If we are honest, Channel Four’s Big Brother is nothing more than an abusive residential institution. How could it claim otherwise? Stationing cameras in lavatories, plying people with alcohol, engineering roles and relationships which create conflict, violence, humiliation and sex. If it wasn’t TV, it would be called grooming.
Only two things really distinguish Big Brother from those other institutions with which we are more familiar, for children and young people, people with learning difficulties, older people and others, which also sometimes make the news for the wrong reasons. They try to hide abuse when it takes place. It’s upfront in Big Brother. Second, for their residents such institutions are often a place of last resort. BB’s housemates are desperate to get in!
At least one former housemate has blamed Big Brother in print for a suicide attempt and a period in psychiatric hospital. Others have talked about its adverse effect on their lives. But, of course, the programme can argue that no one forced them to take part.
Big Brother’s critics often highlight its cultural significance; presenting it as some kind of statement of our age and usually focusing on the perceived deficiencies and decadence of its housemates. A cultural statement, perhaps, but for me one that has much more to say about the ruthless and anti-personal nature of the media market that generates it than its temporary tenants.
I find Big Brother too dreary and predictable. The winner this year, as every year so far, will be the programme makers, sponsors and phone line companies. What would make truly fascinating TV for me would be to follow the lives of the team that makes the programme and reaps the profit: the chair and chief executive of Endemol, the production company, the producer, programme director and the rest. What kind of houses do they live in? What are their lifestyles? What about their sexuality and how many “boob jobs” have they had? I’d like to see their conferences, brainstorms and banter as they work out how best to manipulate housemates, audience and tabloids.
Of course it isn’t going to happen. This is where the programme really is like George Orwell’s Big Brother. It holds a camera up to the lives and weaknesses of the little people and hides the enormous cynicism of those controlling them. It’s the same old story of the powerful being able to behave as they like and the rest of us being held up for condemnation and ridicule.
There are basic questions that need to be asked about Big Brother. What professional and ethical codes are the psychologists involved in the programme signed up to? What “duty of care” do the programme makers accept for residents or is this waived through contracts that housemates have to sign? If so, what kind of legal agreements are these? Given the programme’s emphasis on sex, what rights does anyone have if they become pregnant or acquire a sexually transmitted disease in the house? Are residents required to take HIV/Aids tests?
Programmes like Big Brother are ruled by a law of diminishing returns. Like the games of ancient Rome, there is pressure to become more extreme and cruel if they are to remain popular. How far Big Brother has come since its early days when the mild duplicity of “Nasty Nick” was held up as an example of serious antisocial behaviour. I wish the programme would just follow its own logic, go the whole hog and get it over with. Everyone gets off with everyone else, the audience is given a ringside seat with cameras running and after a while only the dirty mac brigade is left watching and Big Brother dies a natural death.
Having said that, for all the programme makers’ cynicism, I’ve noticed that in people’s intense discussions about the programme and the final vote, so often what is valued in housemates are traditional values of kindness, tolerance and self-awareness. There’s still hope for us all!
Peter Beresford is professor of social policy at Brunel University and is involved with the psychiatric system survivor movement