On Benefits & Proud – misleading, dishonest, misdirecting?

Tue, 15/10/2013 - 15:38 -- nick

After the BBC’s Saints and Scroungers and Trouble on the Estate and Channel 4’s Tricks of the Dole Cheats, Channel 5 has weighed in to the welfare debate with last night’s documentary On Benefits & Proud.

As you might expect, the station that launched with the aim of bringing us ‘films, football and funning’ (they didn’t use the word funning) has gone in boots first and brought us some of the most infamous claimants in the UK.

The show was only the first in the season, to be followed by ‘Shoplifters & Proud’ and ‘Pickpockets & Proud’, including the workless in a criminal fraternity.

“Britain’s jobless get £100 million in benefits every day ... so are benefits right or are they wrong?” it asked, as if the programme makers were aiming at a considered debate on the workings of the system.

They weren’t. When you’re on Channel 5, you can bet your bottom dollar (they love an American import) that programme makers will go to extremes to try to promote anger and divisiveness.

The voiceover invited us to see those on screen as representative, but two of the families had nine and 11 children.

A quick check shows that, of more than 1.3 million families claiming out-of-work benefits, only 2% had five or more children.

And as Channel 4’s fact check says, above that level “the percentages get so small as to be fairly negligible”.

That we were shown the front pages of national newspapers carrying stories of those on screen should have been a clue that we were not seeing typical claimants or hearing their stories.

The programme was designed to mislead more than inform. The final scene showed Heather, a mother of 11, raising her eyebrows as the voiceover sneered that “the cost [of converting her house] will be thousands of pounds, but one thing’s for sure; Heather won’t be paying.”

She hadn’t said anything dismissive, so we were shown an out-of-context shrug to pretend she felt this way.

We had already been told through voiceover that she was unimpressed with her new £500,000 council house despite her actually saying “anyone’s going to be lucky when they get a brand new house aren’t they?”

The sardonic voiceover continued that “when you’re not paying the money really doesn’t matter” as if those who pay rent should all be concerned about the building costs of the property they occupy.

Heather was described as “the dole queen”, apparently for having had the temerity to have had so many children, and this was one of the programme’s few nods to the fact that we were watching outliers, not typical claimants.

We were not told for example that Vinnie and his partner Julie had been on Jeremy Kyle before; every walk of life has its attention-seekers, but media representations of them can lead to hardening attitudes, which shows up in polling, and in turn emboldens governments to implement poverty policies like the benefit cap, below-inflation benefit rises and the bedroom tax.

When programmes like this are so contaminated by dishonesty, their undeserved influence is even more malign. Despite presenting Julie as unemployed, part-way through the show rather shame-facedly confessed that she was long-term sick and had held a job before, rendering the presentation of her as a workshy layabout entirely misplaced.

The amount of money doled out by the UK’s underfunded benefits system was treated as if it was millions. “With unexpected [benefit] money in the bank, it’s time to spend” said the voiceover, apparently disapproving of Vinny and Julie’s extravagant corner shop purchase of electricity, gas, and one can of beer.

The can was one of the breakout stars of the show, later having two close-ups of its own nestling in Vinnie’s crotch as it heroically bore the burden of representing the fecklessness of the workless.

The programme didn’t go so far as to suggest that sterilisation would be a reasonable response to the issue of large claimant families, but the Twitterists had no such reticence, competing with demands for that and worse, including death.

People were particularly angered by the fact that Vinny and Julie had both satellite and cable TV, not realising that benefits are so paltry in this country – the lowest of the first 15 EU countries – that they would have to be suffering privations in other areas of their lives to be able to afford this.

The really damaging result of On Benefits & Proud and its ilk is in the misdirection of the anger of those who have little towards those that have less. When the programme says “politicians say the cost of benefits is way too high” it is complicit in the same misleading idea that welfare and unemployment are at the root of the country’s banking-caused financial problems.

There is another solution to this issue, one that wouldn’t harm those who couldn’t afford it, and would help to restore a greater measure of equality to our country.

Cracking down on tax avoidance and evasion could bring in £120 billion each year according to Tax Research LLP. That figure would plug the entire UK deficit, so why aren’t Channel 5 making programmes about this?

Well, perhaps the answer lies on another channel, in a Panorama programme ‘The Truth about Tax’ broadcast last year on BBC1.

This showed how some companies, including Northern & Shell, used a legal Luxembourg loophole to avoid paying tax on UK earnings.

From the BBC website:

“The end result was that Northern & Shell had sheltered profits which would otherwise have generated six million in UK corporation tax.”

So what is Northern & Shell? The owner of Channel 5.

There was a brief moment in On Benefits & Proud which showed Heather’s two dogs, a tiny Chihuahua and another ten times its size. The big one appeared to be happily co-existing with the small one and looking after it. It was not hard to imagine the show’s producers, and Channel 5 itself, being disappointed at the care shown for the weak.