Ignorance in the ‘Golden Age of Television’

by Tracy Jensen 

Last month the House of Commons hosted an evening debate “Manufacturing Stereotypes of Benefit Claimants: the role of the media and political leaders”. It was remarkable for all the wrong reasons and I’ve been getting stuck trying to write this post about it ever since. Finally this week I realized that I was trying to say about that evening – and as is usually the case, that realization came in an unexpected moment, during a meeting with a student who made a wise comment about how politicians, knowing nothing about poverty, carelessly reducing incomes by a few pounds here, a few pounds here, have no idea of the devastation they create. So this post is about ignorance and its production across politics and media.

The House of Commons debate itself took place at the end of the corridor of Committee Rooms, the high-ceilinged, wood-paneled debating chambers, access to which takes you on a humbling tour of the upper echelons of political power. In Westminster Hall, a parade of stalls sold a range of tastefully-branded festive gifts (House of Lords champagnes truffles, anyone?) and the Committee corridor took me past many portraits and marble statues of dead white men who peered down at me with the same expression of disapproval. What chance do ordinary people have of being represented in this setting? The evening was a stark reminder of our current crisis of representation, which both media and political agents contribute to, sometimes greasing the wheels and sometimes driving the machine of welfare commonsense. This machine insists that unemployment, poverty and precarity are the result of individual poor decisions, lack of willpower or motivation. The commonsense narrative of the welfare state is that welfare itself has created something called ‘welfare dependency’; a state of infantilised reliance, indulgence, entitlement, the ‘something for nothing’ culture so often spoke of by political elites. Accompanying such ‘welfare dependency’ talk is the fantasy solution of ‘getting tough’, hardening our ‘soft touch’ welfare, making assessment more rigorous, reducing eligibility criteria, increasing conditions and so ensuring that people become more ‘responsible’, ‘reliant’, that they make better ‘lifestyle choices’.

The debate panel, while set out as an opportunity for the speakers to think reflexively about the role they play, intentionally or otherwise, in benefit stigma, was largely, disappointingly, unreflexive. The most interesting and useful comments of the night came from Professor Ruth Lister, who highlighted the “insidiously corrosive” effect of the concept of ‘welfare dependency’, and particularly of the conventional wisdom that there are families where ‘several generations have never worked’. Such myths have been consistently exposed by decades of sociological research (most recently here) and yet they keep returning in the rhetoric of political elites, whose poverty-producing policies rely on such bogeymen.

The two politicians in attendance on the panel, John Redwood MP and Steven Baker MP, repeated echoes of these myths in their debate comments. Discussing the workfare programme, Redwood suggested that it “helps people gain the habit of work” which they have lost; reproducing the myth that unemployment is caused by an individual lack of willpower. It is frustrating to see such myths circulate endlessly, particularly in light of the consent they generate for increasingly punitive and conditional welfare reforms. See for yourself how Redwood and Baker have voted in recent welfare reform motions. The stubbornness of this mythology in the House of Commons also – perhaps – reflects the narrowing of avenues that can lead there: last year the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission published a report which powerfully documented the dominance of a tiny elite in the political chambers who should represent (‘reflect’) us all. What can we expect from a House of Commons increasingly filled by this ‘class apart’, cushioned from poverty and precarity, for whom working class people are some ‘quaint ethnicity’. We should not be surprised that in this crisis of representation, these representatives increasingly rely on a commonsense shorthand, obligingly circulated by neoliberal thinktanks and special advisors.

The crisis of representation extends too to media; and at this debate we heard from several figures in the television industry. Richard McKerrow, founder of Love Productions, must win a prize for most regrettable comment of the evening when he stated that we are in a “golden age of television”, including presumably his own Benefits Street. When Channel 4 broadcast Benefits Street at the beginning of 2014, the eruption of disgust and hate that it seemed to authorize was alarming. During broadcast there were threats across social media sites to firebomb James Turner Street, and in the days and weeks after a shocking and sustained campaign of media intrusion into the lives of the programme’s participants. (The sociological response to the programme, and to the genre of ‘poverty porn’ can be accessed here.) I started thinking seriously about this genre in September 2013 and since that time I have struggled to keep up with the great swathes of symbolically violent television that (re)presents poverty in voyeuristic and damaging ways. The latest example of this ‘golden age’ genre forensically charted the welfare ‘burden’ of several people housebound by obesity (charmingly titled Too Fat Too Work). Channel 4 has already begun running trails for Love Production’s second season of Benefits Street and the producers must be eagerly anticipating the guaranteed attention currency that will be generated by its broadcast.   The directors proudly describe the second season as if it will be a public service, telling the local Teesside newspaper that “we’re looking to give a voice to a community that don’t really have a voice […] we think it’s incredibly important to represent those people”; yet to me the real, invisible story is one of cold, hard economics. The value of Love Productions increased by twenty five per cent in 2014. Not one penny went to any of the people living on James Turner Street, whose unpaid labour provided the thirty pieces of silver swiftly pocketed by Love Productions once they were done ‘representing’.

What struck me most about McKerrow’s comments at the House of Commons – and the comments of other speakers – was how media and political elites strategically profess ignorance.   In the audience discussion, I asked why social scientists – experts on poverty, inequality and precarity – are not routinely invited to the table of political and media debate about welfare reform. It was a genuine question aimed at both McKerrow (Love Productions, as far as I know, did not take any advice from social scientists or sociologists while producing Benefits Street) and at Baker (a member of think-tank Centre for Social Justice, who have managed to produce not one but two reports on poverty without consulting a single social scientist, see Slater, 2012). The response to this question was disappointing; the chair asked how anyone is to keep up with the great volume of social research produced every year? (to which I would answer: keeping up with any of it would be a start).

Of course, the conditions under which we come to know – and to not know – are deeply political, and the study of knowledge (as well as a counterstudy of ignorance) reveals the multiple dimensions of power. When McKerrow (and other poverty pornographers) state that programming ‘shines a light on poverty’ he is participating in a re-invention of ignorance that both serves him with a rationale to make his programme, and also denies that anything useful is already known. “We must shine a light on poverty because we know so little about it!” Poverty pornographers have shown that they are not interested in exploring the hundreds of detailed, thoughtful, sociological books about poverty and inequality. They have not attempted to enlist the advice or counsel of researchers who have spent years researching communities on the breadline: communities they may live in, often the very same communities that directors wish to ‘represent’ (this award-winning sociological study was based in Teesside, where Benefits Street 2 is set, yet its authors have not been consulted nor are they serving as advisors to the production). The study of ignorance, mapped out by Proctor and Scheibinger in their 2008 edited collection Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance, can point us to how and why certain knowledge and forms of knowing become ‘disappeared’, delayed or neglected.


Image: Local knowledge: Benefits Street camera crew had ‘local connections’ which (eventually) granted access. Photograph: Gazette Live, 2014

(Of course, even this liberal use of ignorance requires the occasional strategic flash of knowledge. When location scouting in Teesside for Benefits Street 2, producers were initially chased out by residents who did not want to be insects under their microscope. They were given a clear message by Middlesborough football fans who unfurled a banner reading “Being Poor Is Not Entertainment: Fuck Benefits Street!” The eventual selection of Stockton as a location came about partly as a result of the ‘local knowledge’ of some of the film crew who hailed from the area, which eventually granted access and ‘consent’. This flags up a useful site for starting to unpick the interweaving of knowledge and ignorance; the shaky politics of ‘representation’ in contemporary reality television; the hierarchies of ‘technician’ and ‘creative’ in the cultural work of media production. Most importantly it reminds us that welfare commonsense machinery is staffed by a whole range of exploited workers – some paid behind the camera, some completely unpaid in front of it – whose compliance is essential but precarious).

My question then is not “how can documentary television shine a light on the unknown world of poverty”, since that world is far from ‘unknown’. My question is equally not “how can we stop such television being made”. Television is an incredibly powerful medium, which can drive and shape social debate and change political consensus. Rather, my questions are; is our representation ‘machinery’ broken? Has television craft become television franchise? What are the conditions that enable ignorance about poverty to be claimed, constantly; by television producers who claim to bravely explore it while reproducing the same tired visual scripts; by politicians who cling to myths about the feckless welfare-dependent poor? What would television look like if production companies consulted advisors with actual, sociological expertise about the very processes they wish to ‘represent’? What would welfare policy look like if politicians read sociological research about poverty rather than a narrow range of think-tank publications? How bold would it be if, rather than inviting them to appear as ‘reality stars’ in their vision, directors gave cameras to people marginalised by poverty, showed them how to use them, and asked them to represent themselves and their lives in self-authored programming? Then we would truly be in a golden age of television.


Thanks to Tom Slater who introduced me to the term ‘agnotology’ which in turn led me to Proctor and Scheibinger’s bracing collection. You can read Tom’s blistering article on agnotology and welfare reform here

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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3 replies »

  1. While I appreciate your outrage and I certainly endorse the study of agnotology, your piece reads more like an advertisement for the need for more research into the public misrepresentation of poverty than a strategy for addressing the response of the committee chair who professed not knowing where to begin sifting through the relevant social research literature. This suggests to me that sociologists should try to work as researchers for MPs and their committees to bring the relevant literature to their attention. Otherwise, you may just end up unwittingly reproducing the problem that you’re trying to solve — i.e. by expanding the literature base and pushing it in a more inward-looking (i.e. academically oriented) direction.

  2. I take the point Steve, and thank you for it. At the same time, I don’t agree that ‘academically oriented’ necessarily means ‘inward-looking’ – I know so many public-facing sociologists who are trying to bring their research, and the research of others, onto the tables where it can influence and shape policy (we all want our research to have ‘impact’, right?) – too often they are blocked, silenced and ignored. If anyone is inward-looking it is think-tanks (and the politicians who set them up) who fail/refuse to consult these experts and instead conduct their own rigged research (what Tom Slater memorably calls ‘policy-based evidence-making’), rely on ‘research by dipstick’ and ‘anecdote’ to drown out the literature base that already exists.

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