Pride, Propaganda and Poverty Porn: On Benefits and Proud

A few weeks after my first post on the eruption of this genre (where I examined We All Pay Your Benefits broadcast on the BBC), Five broadcast its own contribution to poverty porn, On Benefits and Proud.  It took me a long time to watch the entire programme without switching off – and even longer to process my exasperations into this blog post.  At the launch of Five, a little over fifteen years ago (under the name Channel 5), the limited broadcast frequencies meant that many UK households could not watch it: even now, the audience share for the channel is less than five per cent.  Little wonder that the channel seems to be playing perpetual catch-up to its more established competitors, poaching successful formats from other channels and acquiring glossy US imports in an attempt to drive up ratings.  Five has a reputation in the UK for tawdry and tasteless content: in its early years then-Culture Secretary Chris Smith noted “considerable concern” over its content, the Independent Television Commission called it “tacky” and the Daily Mail re-named it ‘Channel Filth’.

In this context, On Benefits and Proud was an obvious in-house production for Five – promising sensation, outrage and shock, and hopefully replicating the ratings successes of earlier examples of poverty porn. On Benefits and Proud was the first of three programmes, described in Five’s commissions newsletter as “documentary” and followed by Shoplifters and Proud and finally Pickpockets and Proud.   Five were evidently proud of the equivalence they were drawing between breaking the law and claiming your legal entitlement to social security, promising that viewers of the And Proud series would “meet Britain’s most brazen petty criminals and people who know how to really work the welfare state. The characters are frank and unapologetic”.  On Benefits and Proud is however ‘documentary’ in name only – there are no visits to economics experts that we saw in We All Pay Your Benefits, no attempt to present any social history (however brief) as in Benefits Britain 1949.  The only cursory piece of (mis)information is presented at the very beginning, when the voiceover states that “the uk spends 40 billion on benefits for the unemployed” (the actual figure is £4.91 billion) followed by “and a big slice goes on single mums like Sophie and Emma”.  On Benefits and Proud does not aspire to educate, create dialogue or reflect – its purpose is simply to enrage the viewer, insistently repeating that the ‘frank and unapologetic characters’ on-screen are greedy, ungrateful and shameless.  Its imagined viewer appears to be low-paid workers who are told that they are subsidising lifestyles they cannot afford for themselves.  The toxic rhetoric of ‘worker/shirker’ at play here is hardening public attitudes towards welfare recipients and driving imagined wedges between those exploited under neoliberalism.

In his wonderful essay ‘The Space Between Shots’, documentary maker Dai Vaughan reflects upon how to make ethical television, the tensions of editing and the conflicting demands of protecting artistic integrity and producing narrative coherence.  Reflecting on his own practice, Vaughan states that “we wished to allow people to draw their own conclusions from the films, as near as possible to the way one does in life” (1999:10).  He rejected voiceover and commentary, believing that such tools take screen participants one step further from knowing what is being done to them.  For television to truly be a public service, where social lives are reflected in a public mirror – a collaborative art, collaborative therapy even, between filmmaker and participant – Vaughan suggests that some films should end up in ribbons on the floor.  I wonder what Vaughan would make of On Benefits and Proud, a programme which not only butchers the speech of the participants it claims to represents, but also overlays every fragment of footage with an insistent voiceover, interpreting every shrug, nod and glance with disdain and filling every moment with moral commentary.  So little dignity for the participants and so little trust in the viewer: I suspect Vaughan would see it as propaganda.

Sophie and Emma – two friends living in Camden – are one of three ‘on benefits’ examples that are paraded over the next forty-five minutes.  The programme also follows Julie and Vinny from Liverpool, and Heather from Gloucester.  The camera follows Sophie and Emma as they explore the market and go for a manicure (which the voiceover ambiguously describes as “free”,  suggesting that perhaps the film crew have paid for it) while the voiceover details the welfare amounts that each mother gets “as well as her flat”.  Sophie and Emma flirt with the camera, joke with each other about shopping addictions and are perhaps naïve about how this footage will be used – but this also begs the question of how television producers mislead and betray participants to secure consent and generate sensational content.  How was the involvement of Sophie and Emma secured?  What were they told the programme would be about?  The ‘and proud’ phrase of the title is distinctly lacking in the accounts of all the programme participants.  Emma states clearly that she doesn’t want to be living “off the council for the rest of my life”: what she wants is “security”.  Her ‘pride’ at being ‘on benefits’ is better described as resignation that her aspirations must be put on hold, or acquiescence to her priorities as a mother:

“At this moment in time I am on benefits because…not that I have to be…coz I don’t.  How can I put it?  Just…it is the way it is at the moment, until we can better ourselves.  I think when you do work you do miss our on a lot of your children growing up.”

Such resignation is also apparent in the footage of Heather from Gloucester, who I think receives the worst treatment in the edit.  Camera footage – focusing upon huge piles of washing, a washing machine spinning, long lines of drying clothes, children leaping into a paddling pool full of muddied water, thick peelings of potato in a bin – is repeated several times, offering a clear repeated visual message that Heather and her family are dirty, excessive, soiled and wasteful.  You do not need to be a media scholar to see how little time the film crew have spent with the family, and how much they have recycled the same footage.

Picture: visual repetitions in Heather’s house

Picture: visual repetitions in Heather’s house

The voiceover reminds viewers several times that Heather has a large family (“super-sized”) and that she is about to move into a new six-bedroom home, the value of which balloons over the course of the programme (far beyond the actual selling prices of comparative houses in the area) and is eventually described as a “mini-mansion”: “the sort of home ordinary taxpayers can only dream about”.  Heather’s failure to be breathlessly grateful about the house is re-cast by the programme makers as ungracious insolence.  Peering over the railway bridge into what will be her back garden, her understated pleasure is punctured by the voiceover stating that “the tenant doesn’t seem impressed”.  The programme-makers show little empathy for a family who have been living in overcrowded temporary accommodation for eighteen months.  But On Benefits and Proud is not the only media site where Heather is chastised: photographs of her family and the new home also appear in the pages of tabloid newspapers.  Her distress at being misrepresented forms one key scene in the programme, where she sits at her kitchen table and reads the scandal her family has prompted.  This scene might have been a powerful reflective moment for the On Benefits crew, who, along with the gutter press, form part of the media machinery which exploits poor families to secure sales, ratings and career portfolios.  No chance.  The voiceover simply adopts the language of the newspaper (‘dole queen’) for the remainder of the programme. When Heather is suddenly told that she can no longer move in to the house, her earlier caution seems justified.  But rather than exploring the arbitrary mechanisms of re-housing, the voiceover frames this as rough justice; after all, for Heather ‘the dole queen’ to get a house (‘mini-mansion’), “well, it was always going to be controversial”.

Julie and Vinny from Liverpool are continually framed by the voiceover as taking advantage of the welfare system.  They are described as “experts in life on the dole” whose “only hard graft is working the system”.  We see Julie on the telephone checking her benefit payments and Vinny trying to arrange a move to another property.  While the programme presents Julie and Vinny as insatiable welfare dependents (“Julie and Vinny want more”, “the couple are still not satisfied”), we might equally read the constant ‘work’ of negotiating with state agencies (checking, requesting, chasing up)  as indicative of the tightening conditionality, increasing restrictions, and declining value of benefits.

Picture: the work of being out of work

Picture: the work of being out of work

The shift in welfare policy from a model of rights and entitlements to a model of suspicion, stipulation and means-testing has multiplied the kind of ‘work’ that claimants like Julie and Vinny must do to secure what they are legally entitled to.  In an illuminating 1985 research project, Leo Howe found that claimants who ask questions, demand explanations or seem confident of their rights are described by officials as “aggressive, grasping, ungrateful, shameless, greedy […] in contrast, what may be called the ‘ideal’ claimant is someone who merely answers questions, produces all the required documents, is polite and grateful and who does not mention complicating matters” (1985: 61).  Almost twenty years later, the same interpretation is made in On Benefits and Proud and other pseudo-documentaries, which assumes that benefits claimants are undeserving, scroungers, potential cheats and liars.  When it is revealed that Julie and Vinny have found a way to make their benefits go a little further – adding a family relative to the tenancy and sharing the property with him –the commentary presents it as ‘cheating’ the system rather than a prudent (and completely legal) decision.

Picture “And with unexpected cash in the bank, its time to spend.” Julie and Vinny ‘splashing out’ – on groceries, gas and electric.

Picture “And with unexpected cash in the bank, its time to spend.” Julie and Vinny ‘splashing out’ – on groceries, gas and electric.

It seems that this programme is less about displaying a shameless ‘pride’ in being ‘on benefits’ (this is absent in the footage) and more about generating disgust at benefit claimants who have the temerity to claim their entitlements and be unashamed (as presumably they ‘should’ be).  As Jamie Peck (2001) has so eloquently explored, the problem of work for those at the bottom of the labour market is that it is becoming less secure, lower paid and more exploitative.  Yet rather than engaging with the problems of work (working conditions, wages, declining union power, post-industrial disinvestment, the movements of global capital), ‘documentaries’ such as this present a problem of work ethic.  We are told that those ‘on benefits’ are lazy, workshy, enjoying their free ride and the luxuries that ‘ordinary workers’ cannot afford (neglecting to inform us that benefit levels in the UK are comparatively meagre, and are declining in value).  We are told that benefit costs are ‘too high’ because there are too many people ‘on benefits’.  Yet approximately half of the UK population receives a social security benefit of some kind – ‘on benefits’ does not simply mean unemployed, it also means low-paid, retired, disabled, sick, caring and unable to work.  Julie has a disability. Emma, Sophie and Heather are single parents with young children.  The claimants in On Benefits and Proud offer momentary resistant readings to the popular myths about them – Heather discusses the hate she has received via the press, Emma talks about going back to education, Julie criticises the less-than-minimum-wage job her daughter has taken – but their words are wilfully splintered and overlaid with an authorial and derisive voiceover they cannot know, or speak back to.  This is cowardly television production at its worst, and its attempts to generate contempt for those claiming the benefits they are entitled to obscures the risks we all face around work and worklessness.  Chris Jones and Tony Novak remind us in their furious account of the abuse and abandonment of the poor and poorly paid that:

“The pressures of modern poverty are never entirely removed from the majority of people, and although they struggle, with greater or lesser success, to keep their heads above water, the threat of redundancy, or of an incapacitating illness, threatens to reveal in full and devastating force the fundamental economic insecurity, the chasm of poverty, that capitalism has created for all but the very rich” (1999: 21)

Rather than accepting Five’s invitation to despise those who are ‘on benefits and proud’, perhaps we should all be proud of – and fight for – a benefits system which seeks to protect us from a failing labour market.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank the Gender, Media and Class group (also known as FAF) who generously shared their insights and helped formulate the ideas in this post.

References 

Dai Vaughan (1999) ‘The Space Between Shots’ in For Documentary Berkeley: University of California Press

Leo Howe (1985) ‘The deserving and undeserving: practice in an urban, local social security office’ Journal of Social Policy 14(1) pp49-72

Jamie Peck (2001) Workfare States Guildford Press

Chris Jones and Tony Novak (1999) Poverty, Welfare and the Disciplinary State London: Routledge

Tracy Jensen’s research explores the classed and gendered intersections of contemporary parenting culture, and how these are reproduced across social, cultural, media and policy sites. Tracy tweets at @Drtraceyjensen. 


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