Marrying Harry and the ethics of idiot box deceit

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
ABC The Drum /
May 23, 2014 /

Click here to view original /

One of the few university committees I enjoy being on is the human ethics one.

A handful of us each bring our various areas of expertise and hang-ups to debate the probity of staff and student research projects involving flesh-and-blood participants.

A topic often debated is deceit. About the ethics of lying, of trickery, of outright deceiving research participants.

Is it fair, say, to go undercover in a chat room and pretend to be a fan/a fellow misogynist/a freak to collect data? That sort of thing.

One of our guiding principles in reviewing such proposals is risk vs reward: are the scholarly benefits of conducting such work worth the possible harms and hurt that participants might feel? Will researcher treachery cause lasting pain or merely a minor irritation?

The answer varies from project to project, and thus each application is painstakingly reviewed and vigorously argued about.

Likening the newest reality TV schlock to a research project seems to be elevating guff to the status of social inquiry. There are, however, some curious parallels.

The reality show, pilfering much from the deranged-women-pitted-against-each-other-for-the-affections-of-a-cretin canon, this time pitches a Prince Harry look-a-like as the “prize”.

I Wanna Marry Harry. A reality show coming to an expensive-at-half-the-price pay TV channel near you soon.

So is it ethical to deceive these deluded desperadoes? Is it ethical to deceive purely for the purposes of entertainment and filthy adverting lucre?

I’m forced to cast my mind back to the transsexual surprise hook at the helm of the gouge-my-eyes-out-with-a-fork show There’s Something About Miriam (2003). Horny men trying to win over the affections of a glamazon who turned out to be a former he.

Was it wrong to mess with those men’s sense of masculinity and heterosexuality? Yentl raised the same questions, of course, and I’d pick Babs and Mandy Patinkin anytime, but I digress.

When we review trickery-type ethics applications, something committee members eagerly probe is the background of the intended participants: do these folks have the resources (intellectual/social/psychological/financial) to cope when their sense of reality is turned upside down?

And here is where things get tricky.

Reality TV show folks are populated by a self-selecting sample. Sure, there are personality variances, and the quantity of tears they can cry and vicious manipulation they can accomplish varies, but they’re on the show for a set of variously vacuous reasons with fame at the heart.

If they get through the show’s standard psych-screening, then they’re deemed stable enough – and, in the likely view of our ethics committee, not prohibitively vulnerable – to cope with what malarkey that the production team throws at them.

So do I need to feel protective of women naive enough to think that the Royals are now outsourcing matchmaking to a cable TV company? Do I need to feel outraged that these women consented to sycophantically fawning over an heir to the throne and not just some random redhead?


The reality television genre is one built on theatrics, on highs and lows, on grotesque displays of humiliation.

No, the ladies may not have consented to publicly drooling over a mere look-a-like, but they nevertheless consented to involvement in a genre that has long paid the bills with exaggerated emotions and the embarrassment of its participants.

The ladies may not have done their Royal family research and may have spectacularly failed to glance over any recent photos of Harry, but they were familiar enough – savvy enough – with the genre to sign up. And certainly familiar enough to know that finding out that your prince is merely a pauper from Exeter is probably one of the better plot twists of the genre.

© Lauren Rosewarne