Examples include The Boy With a Tumour For a Face and The 46-Year Pregnancy. One disabled person described the phenomenon thus: "These programmes are fetishistic and parasitic, and made by ghouls who think they can parade disabled people for money like they used to in Bedlam." The shock doc craze now seems to be on the wane, partly, it's said, because the supply of people ready to have their disabilities aired to millions is running out.
The Voluntary Action Media Unit helped to organise a session at last year's Edinburgh International Television Festival about the ethics of shock docs. Our research showed the extent to which disabled people and those who work for disability charities were unhappy with the programmes. Even in the face of this evidence, the commissioners defended the programmes to the hilt. The whole experience showed how TV producers work in a bubble that is difficult to burst.
A new craze for reality shows featuring families and children seems to have replaced the trend for shock docs. Many charity leaders feel that children are being exploited in these programmes.
Mary MacLeod, chief executive of the Family and Parenting Institute, was particularly concerned about the BBC's The Baby Borrowers, which showed teenagers looking after babies they had borrowed from real parents.
She said: "The series was exploitative both of young, vulnerable teenagers and of the children they were asked to look after."
Despite such concerns, a new series of The Baby Borrowers has been commissioned. The BBC says all the participants are screened psychologically and the series is educational.
What these examples show is how little power charities have over TV commissioning. Once a programme has been commissioned, it is nigh on impossible to stop it unless it clearly contravenes editorial guidelines. But as we saw with the fake competition winners scandal, TV producers are sensitive to ethical criticism if it is loud enough.
Already, charities concerned about the use of children in reality shows are coordinating their efforts to criticise the worst culprits. But if they really want to have an impact, they need to wage a full-scale campaign to prove the harm done to children who take part in such programmes, and they need to meet the commissioners and controllers who have the real power.
- Penelope Gibbs is director of the Voluntary Action Media Unit and askCHARITY