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The Price of Freedom Part 1

People have accidents. People suffered terrible disappointments. Things will go wrong in every life. That does not mean that someone else is responsible.

It was recently reported that a woman auditioning for the television show the X Factor at the Excel centre in London reacted in the following fashion to being told that she was not selected for the next round of the talent contest. She threatened to commit suicide. The threat came shortly after, in front of an audience of some 2000, she received a "no" vote from all four judges. Apparently she was sobbing and screaming and received medical help. A health and social worker was quoted as questioning whether she should have been at the auditions in the first place, on the basis that she was apparently vulnerable.

This is utterly misconceived. Producers of television programmes are not running social work courses. If someone is sufficiently vulnerable, then presumably they will already have social work intervention. If they do not they should be allowed to lead their lives. It is one of the erroneous failings of modern life that everything is judged on a worst case scenario. One person threatens to kill themselves and in consequence there should be a witchhunt to ensure that potentially vulnerable people are never allowed to take part in talent contests. That would mean that many people, who might actually be able to conquer their nerves or private demons, would be utterly deprived of the opportunity to do so. Some of those people might get to later rounds or even win the contest. Even if they do not, if they perform sufficiently well they might prove something to themselves which is important to their lives. It is terribly unfair to all of those people to stop them just because the odd person might react in an extreme fashion. Similarly to suggest that the obligation is on the producers to exclude such people is inevitably going to mean that all sorts of people are prevented from having their chance just on the off chance that they might prove to be vulnerable. Ex post facto rationalisations from social workers are utterly irrelevant to decisions about how talent contests should be operated.

Tragedies can indeed occur. More recently Paula Goodspeed committed suicide. She was a woman who had appeared on American Idol, someone who apparently had an obsession with Judge Paula Abdul. In November 2008 Ms Goodspeed was found dead in her car outside Paula Abdul's Los Angeles home. Ms Goodspeed had apparently taken an overdose.

The question of people being distraught upon the show has also led to questions being asked and soul-searching on behalf of producers. In connection with various instances where children have cried, or where people on the show have become apparently distressed, producers of the X factor here (and in particular Simon Cowell) had publicly questioned whether they acted in the right way at the right time. Whilst it is an entirely understandable reaction on their behalf , in my view they should not be berating themselves at all.

To take a topical example, some years ago a litigant in person appeared in front of a judge. In the course of submissions, the litigant told the judge that if the judge did not find in his favour he would kill himself. The judge found against him. The litigant killed himself. Did the judge do the right thing? Absolutely. Was he seriously to decide cases based upon the nature and seriousness of the threats being made? What if both sides threatened to kill themselves? Would this become a regular feature of advocacy? "My client wishes me to convey to your lordship (or your ladyship) that if he or she is unsuccessful then suicide will follow from the dismissal of the claim.". The proposition only needs to be outlined for its absurdity to be manifest.

People deserve their chance in life and should not be excluded just because things may go against them and they may find that difficult to cope with. The stress of being unable to cope with failure, when in front of a large audience, is manifest and obvious. The stress of having to cope with never having been given the chance, when you might have been able to win or lose to but nonetheless acquit yourself well, is less visible but much more serious. The many should never suffer due to the inadequacies of the few. I feel very sorry for those people who put themselves forward and cannot cope, but even they have had their chance. To take a different approach will mean that lots of people who would cope will never have a chance. That is fundamentally wrong. It is symptomatic of a society where harm is caused because of an unwillingness to ever allow people to take risks. What is ironic is that harm is caused in those circumstances for the best of possible motives with the worst of all possible results.

Michael J. Booth QC