A few weeks ago I happened to be at a friend’s house where I had the misfortune to catch one of these ridiculous “reality” shows on TV. I can’t remember which one but you know the kind: camera crew enters the household of a family on benefits who have tons of kids, the family are given money, they mis-spend it, etc. On this particular occasion the family had bought an enormous flat screen television with some surround-sound system. The program edited in loads of shots of the family thoroughly enjoying watching this – shots only a fool would believe were natural – before cutting to the house’s exterior to reveal a broken window and run-down estate. Isn’t that hilarious? What an insight into the psychology of the masses: they can’t be trusted to use money wisely, haha, what silly people!
As you can probably guess, I don’t find anything remotely funny about this. Even if you set aside the obvious exploitation of this dysfunctional family, the sickening broadcast of child abuse for entertainment, shows like this are dangerous. They paint an image of a typical working class family on a typical housing estate which, for many of us, might be the only conception we have of such a lifestyle. I’ve been brought up in a fairly wealthy but generally egalitarian area where housing estates do exist but no stigma exists around them – so I’m always quite confused by such ideas. Clearly, the majority of families on benefits who live in rented housing are not like the families you see on these shows, else the country would be on the verge of collapse. Instead, I am sure, the shows find examples of the most tragically ‘hilarious’ people they find and then exploit their problems for entertainment value.
It can be debated whether this is part of an intentional agenda or not, but shows like this are, along with the rest of the media, contributing to this anti-benefit backlash we’re beginning to see. There’s no better example than the Daily Mail’s recent infamous headline over the Philpott case. Is the story about the tragic and unnecessary death of children? No, it’s about benefits. But I bet when they cover a story about tax evasion they don’t bill it as: “VILE PRODUCT OF UNEQUAL UK.” The more these stories are ground into our culture, the more people might actually believe these lies about the majority of people who have a genuine need for benefits. Nearly everyone I speak to is of the opinion that our benefit system needs reform and, while they may be right, this is nearly always because of the “benefit scroungers” – usually followed by an anecdotal example of someone they know who leaches the system. I don’t deny that such people exist, but this frenzy to cut benefits seems to ignore the people who need them most. What most people don’t seem to realise is that the money lost through benefit fraud is actually quite tiny.
For a detailed further look at this issue, I would highly recommend Owen Jones’ book Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class.