Take a drug addict who sells her body, a cagefighter, a shoplifter, an unemployed father of 7, a troubled child with a few school exclusions under his belt, some teenage pregnancy and a good dose of patronising narration, and you have the making of a new Big Fat Gypsy-esque assault on the welfare rhetoric, courtesy of Channel 4.
The channel has, in the past, been known and revered for it’s documentaries, often pressing deep into sensitive areas, many of which the BBC has shied away from. ‘Skint’ is something rather different however.
With a continued rise in unemployment in the UK, more and more people are facing the difficulties of finding work and living off benefits, or taking pay cuts, short term employment or working fewer hours. And while the labour market struggles to provide jobs for many work hungry and indeed, hungry, Brittons, Channel 4 presents us with the documentary series ‘Skint’.
A programme that perhaps many had hoped would see the independent broadcaster reveal the plight of the thousands struggling to make ends meet, looking into the real social and political problems stifling the jobs market in the UK and its effect on communities. Instead, the show demonises and pretty much ridicules the unemployed, and the welfare system itself.
The characters followed on the programme have been hand-picked to fit the tabloid press description of ‘scroungers.’ Let’s take a look at just one of the stories.
Dean and Claire are parents and step-parents to 7 children between them. Dean had a job at the steelworks, but now the family survive off benefits, or the ‘social’ as the narrator likes to casually call it, as if Dean and his giro are old pals.
While hinting at the effect of the redundancies from the local steelworks, at no point does it delve deeper into the reasons why there is unemployment in North Lancashire. Over 20,000 people lost their jobs from that one industry in the local area. But Channel 4 skims over the real causes and issues, in order to provide light entertainment from the poverty of others.
It might be titillating to viewers to watch the people on Skint like they would animals in a zoo, but for those who are between jobs and are actively seeking work, being grouped in with the characters on the programme might feel like being kicked when they’re down. The programme has foundations in an ‘us and them’ mentality, ‘us’ being ‘hard-working’ members of society, and ‘them’ being benefit claimants. And many took to Twitter to echo that:
And this family is like ‘many other families round here’ apparently. Cue the children telling the camera they know families with 7 kids, 8 kids, 5 kids. We are left to assume that they don’t work either. But we don’t know that. The idea that there is a culture of families having lots of children on benefits is another tabloid favorite. In truth, there are around 3,200 families with 7 children in the UK, claiming ANY sort of out-of-work benefit, just over 1000 with 8 children, and around 30 families with 11 kids:
The voiceover is often nothing less than patronising and shows the flippancy with which the programme’s creators are approaching the problem of poverty and unemployment in Britain. “Not everyone’s on the dole here…but most are” says the sneering narrator. Yet, according to figures released by ONS, only 5.9% of the population of Scunthorpe claim the dole. But perhaps that was too much of a non-patronising mouthful.
Tom Sutcliffe from The Independent picked up on the lack of depth to the programme:
“Skint doesn’t actively mock Dean. It doesn’t make him jump through hoops in some reality format or snigger at his lifestyle in an obvious way. But it does enjoy him and leaves you wondering whether that enjoyment is entirely seemly.”
And it’s true, the programme doesn’t actively mock the people on Westcliffe Estate, but it’s faux compassion towards their struggle is just as undermining.
There are some moments where the locals begin to talk about their situation. One young man began saying “I’d rather work hard and get a decent wage at the end of the week, but there just isn’t any work about”, but rather than focusing on why this may be, the editors prefer to cut to shots of kids riding motorbikes and drinking Special Brew.
The Twitter reaction was mixed, some slamming C4 for their ‘poor bashing propaganda’, and labelling ‘Skint’ as ‘sensationalist voyeurism’. In the backlash against the anti-welfare tweets some posted the TUC’s statistics vs misconceptions poll results:
The programme’s steeped in distaste and is unsuccessful in shedding light on the reality of people on benefits. The summary of the programme declares it shows ‘the real impact of worklessness – both today and over generations’. A JRF report has already de-bunked this idea of worklessness culture, and called on politicians to stop using this false idea. However, it seems the creators of this C4 documentary were looking for it whether it was there or not. And a few edits can stop us from thinking otherwise.
‘Skint gets behind the headlines’of ‘people, often maligned for their lifestyle’ the Channel 4’s synopsis says. And it does. It helps to prop those headlines up.