not get the impression Ms Katona had specifically asked for this, but was instead told it was something the producers thought might be ‘fun’ for her and her partner to do.

I explained to the production company that I couldn’t help because
a. it’s unethical for me to talk about celebrities
b. I wouldn’t feel comfortable offering tips on sexual positions to someone who was pregnant and where there could be complications
c. I didn’t get the impression it was something all parties were consenting to

These issues didn’t seem to be a problem, however, as I was assured I didn’t have to talk about the celebrity directly, that it was okay to offer sex positions and tips on sex toys, and that everyone would be fine to do whatever I recommended.

I pointed out that if a pregnancy is advanced and there are complications then advocating positions, sex toys or other activities may not be safe, and that if they intended on going down such a route then a second opinion from an obstetrician or midwife should be obtained first. I also explained that nobody reputable would just approach a couple and give them positions or sex toys to try, but would want to assess the quality of the couple’s relationship first – to see what they were happy with and advise on where communication might be improved alongside sexual techniques. In such a case if it turned out there were any problems in the relationship those would need dealing with separately. I had no idea whether this might arise, but obviously it was a further issue that would require addressing if there were any relationship difficulties – perhaps through the help of a counsellor. The researcher I spoke to said ‘oh we hadn’t thought of that’ when I raised these problems.

But it was clear they were going to make the programme anyway, whether I was involved or not, and regardless of setting out these concerns. They asked me if I knew anyone else who could help. I recommended a TV doc who I trust and thought could give a more medical opinion on why this idea wasn’t all that good. I hoped that if they wouldn’t listen to me, they might listen to two of us saying the same thing. It turned out they did approach the other doctor, who also refused to participate – for the same reasons I did.

I never found out if they ran that segment of the series.

MTV (who hosted the Crazy In Love) series, are now back with Ms Katona and their new series ‘Whole Again’ which follows Ms Katona’s journey through plastic surgery as well as behind the scenes footage of her life, family and relationship.

To publicise the programme Ms Katona appeared on the This Morning show last week. During the interview with presenters Fern Britten and Philip Schofield Ms Katona seemed to slur her words and the presenters pushed her on why this might be…

Following this interview Ms Katona claimed to have been ‘ambushed’, presenters Schofield and Britten argued they had no choice but to question what was going on. And MTV filmed the whole thing – on set, and off. Philip Schofield responded to criticisms they were unfair on Ms Katona in a later radio interview .

Currently there seems to be a spate of celebrity fly-on-the-wall documentaries where famous couples and singles are filmed at home, work and play. No doubt much of this is stage managed, but a lot of it seems to focus around celebs either having plastic surgery or taking part in fairly contrived situations that you wonder how much control they have over.

When I was approached by the TV company making ‘Crazy In Love’ I’m afraid I didn’t get the impression they wanted me on as a qualified, ethical or caring advisor. When I pointed out practical and ethical problems they didn’t respond as though these were things they’d take on board and fix. I was simply asked to recommend someone who could do what I wouldn’t. I also didn’t get the impression Ms Katona would have much say in the matter. Which I said to the TV company and added I had every sympathy for Ms Katona and felt she was being exploited by the media.

I still do feel that. This recent case is a shameful example of how television works. If any person is in a state of distress, confusion or intoxication then there are many people who should be able to prevent them being on live TV. Whoever accompanies the person to the TV studio (in this case it seems there was Ms Katona’s partner and the MTV crew doing that). If not those individuals then the producers of This Morning should have spotted something. And failing that then when Britten and Schofield noticed a problem they should have cut to an add break. It’s possible.

But hey, why would anyone do that? MTV get great footage and bundles of publicity for their forthcoming series. This Morning and its presenters get coverage too. Keep the cameras rolling and everyone benefits. Everyone except the celebrity in question.

Debates in the media have ranged over whether it was ethical for the interview to continue and the role of MTV in filming the interview and aftermath. Critics have claimed that any celeb who is fame hungry deserves all they get.

Where have all our journalism ethics gone? It doesn’t matter whether someone is famous or not. If they seem unable to consent to what is going on, or are becoming distressed by a situation then it is time to pull the plug. Although of course fame is the issue here because the media probably wouldn’t much care if Joe Bloggs was on TV seeming to slur their words. It’s news (and cash) only when a celeb does it.

There are conversations to be had between journalists, psychologists and others working within media about what celebrities are being picked for theses programmes, how they are being treated, and what impact participation is having on their mental and physical health. In particular questions need to be asked about why some celebrities who appear to be more vulnerable than others, seem to be consistently selected for such programming.

It’s unlikely we’ll see these happening any time soon though, as celeb-reality shows are very lucrative for TV channels but fairly cheap to create. And there’s no shortage of celebrities who would like to keep in the public eye by doing them.

We can only guess at the long term harm participation in such programmes have on celebrities, their children and immediate families (not to mention their career). All we do know is once you’re no longer useful for TV then you’re on the scrapheap.

So sad, particularly if you’ve been abused by TV companies and the wider media along the way.

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