SCROLLING through the TV guide on an average day you will come across a number of programmes with “benefits” in the title. Programmes such as BENEFITS BRITAIN: LIFE ON THE DOLE (CHANNEL 5 2014-) and BRITAIN’S BENEFIT TENANTS (CHANNEL 4 2014-) claim to give their audience an insight into life for the “average” benefits claimant.The UK welfare system is and has for many years been a controversial subject both in the media and around the dinner table. Programmes like those listed above mostly offer a negative portrayal of the characters featured. They cover people with drink and drug problems, less-than-perfect parenting skills, lack of education, employment and irresponsible behaviours such as poor time-keeping and lack of respect for rental properties. Right-wing journalist Simon Heffer recognised in a 2007 Guardian article that “hardly a week passes without further evidence of the depravity of our feral underclass – the ones our more plain-speaking forebears would have branded ‘the undeserving poor’”.
Benefit-themed “documentaries”, a particular favourite of Channel 5, have somehow turned watching people living in poverty into a source of entertainment. We see numerous below-the-breadline Brits struggling to feed themselves and their children. How this became enjoyable viewing is quite possibly the strangest television phenomenon of our time. In a 2013 article “Beyond the Penal State: Advanced Marginality, Social Policy and Anti-welfarism”, criminologists Lynn Hancock and Gerry Mooney define the genre of “poverty porn” as “the media portrayal of the feral and feckless poor as the source of social breakdown”, noting that it focuses on “individual failures and deficiencies” as opposed to looking at wider societal and economic constraints. They suggest that such programmes, including chat shows like THE JEREMY KYLE SHOW (ITV 2005-), are “designed to titillate and entertain” as well as to “invoke anger and indignation among viewers”. What these programmes often fail to mention is the root cause of unemployment and/or lone parenting.
BENEFITS STREET (CHANNEL 4 2014-) and those like it manipulate their audience into believing many of those in poverty are in receipt of benefit payments that are too high, depicting them as what prominent sociologist Zygmunt Bauman might refer to as “flawed consumers”. Such programmes often establish this by showing the participants alongside non-essential possessions such as large flat screen TVs, alcohol and cigarettes. This representation adds to the negative stereotype of an undeserving “scrounger”, offering viewers a behind-closed-doors look at the people often featured on the front pages of right-wing newspapers, with headlines such as "Benefit scrounger mum of eight says £500 a week handouts aren't enough for her four-bed council house". Hancock and Mooney conclude that “in a context where positive representations of working-class people are notable by their absence, poverty porn offers up [a] distorted, decontextualised and sensationalised” insight. It could be argued that one of the consequences of this negative representation and resulting stigma is the amount unclaimed benefits per year, which exceeded £13 billion according to UK government estimates in March 2017.
In his 2011 book CHAVS: THE DEMONISATION OF THE WORKING CLASS, commentator and political activist Owen Jones refers to the way the mass media choose to portray the underclasses. “Demonising people at the bottom has been a convenient way of justifying an unequal society throughout the ages”, he writes. “Margaret Thatcher’s assumption of power in 1979 marked the beginning of an all-out assault on the pillars of working class Britain”. During this period, rabid individualism decimated council housing, trade unions and industries such as mining and manufacturing. No longer was being working-class something to be proud of and increasingly this sector of the community were “sneered at, belittled and scapegoated”. He goes on to note that “Social problems like poverty and unemployment were once understood as injustices that sprang from flaws within capitalism […] yet today they have become understood as the consequence of personal behaviour, individual defects, and even choice”.
In “A Modest Proposal”, the 1729 satirical essay by Jonathan Swift, the author suggests that the impoverished Irish might ease their economic struggles by selling their children as food for the rich. In a 2016 New Statesman article titled “How Poverty Porn got its own Game Show”, Tanya Gold offers a modern day twist on this dystopian prediction when commenting on the now seemingly constant influx of poverty porn television. “I worry that British people will eventually be invited to kill each other for cheap food at Wembley Stadium”, she speculates, “The crowd might wave Sainsbury’s ‘Basics’ biscuits. I do not know; but I am fairly certain that it will happen. Perhaps the loser will be made into pizza in a fast-food auto-da-fé”.
TELEVISION POVERTY PORN REINFORCES A CONSERVATIVE IDEOLOGY THAT BLAMES THE POOR.
Class has been defined in a variety of different ways by sociologists and philosophers. The Weberian theory defines class as being attached to status, which in turn determines power in society. The Marxist definition of the capitalist stage of production is particularly useful when analysing the representation of the working classes, both now and historically. Marxist theory considers society as comprised of two main classes: the bourgeoisie - the capitalists who own the means of production - and the much larger working class or proletariat who are required to sell their labour. During the Industrial Revolution, Britain saw a rise in exploitative production whereby the working classes owned only their ability to provide labour power. They were therefore under obligation to sell it to those who owned the means of production and dominated the capitalist marketplace as a result.
As far back as the late 1800s socialists like author Robert Tressell attempted to present an alternative to “The great money trick”: capitalism. He characterised this “private monopoly” as a system whereby the majority create the wealth for the minority and, in doing so, fail to share benefits equally. In his 1914 novel THE RAGGED TROUSER PHILANTHROPIST he stated: “The only reason they have not monopolized the daylight and the air is that it is not possible to do it”. He went on to argue that “poverty is not caused by men and women getting married; it’s not caused by machinery; it’s not caused by ‘over-production’, it’s not caused by drink or laziness; and it’s not caused by ‘over-population’”. These elements of blame are ever-present and the poverty porn trend of television production only exacerbates this. Their very existence encourages this way of thinking in order to reinforce a conservative ideology that blames the poor for their poverty. Tressell also explored the phenomena of those affected by the capitalist system of blaming each other. This can be seen in the “benefit” genre in which the audience is able to look down on the participants and, as a result, feel “better” about their own lives.
Locating a positive representation of the underclass on the television can prove difficult but there are filmmakers that attempt to challenge the dominant conservative ideology. Social realist filmmaker Ken Loach makes films that not only attempt to challenge negative stereotypes of the working class but go further by exposing the injustices of the capitalist system. Throughout his career Loach has consistently attempted to show a more balanced and realistic side to life for Britain’s poorest. His films instead choose to highlight issues of class politics, wealth disparity and inequality. In contrast to poverty porn programmes, Loach presents films that focus on issues of social entrapment, abandonment and economic deprivation, choosing to put the blame on the “establishment”, not the precariat. In a 2007 interview at the British Film Institute, the filmmaker noted: “One lesson to learn is that the press and the broadcasters are not neutral. And it seems we have to learn it each time there is a dispute: they are actually committed to one side”.
Loach’s 2016 drama I, DANIEL BLAKE follows the eponymous protagonist (Dave Johns) on a journey through the benefit system, highlighting the issues, injustices and “computer says no” culture of the department of work and pensions in Britain. The portrayal of single mother Katie (Hayley Squires) contrasts the lone parents we tend to see in benefit “documentaries”. Instead, Loach encourages the audience to feel empathy. In many cases, viewers may well relate to her situation. If not having experienced it themselves, many of us know someone who has. We witness her hitting rock bottom, starving, in a food bank. An issue to consider here though is that viewer ratings for television are much higher than for most independent films shown in cinemas.
It is evident that the film and television industries continue to provide an imbalanced and often exploitative representation of the poorest people of Britain. Many factors lead to poverty and destitution, including being raised in the care system, abandonment, lack of positive role models, illness and addiction. Failing to recognise these contributing factors is irresponsible and dangerous. One reason for the huge amount of unclaimed benefits each year could be the threat of stigma and negative stereotyping. According to the Office for National Statistics, in the financial year ending 2017 the UK government spent £264 billion on welfare, making up 34% of all government spending. Just 1% of this was used for unemployment benefits. Portraying this sector of the community in a negative way only encourages hatred and false blame for issues of failing financial state of the country.
Filmmakers such as Loach attempt to challenge this negative portrayal but we are still a long way from repairing the damage done. As long as people continue to view programmes like BENEFITS STREET, broadcasters will continue to air them. The rich continue to get richer and the poor feed their children with donations from food banks, on our television screens, for our entertainment.