The second series of People Like Us, focusing on Chelmsley Wood in the Midlands, was aired on BBC Three last week. Much like the previous series, it focused on stereotypes of working class communities that have become mainstream public opinion: unemployment, obesity, sexual deviancy and antisocial behaviour. A Channel 4 executive behind Benefits Street has said that criticising ‘poverty porn’ is akin to censorship. It most certainly is not. These programmes don’t report the realities of working class neighbourhoods in a ‘complete, convincing and humane way.’ Rather, they are part of a wider pattern of individualising blame for poverty to generate consent for our welfare state being dismantled.
Although the media machine that churns out stigmatising ‘poverty porn’ often seems immovable, it can and must be challenged.
Tom Slater and Stephen Crossley have written a superb article on ‘Benefits Street’, in which they point out the critical importance of academics intervening in current political debates to ensure that the stigmatisation of communities that have been battered by welfare reforms is countered with accurate representations. Such intervention is required to help reflect a picture to the wider public of the daily lives of people who are facing increasing struggles simply to exist.
Academics who take on this endeavour will have steadfast partners: people living in stigmatised neighbourhoods who are fed up with how the media portrays them; charities that tirelessly serve communities despite having their budgets slashed as a result of austerity measures; politicians who want to change the world for the better; and the journalists determined to report the truth.
What we must be very clear about is this: it is not people in poverty that have undermined the welfare state. It is the ‘Masters of the Universe’: the financial elites with their subservient politicians who created the economic crisis and subsequently imposed the ideology of austerity on the rest of us – a ruthless system of exploitation that has seen a staggering redistribution of wealth upwards. While Sure Start centres are being closed and people are being driven to foodbanks through a punitive sanctions regime, the rich are quite simply becoming even richer.
Instead of television programmes that distort the lives of those forced to rely on meagre benefits, there should be documentary evidence that is broadcast to the public on the lives of the rich and powerful.
Imagine if we were able to turn the camera lens around.
The focus would not be the single mother raising a family, but the married merchant banker who spends thousands of pounds on weekly visits to a West End strip club. Not the alcoholic who drinks to anaesthetise trauma but the cocaine-snorting tabloid journalist. Not the young person thrown on the scrap heap of a precarious labour market but the expense-claiming politician sitting in their state-subsidised mansion.
Instead of ‘poverty porn’ being used to undermine the support for the welfare state, we would have a media that highlights the violently unequal society in which we live and reveal the hypocrisy that lies at the heart of it. As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has pointed out, journalists can play a valuable role in challenging the belief that people are in poverty because of their own behaviour.
Tom Slater has highlighted a quite wonderful speech by Martin Nicolaus entitled ‘fat cat sociology’ that leaves the reader with plenty to think about:
“What if that machinery were reversed? What if the habits, problems, secrets, and unconscious motivations of the wealthy and powerful were daily scrutinized by a thousand systematic researchers, were hourly pried into, analyzed and cross-referenced; were tabulated and published in a hundred inexpensive mass-circulation journals and written so that even the fifteen-year-old high-school drop-out could understand them and predict the actions of his landlord to manipulate and control him?”
So how about an episode of ‘People Like Us’ which focuses on the irresponsible bankers who gambled in a global casino in which they never lost, but left everyone else picking up the pieces. Or an episode of ‘We Pay Your Expenses’ on the politicians who claimed for duck-houses while dreaming up policies to punish the poor. Or even an alternative ‘Benefits Street’ that focused on landlords who receive housing benefit for providing over-priced accommodation for families in which they would never dream of living in.
It would certainly make a change.
*This article was originally posted on the Huffington Post