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Controversy and criticism of The X Factor (UK)

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Title: Controversy and criticism of The X Factor (UK)  
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Subject: The X Factor (UK TV series), Sarah-Jane Crawford, Melvin Odoom, X Factor Around the World, Cannonball (Damien Rice song)
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Controversy and criticism of The X Factor (UK)

The X Factor in the UK has been subject to much controversy and criticism since its launch. As of September 2014, there have been a total of ten completed series of the show broadcast on the ITV network, with an eleventh currently airing.

Judges and presenters

Louis Walsh was accused of helping contestants he had personal connections with in both the first and second series.
Sharon Osbourne was accused of voting against Simon Cowell's contestants in a pact with Walsh.

It was reported in tabloid newspapers that the show's audition process was unfair after judge Louis Walsh was accused of cheating. Walsh was thought to have advised Co-Ed on things such as song choices, which caused controversy after it was revealed that Walsh had previously managed the band after they appeared on the Irish version of Popstars in 2001. Around the same time footage of Simon Cowell and Sharon Osbourne coaching contestants to argue back to the judges was being sold over the Internet to the highest bidder.[1]

Prior to the first live show, Cowell was accused by Osbourne of "rigging" the show by editing footage to make his contestants more appealing to viewers.[2] Osbourne attracted criticism again following the final in December 2004 when she was forced to make an apology after attracting what Cowell referred to as "record complaints" over an outburst by Osbourne in which she criticised eventual winner Steve Brookstein. This left her place on the show uncertain.[3]

During the live stages of the second series, Osbourne and Walsh were accused of having a pact against Cowell, that resulted in them unfairly eliminating his contestants against their own.[4] Further controversy was created around the judges voting process when Walsh cast the deciding vote to keep Irish group The Conway Sisters in the show at the expense of Maria Lawson. The controversy heightened when it was revealed that he had worked with The Conway Sisters personally prior to them entering the show.[5]

On one occasion, Walsh announced after the live Saturday show that he would quit the series, claiming that the other two judges had been "bullying" him.[6] This included various verbal assaults on Walsh and Osbourne throwing water over him live on air. Walsh's announcement was claimed by many to be a publicity stunt after he decided to return to the show the following Saturday night.[7]

During a live broadcast in series 5 judge Dannii Minogue broke down in tears after Walsh accused her of "stealing" a song that he had wanted for one of his contestants. The song choice selection process takes place off camera and is done on a rota system, meaning the judges take turns in having first priority when requesting songs. In press reports earlier in the week, Walsh had called Minogue "cold and heartless" for vetoing his song choice.[8] Cowell defended Minogue and twice convinced Walsh to apologise to Minogue over his treatment of her. Going into a commercial break Minogue chose to leave the panel alongside fellow judge Cheryl Cole. At the time of the conclusion of the commercial break Minogue had not returned, but during a contestant's video tape that followed shortly after she returned to the panel and took part in the rest of the show. Later on the ITV2 broadcast, Cowell once again defended Minogue's actions and called Walsh "childish".

During the first live show of sixth series, Minogue caused controversy after commenting on press reports surrounding openly bisexual contestant Danyl Johnson's sexuality that caused an online backlash.[9] She subsequently made an apology for her comment, which was accepted by Johnson. During the same series, contestant Lucie Jones found herself in the bottom two with twins John and Edward on the fifth week. Cowell was criticised for letting the vote go the public in favour of viewer ratings.[10] Jones, widely considered the better singer, was eliminated from the competition. Dannii Minogue later said “This is a singing competition…and this shouldn’t have happened”.[11]

During week five of the seventh series two of Cole's acts, Katie Waissel and Treyc Cohen were in the bottom two. According to the rules of the competition each judge must independently vote to eliminate one of the contestants which would result in one of the two being eliminated. However, Cole refused to vote against either of them causing presenter Dermot O'Leary to remind Cole that it was her duty as a judge to vote. Cohen was eventually sent home on a majority vote of the remaining three judges.[12] Fans complained that the results were "rigged" in an attempt to save Waissel but Cowell later denied this.[13]


During series 3, boy band Avenue were accused of cheating after it emerged that they already had a management deal with music mogul Ashley Tabor, who reportedly hoped to use the show in order gain publicity.[14] It was also revealed that one member, Jamie Tinker, once had a recording contract with recording company Sony BMG - a branch of parent company Sony which Cowell's company Syco is a subsidiary of. Despite attracting criticism, this was judged not to be against the rules of the show.[15] The boys later lost their places in the final 12 and were replaced with Eton Road,[16] though they insisted that they were not cheats.[17]

During series 4, the producers discovered that Sisi Jghalef, a member of six piece girl group Hope had a criminal conviction. Having an unspent criminal conviction is in contravention of the show's rules, and Jghalef was asked to leave the competition. Hope, who had already been selected as finalists, continued as a five piece.

During the live stages, 15-year-old Emily Nakanda pulled out of the show after being discovered in a "happy slapping" video, in which she apparently attacked another girl. Both her mentor, Sharon Osbourne, and her family were said to be upset with her behaviour. She was given the option of leaving of her own accord or being asked to leave the competition by the producers. Nakanda chose to withdraw of her own accord.[18][19]

The lowering of the minimum contestant age from 16 to 14 for this series attracted criticism from some quarters. Groups such as the Family and Parenting Institute expressed concern that children of this age might be not be sufficiently emotionally robust to cope with the experience.[20] The minimum age was put back to 16 for series six.[21] In 2014, the minimum age was again lowered to 14 for series eleven.[22]

After the second audition episode of series 5 had been broadcast, Cowell publicly stated his intention to make changes to the show by reducing the emphasis on contestants' "sob stories", conceding that they had been "out of hand" in the previous series and viewers were "starting not to believe them".[23]

Auditionee Alan Turner was criticised in the press for allegedly lying to the judges in his original audition. Turner had told the panel that he had been fostered since the age of four, did not know his real parents and had been sexually abused aged four, but his father and uncle publicly disputed the claims.[24] Producers vowed to support Turner, who had been put through to bootcamp, insisting that his place on the show was "never in jeopardy".[25] Turner claimed that the show's editing had made him appear dishonest,[26] but his mother later claimed that her son had made false claims which had "hurt [her] beyond belief".[27] In one episode, Cowell asked Turner face to face whether his story was true, and was satisfied that indeed it was. Ultimately, however, Turner was eliminated at the final stage before the live shows.

Series 7 auditionee Shirlena Johnson was removed from the competition after the bootcamp stage over concerns about her mental health. In Johnson's first audition, she performed "Mercy" by Duffy, but she performed it so incoherently that the song became almost unrecognisable. She had apparently hidden her mental health issues from the producers, but Johnson's mother claimed they already knew about her medical history, while the producers stated that they had only received the information on 23 August. A spokesperson for the show said "the welfare of contestants is of paramount importance, and for this reason, it has been agreed that Shirlena Johnson should not continue in the competition."[28]

During the judges' houses stage, Zimbabwean singer Gamu Nhengu progressed to the judges' houses stage in Cole's category. Viewers expressed anger when Cole did not pick Nhengu for the live shows, despite a well received performance. Instead, Katie Waissel and Cher Lloyd were chosen, despite neither managing to finish their performance. Cole later defended herself by saying "I went by my gut instinct and I thought my decision was best".[29][30] Waissel's inclusion in the show was further surrounded by controversy as it was revealed that she already had a recording contract in the United States prior to auditioning.[31]

In series 8, contestant Ceri Rees was reportedly persuaded to return to the show by the producers. Several well known celebrities condemned the show for broadcasting her audition. Mind, a charity that aids people with mental health issues, publicly condemned the decision with a spokesperson saying "We want people with mental health problems to participate, but need programme-makers to be responsible".[32]

During the live shows, Frankie Cocozza was asked to leave the competition for boasting about using cocaine. The rules of the series strictly prohibit drug use during the show. His mentor, Gary Barlow, said that he was "hugely disappointed" by Cocozza's behaviour, but wished him luck with his future.[33][34] Cocozza was replaced by Amelia Lily, who was eliminated by mentor Kelly Rowland in the first live show and then voted back in by the public.[35] Lily ultimately reached the final in that series, finishing in third place.

In series 9, Christopher Maloney was criticised by fans, the press and fellow contestants in regards to his treatment during the live shows. After having been initially eliminated at judges' houses, he was later put forward by mentor Gary Barlow to a wildcard vote to decide the 13th finalist, in which he won. Maloney would then be regularly attacked verbally by the judges, who did not see him to have enough quality to be a superstar. Further reports from newspapers claimed that he was regularly topping the public vote every single week, in an apparent effort by viewers to destroy the show's credibility beyond repair. This theory was best highlighted on the seventh week of the competition, when competition favourites Ella Henderson and James Arthur dropped into the bottom two of the vote, with Henderson eliminated on deadlock that week. Maloney ended up reaching the final, but polled the lowest amount of votes at the first stage and finished in third place. The following day, further reports surfaced that he was thrown out of performing in that night's final group song after reportedly turning up late for rehearsals, having drunk alcohol the previous night and was still smelling of it, and he was alleged to have called fellow contestant Carolynne Poole a "cunt".[36]

Series 10 contestant Lydia Lucy criticised the new bootcamp format that was introduced in this series, in which successful contestants would be invited to sit on chairs, each representing place at judges' houses, but would be at risk of losing their place if another contestant performs better. Lucy was one of three contestants that was ditched by her mentoring judge Nicole Scherzinger in favour of another contestant in this challenge. She said: "It still hasn’t sunk in. I’ve been absolutely devastated. If Simon Cowell was in front of me now I’d tell him to change the format back to how it was. This way is like dangling a carrot in front of someone and then taking it away."[37]

Scherzinger herself came under further fire from viewers at the judges' houses stage that series for her decisions to send home returning contestants Jade Richards and Melanie McCabe. Richards had previously reached the judges' houses stage in series 8 and bootcamp in series 9, as had McCabe in both series, as well as also reaching bootcamp in series 5. McCabe's exit was met with outrage on Twitter,[38] as she had been considered as one of the favourites to win the series. In interviews given shortly before judges' houses was screened, both contestants had vowed never to return again if they were rejected.[39][40]


Simon Cowell and Cheryl Cole filming the auditions for series seven, where voice manipulating technology was used

There is anecdotal evidence from blogs and discussion forums that some of the first-round X Factor audition sessions held in front of the producers have been poorly organised, with auditionees forced to wait for many hours outside in the cold with few facilities and little information about when they will be seen.[41] Attendees have also complained about queue-jumping, exorbitantly priced refreshments, the very short period of audition time that they are given, and the fact that selection decisions are left in the hands of unqualified production staff. It has been alleged that some of the "open" audition events are simply an opportunity for producers to get shots of large crowds, rather than a serious attempt to find talented contestants.[42] The auditionees tire of such shots, but are reprimanded by production staff if they complain or fail to participate.[41] The production team supply the "home-made" signs ('I have the X Factor', etc.) that the contestants brandish.[41]

It is claimed by one journalist that some contestants — described as "sad no-hopers picked so the judges can mock them" — are deliberately sent forward to the televised audition rounds simply to provide entertainment value.[43]

According to the Daily Mirror and several other newspapers, the auditions for series seven have involved the use of pitch correction to make some singers sound "better" than they actually were. ITV did admit to doing this, but claimed that it was done after filming had taken place, so the contestants did not know that their voices had been altered.[44] This came about after viewers noticed the difference in singing by Gamu Nhengu in her audition.

Accusations of staging

Rhydian Roberts complained he was "stitched up" by unfair editing.

There have been suggestions that much of the controversy surrounding the show, such as the bickering between the judges, is deliberately orchestrated to attract publicity, and that some supposedly "spontaneous" scenes are rehearsed or refilmed.[43][45][46] Series One runners-up G4 branded The X Factor as a pantomime due to staged conflict between the judges which overshadowed the contestants' performances.[47]

Several contestants have alleged that they were manipulated by the show's producers. Series 4 runner-up Rhydian Roberts complained that he was "stitched up" and "unfairly edited to look like an idiot", [48] and series 5 finalist Rachel Hylton claimed that she was "set up" and "exploited" by the television show.[49]

During the first live results show of the ninth series, executive producer Richard Holloway was accused of interfering with the judging process[50] after he was seen speaking to Louis Walsh during Carolynne Poole's final showdown performance. Walsh appeared to struggle with the decision, at first declaring that he wanted to save Poole, but when pressed by presenter Dermot O'Leary to name who he wanted to eliminate, he then said he wanted to go to deadlock by voting to eliminate Poole,[51] which resulted in boos from the studio audience and anger over the events were expressed by viewers of the show online.[52] Former contestant Frankie Cocozza criticised the show on Twitter, writing that "the X Factor just showed the whole country how set up it is, not that we didn't know that anyway. The producers f*** it" (this is censored when reported on TV).[53]

Voting irregularities

In October 2007 (series 4), it emerged that "serious technical issues" had resulted in viewer votes being ignored in the series 4 final, though it was found that the problems did not "alter the actual outcome" of the vote.[54] ITV put in place a scheme which allowed affected consumers to be offered refunds.[54]

After series 3, it was discovered that ITV had overcharged viewers who voted via interactive television by a total of approximately £200,000. ITV said a data inputting error was to blame and that they would refund anybody affected on production of a telephone bill. They also indicated that they would make a £200,000 donation to Childline.[55] This error, and those by other broadcasters, eventually led to a temporary suspension of all ITV's phone-in services on 5 March pending an audit and meeting with ICSTIS.

Over 1,100 people complained that there were irregularities with the voting in the final of series four, won by Leon Jackson, leading to a statement from ITV

Following the result of the series 4 final, which was won by Leon Jackson, media watchdog Ofcom received a number of complaints from viewers who said that they were unable to register their vote for Rhydian Roberts, despite trying up to ten times.[56] After complaints topped 1,100, ITV issued a statement which assured viewers that "Leon won The X Factor fair and square" and did so with a winning margin of 10%.[57] A subsequent Ofcom investigation found that Roberts had not been unfairly disadvantaged and that 0.99% of viewers that called couldn't get through to vote for Roberts, compared to 1.00% for Jackson.[58]

In week two of series 5, fans of contestant Ruth Lorenzo complained that at one point during the live show an incorrect telephone number was displayed on screen. Lorenzo ended up ranked in the bottom two alongside Girlband. ITV denied that the mistake affected the result when a spokesperson commented "During one short sequence, a single digit was missing from Ruth Lorenzo's vote number. The incorrect number was on screen for less than three seconds, and this was accompanied by an audio announcement giving the correct number. The error would not have changed the outcome of the vote."[59]

Controversy about The X Factor voting arose again in the fifth week of the live stages following the elimination of Laura White, who had been considered one of the most talented finalists by many viewers. Thousands of viewers complained to Ofcom about a lack of transparency in the voting, saying that they could not get through to vote for White, or that their votes had been miscounted. ITV denied all allegations, stating that there were "absolutely no issues with the phone lines or the voting system".[60][61]

Impact on the music industry

Blur members Graham Coxon (left) and Damon Albarn (2009 image) have both criticised the show.

The X Factor has been criticised for being a "soap opera" rather than a search for real talent.[62] Musician Sting called the show "televised karaoke", with the contestants being encouraged to "conform to stereotypes",[62] and saying that real musical talent is more likely to be found in pubs and clubs.[62] Damon Albarn also criticised the show for "creating a mindset that suggests you can get something for nothing and that it's easy to acquire status and fame",[63] while Blur bandmate Graham Coxon similarly opined that "being a musician is not something you can become overnight", calling both The X Factor and rival show The Voice UK "disgraceful".[64]

V V Brown criticised the show for misleading young singers about how the music industry works, claiming at the 2009 MOBO Awards "I don't like it – it's making kids think that they can get really famous easily, rather than working really hard to achieve something",.[65] James Morrison stated "[X Factor] "sends out the message that you can be famous for doing f*** all and that you can succeed even if you’re not a good singer".[66] Amy Macdonald criticised the show for making it more difficult for talented youngsters to break through.[67]

American musician Moby claimed that although the show does produce good talent, it "cheapens" music, and criticised the show for telling the singers how to "sound" and "look".[68] Charlotte Church shared a similar view and claimed that the show "doesn't have an interest in true craftsmanship or skill", whilst Elton John stated that "the only way to sustain a career is to pay your dues in small clubs".[69]

Calvin Harris claimed that the show is a "joke" and that Cowell had a "frightening stranglehold" of the British charts, claiming that Cowell is "not really a music fan" and the show lacks creativity musically.[70]

Noel Gallagher attacked the show for having "absolutely nothing to do with music and everything to do with television" and questioned the use of judges such as Minogue who, he suggested, "wouldn't know talent if it kicked [her]".[71] However, in a 2011 interview on The Jonathan Ross Show, Gallagher stated that he watched the show and that "people take it too seriously about its effect on music."[72] Kasabian frontman Tom Meighan also claimed his disbelief at how the judges can be taken seriously as music critics, considering Minogue has had few pop hits herself. He also expressed his disbelief at how popular the show was, claiming "The X Factor is like something The Riddler would do in Batman. It sucks out everyone's brains," and believed that the music produced from the show was "appalling".[73]

Series five contestant Diana Vickers expressed that she was "glad [she] didn't win The X Factor",[74] as she would not have had the freedom to write most of her album or appear in a theatre show. She did not want to be signed to Cowell's label as she said she wanted to be "[her] own artist".[75] She said that "the originality is stripped away from those who do make it" and that The X Factor should be used as a platform for musicals who have already exhausted every other opportunity.

La Roux singer Elly Jackson claimed that The X Factor had "ruined the music industry" and that the show overshadowed new artists who were writing their own material.[76] Cowell responded to this particular criticism, arguing that the money made from the sales of The X Factor contestants music is then used to develop new artists.[76]

In 2012, MC Kinky said "shows like X Factor and Britain's Got Talent reduce the art of making music and practising your craft to the level of a low rent game show with huge financial backing and support. It’s a means to make money, not a means to produce ground breaking or interesting artists that demonstrate what they are feeling or are compelled to do. It’s corporate."[77]

Annie Lennox, lead singer of the Eurythmics claimed that the "X Factor is a specific thing for people that want to go through that process, it's a factory, you know, and it's owned and stitched-up by puppet masters. Just the year earlier, she claimed that reality shows were dangerous and cruel and said there was no chance she would be ever a judge on their panels". Whilst Paul Weller, former frontman of The Jam said that there would be no way he would ever appear as a mentor on shows like The X Factor. Pink Floyd guitarist/vocalist David Gilmour has also criticized the show, calling it "ghastly" and criticising it for its lack of hard work and creativity.[78]

A protest against the show's impact on the music industry resulted in Rage Against the Machine claiming the 2009 Christmas number one in the UK

Another criticism of The X Factor is that the winner routinely achieves the number one spot in the UK Christmas singles charts, which, it is claimed, has taken the magic out of the event. In 2008, a campaign was launched to encourage people to buy Jeff Buckley's version of Leonard Cohen's song "Hallelujah"[79] instead of 2008 X Factor winner Alexandra Burke's version; however Burke beat Buckley's version to the number one Christmas spot, with Buckley charting at number two. A similar campaign was launched by Jon Morter on Facebook in December 2009, encouraging the public to buy Rage Against the Machine's 1992 song "Killing in the Name" to prevent the X Factor winner being the Christmas number one for the fifth year running. By 9 December (less than a week after launching) over 500,000 people had signed up, with the group growing at about 4,000–5,000 people per hour and gathering much media interest.[80] The group figure as of 16 December stood at near 800,000, and over 855,000 the following day. The campaign was ultimately successful with a winning margin of around 50,000 copies. After they achieved the number 1, they performed a free concert in London as a thankyou to all the fans.[81] In 2011 and 2012, the show's winners Little Mix and James Arthur respectively released their debut singles the week before Christmas, which achieved number one that week instead. In 2013, there was a similar campaign, with people attempting to get AC/DC's "Highway To Hell" to number 1.

Product placement

In series 3, media watchdog Ofcom upheld a complaint that The Xtra Factor had inappropriately featured close-up shots of the products of then sponsor Nokia. The complaint referred to an episode that showed the judges of the show jokingly sending insults to each other by text message, during the segment close up shots of Nokia products were clearly visible a total of thirteen times. A second complaint about the showing of a Motorola phone was not upheld.[82]

In January 2013, Ofcom ruled that The X Factor had breached broadcasting rules by excessively plugging the hotel where the finalists stayed, saying it was mentioned in eight out of the 13 pre-recorded introduction videos for the finalists, including shots of them arriving featuring close-up shots of the hotel's sign. Ofcom found "the overall number of references to be excessive" and "therefore judged that there was insufficient editorial justification for the repeated references to the hotel during the programme." They concluded that "the cumulative effect of these references resulted in the programme as a whole giving undue prominence to the hotel."[83]


On 30 July 2012, the trailer for the series premiered. Entitled "Whose Time Is Now?", it features six former The X Factor contestants—winners Lewis, Alexandra Burke and Little Mix, and runners-up JLS and Murs and third place One Direction—talking about their time on the show and how it changed their lives.[84] Male winners Steve Brookstein, Shayne Ward, Leon Jackson, Joe McElderry and Matt Cardle were not included. Ward blasted this, calling the show "pathetic" for leaving him out and saying it was like he was "being erased slowly from their history."[85] McElderry, who won in 2009, said "I'm just gonna keep doing my thing", which many fans believed to be prompted by the trailer.[86][87] McElderry later admitted that he was not angry about not being included in the trailer. In an interview with the Daily Star Sunday, he said: "I'm not on Simon [Cowell]'s label so I wouldn't expect him to promote me. If they want to erase the fact I won [The] X Factor or try to hide it, I don't care. Personally I am proud I came from The X Factor. If [Cowell] doesn't feel the same then you'll have to ask him why."[88]

The mash-up video trailer promoting the tenth series was published as a "mash up of all the best a decade of X Factor has to offer" on 25 July 2013. The trailer consists of various music videos from 13 past contestants: One Direction, Leona Lewis, JLS, Olly Murs, Little Mix, Union J, Amelia Lily, Joe McElderry, Alexandra Burke, Cher Lloyd, Shayne Ward, Misha B and James Arthur.[84] However, fans questioned the absence of successful contestants Diana Vickers and Rebecca Ferguson. Also, winners Steve Brookstein, Leon Jackson and Matt Cardle were not included.[89] Cardle's manager Will Talbot said that he believed the show was "attempting to erase Matt from the history books. [...] In truth, it pretty much sums up Syco's attitude to him during the months after he inconveniently (for them) won the show. Unfortunately there is a misconception that Matt has slagged off the show and fallen out with Sony but this is not true."[90] Cardle later described being omitted from the advert as "disappointing,[91] especially for fans who would have liked to have seen him in it. His new co-star Mel C was more critical of ITV, commenting: ""I think it's really f****** rude the way they have left him out."[92]


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