Saints and Scroungers is the BBC’s daytime programme dealing with benefit recipients. As the title suggests, it divides human interest stories in to ‘saints’ – those who have received benefits in conditions of real hardship, and used the money wisely and well, and ‘scroungers’, those who have falsely claimed benefits.
The ‘Saints’ in this episode are a family with a father who had died of cancer in 2010. Weigh up the words – ‘family’, ‘father’, ‘cancer’ – and feel the waves of pity crash over you at their plight. Two of their six children have special needs and attended a unit that helped taught gardening and helped them personally after the death of their father. We were introduced to the family’s pets, a reliable way of getting the viewer onside and increasing their sympathy.
The ‘Scrounger’, Amina Muse, is a Somali immigrant asylum seeker with five children who claimed benefits both here and in Sweden. Weigh up the words – ‘immigrant’, ‘asylum seeker’, ‘five children’ and ‘benefits’ – and feel the thrill of the hate they bring to those who hate. Despite the many children involved these subjects were never described as a family, and great store was set by the many televisions found in their flat, apparently a measure of great wealth today.
The programme’s main aim – demonising those who receive benefits – was shown through the fact that more running time was given to the ‘Scrounger’ than the ‘Saints’, and the ‘Scrounger’ sections formed the beginning and end of it, the most memorable and eye-catching places.
The programme used the full suite of heavy-handed methods to hammer home its points, including dramatic music, intrusive interviews (including with children, but never of the ‘Scroungers’), and reconstructions of events. The last of these is the most controversial; it is doubtful that Muse really sat in a police interview room with the sulky facial expressions of a teenager who has been grounded by her parents. It is also doubtful that she was sitting in a flat bathed in a haunting green light while she made phone calls.
It appeared that the ‘Scrounger’ really had been claiming benefits falsely. But the programme makers didn’t just want us to believe that Muse was a benefits fraudster, going on to rubbish her claim for asylum, although this was as irrelevant to the benefits issue as the pets of the ‘Saints’ were to theirs. Asylum had been granted primarily because she claimed to have been gang-raped in Somalia – reason for sympathy, but dismissed by the programme with the claim that it could be disproven with hospital records showing that Muse had been having a baby at the time.
But records in failed states like Somalia are notoriously unreliable, and in any case, few people who have lived in that country can have escaped the kind of experiences that would damage any of us and make us do anything to escape.
And are the ‘Saints’ so saintly? The mother of the family admitted that they had all experienced real hardship as a result of her being too ‘proud’ to claim benefits as soon as they were due. In the bible pride is a sin – the opposite of saintly.
In the end, the real problem with ‘Saints and Scroungers’ isn’t that it is dishonest and exploits its subjects; it is that the issues involved are rarely simple, and pretending that benefit recipients can be divided simply into good and bad and presented in 28 minutes is dishonest and exploits its viewers.
UnemployedNet campaigns against media use of the word scrounger and the way unemployed and economically inactive people are portrayed. Check out our campaign here for more information on how you can get involved.