You may have noticed the barrage of ‘poverty porn’ gracing our screens recently. Channel Four are on a roll with shows like ‘Skint’, ‘How To Get A Council House’ and ‘Benefits Britain’, but the BBC have not shied away either with programmes such as ‘We All Pay Your Benefits’ with Nick Hewer and Margaret Mountford. So what are the effects of this kind of broadcasting?
The political rhetoric of the coalition government has paved the way for voyeuristic and judgemental programming of those on benefits. The string of ‘poverty porn’ programmes have almost turned the act of claimant shaming into an event, with the jeers and sneers of the audience flooding social media during and after the ‘show.’
Producers claim that people ‘want to see what life is like’ for the poor, as though going some way to inform their audience, but the format of the programmes serve to entertain, with sneering and patronising voiceovers, and always with one character that seems to be ‘living it up off the social,’ or serving as the ‘one to hate’ against the ‘good one’. The poor have become the new Big Fat Gypsies, Teen Moms, Super Sweet Sixteens, satisfying the shallow feeling of lambasting a group of society, by judging their every move, their possessions and their lifestyle.
This selection of Tweets was taken from the very insightful ‘Where’s The Benefit?’ blog, a post entitled “Benefits Britain, a study in Enabling Hate Speech” (a great read – do have a look at the post for some more of these). The Tweets are about Karen (above), a woman who appeared on C4’s ‘Benefits Britain 1949’, claiming disability benefits as she suffered from arthritis, diabetes, heart problems and high blood pressure:
“And what a figure of hate Karen (and anyone else with invisible disabilities) became:
- Here she is, fucking scrounger (Some seemingly had made their minds up in advance)
- Luckily for these slackers, it’s difficult to prove ‘pain’
- Karen youve got all those problems cos ur a fat twat
- Ditch the doughnuts fatty….. (accompanied by a cartoon of an extremely overweight woman on a mobility scooter with the tagline ‘Laziness, it’s not a disability)
- She’s shattered?What about all these people that have 2 go out & work to live you benefit scrounging arsehole
- a false disability claimant is the pits, same as as a conscription dodger in ww1 #scum
- You go back to fucking work you lazy cunt! Ok she’s fucking winding me up.
- Funny how it’s the fat,foul mouthed bint with illness u can fake that is the one with the issues
- This woman on #BenefitsBritain is making my blood boil… she’s a fucking retard
- Back in 1949 you’d be sectioned you horrible, lazy, fat, scrounging whopper!”
Audiences watch and decide whether claimants are deserving or not. Then they take to Twitter to air their judgements. You there in the wheelchair, who obviously enjoyed the process of going into the programme, you deserve some benefits, but you, the moaner, with the back problem, you don’t – the game of playing the weakest off against one another for the gratification of others #benefitsbritain.
Whether audiences think claimants are deserving or not, whether they ‘like’ that particular claimant or not, understanding why the people on their screens are in this situation is not a priority, yet viewers feel able to make medical, lifestyle and material judgements quite easily despite the lack of information.
Plasma TVs, smart-phones, toys and other material things are often used as way of further de-legitimising the poverty of claimants. We may not know whether they gained these items through friends, family, previous work, dodgy sellers or saving up, but there is often a high degree of anger about these possessions, as though the claimants must be found scuttling round an old empty house to extract any sympathy from the viewers. The claimants must only have certain possessions, look poor and act a certain way to be found deserving of help to live.
And the programmers will continue to produce these serials, because they bring in viewers. At the Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival a few days ago, there was a discussion on ‘poverty porn’, with the producers and commisioners speaking on why they thought the ‘genre’ was so successful:
The talk between these producers and commissioners after the next big rating left Abigail Scott Paul of the JRF feeling as though the poor remained ‘other’ and ‘usable’ in their quest, bypassing any aim to inform viewers of the condition of peoples’ lives at the bottom:
“What depressed me most was how far removed the people with the power in the media to set and shape the debate are from the realities of life on a low income. The debate felt a bit like a middle-class dinner party discussing those poor people over there.
“So what is the role of a documentary? Is it to inform, educate or to entertain? Listening in to the discussion, it became apparent to me that the agenda of the commissioners seems to be totally driven by the lowest common denominator – to win ratings.”
Sadly, the cruel mix of psuedo-information and entertainment will bear some effect. The political rhetoric of benefit ‘scroungers’ and ‘skivers’ has already hardened public attitudes towards those on welfare according to a JRF report, and people are repeating the idea openly and abusively.
Broadcasters must take some responsibility. Their job is to inform, educate and entertain, not incite hate and judgement. This barrage of TV’s ‘poor entertainment’ is damaging to society and seems to suggest that the country is rife with ‘scammers’ and ‘scroungers’ getting more than they deserve. £1.2bn of benefits are attributed to fraud each year – this is less that the DWP pays out in overpayment error. Tax evasion costs our economy tens of billions, and earlier this year it was revealed that around 1 in 4 companies don’t pay tax. When Channel Four and other broadcasters have exhausted their ‘poverty porn’ quota, I’ll be happy to tune in to “How To Get a Yacht” or “Tax Evasion Britain”, despite that being a more honest focus on the ‘baddies’ of welfare. But I have a feeling that won’t happen.
by Kam Sandhu – @KamBass