Poverty isn’t an entertainment. It’s private, debilitating and alienating. It produces shame, guilt and misery, causing those who suffer to withdraw into whatever they call home and shut the door on a world that excludes them.
Unfortunately it doesn’t exclude Channel 4, which went ahead with another series of Skint – this time filmed in my Grimsby constituency – despite my protests and those of many local organisations and concerned individuals.
Channel 4 has discovered that poverty tourism does more for ratings than celebrity culture, missions to explain or any highfalutin attempts to hold government to account. Kicking people when they’re down (and gullible) is so much easier and less expensive than intelligent programming. Victims don’t sue, and when do-gooders complain, they can always be accused of wanting to censor serious seekers after truth. So we get a proliferation of Misery Telly and programmes like Benefits Street, Immigration Street and Skint.
Demonising the poor and turning deprivation into entertainment isn’t just deplorable, it’s dishonest – while television channels all proclaim their high integrity, the producers sent out on this mission to demean aren’t to be equally trusted. They have their own agenda and all too often this demands victims.
So they come to a town nominally to “research”, but in practice to find the most sordid locations and pick out the most loud-mouthed, show-off layabouts who’ll rant at anything for a few bob (which they don’t in fact get).
Then they distort the local situation. Some towns are tougher than others and Grimsby can be a hard place, even curmudgeonly. Yet everywhere there are warm hearts and caring souls, charitable organisations and religious groups that struggle to help the poor and downtrodden, such as Grimsby’s Christian Action, which runs the Daily Bread Food Larder, or Harbour Place Day Centre, started by a nun, which provides care for the homeless.
People care. If they refuse to cooperate with malign production teams, they’re made to seem callous and brutal. Protesting is no use because complaints get the PR brush-off, and the only attempt at balance is an on-air shouting match, such as the one that followed Benefits Street.
These programmes pander to popular prejudices, media misconceptions and Tory propaganda. In the 1930s, poverty, unemployment and deprivation – brought home by Orwell’s descriptions of Wigan and Sheffield, Priestley’s journey and marches such as Jarrow – stirred the nation’s conscience and built the case for the welfare state.
Now poverty has become an object of blame, as if scroungers are responsible for the size of the benefits bill, young people enjoy a life of idleness and “hard-working families” are having to work for peanuts while lazy neighbours procreate.
This is a monstrous travesty of reality and concentrates hatred on the least well-educated, most deprived. TV doesn’t even balance it with shows on the scandal of massive tax evasion and avoidance by corporations and the rich, the luxurious life- style of the City and Taxhaven on Thames or the excesses of the Wolf of Wall Street.
Think again, Channel 4. Why not turn the cameras on the bankers punishing the poor, with Benefits Bankers, Tax-Evading Toffs and Fiddling Financiers? When is television going to do its job and take on all that? All it needs is guts and a sense of fairness.
Austin Mitchell is the MP for Great Grimsby
Skint is on Channel 4 tonight (24th November) at 9.00pm