The other day I was contacted by a TV production company seeking my help in recruiting children and young people for a documentary programme about their experience of poverty. Obviously contacts like these are now subtly different, post-Benefits street: but in what way?
Would another production company dare to treat people who experience exclusion in the way the producers of Benefits street did? Well, yes, quite possibly.
There may be a different atmosphere now, but it does feel just like the no-brainer of press regulation, with plenty of empty words spouted so that journalists can go on manipulating disempowered people in the interests of corporate profit.
Against that, I would so much like there to be a broadcast of the voices and experiences of young people like those we reproduced in A series of doors. That could have some impact, and would be worth striving for. But don’t hold your breath, there isn’t going to be a TV version of A series of doors. I passed on the request in a neutral way, but I’ll be surprised if there are any takers.
There’s a question here about disregarding this opportunity as being ‘wrong channel’ – in two senses. First, I won’t reveal which TV channel is expected to broadcast the documentary, but it’s one which has done nothing to accumulate trust in the quality of its programmes. Secondly, is there an argument for turning backs on mainstream broadcast media – which, with a few exceptions, have let so many people down through callous, politicised and exploitative behaviour - in favour of all-out social media?
Will social media come to outplay TV, in spite of the well-known problems of trolls and trash, where issues of this kind are concerned? Does the Benefits street rumpus represent a watershed in the history of the popular politics of welfare, in which the great artilleries of the broadcast industries are finally discredited and the guerrilla style of social technologies might be seen, retrospectively at least, to right some wrongs? (OK, well let me have my moment of optimism, I need it).
If you’re sceptical about the role that media companies play in the creation of an uncaring society, you might want to glance over at the Diary of a Benefit Scrounger: Sue Marsh has blogged in some detail about her experience in this respect. She makes clear that it’s not just the media companies: the government is playing a canny game by declining to debate welfare, as Marsh explains:
‘For some time now, the DWP and No.10 have refused to put anyone up against me. (and presumably other campaigners) at all. At first, 3 (all BBC) went ahead, but the various researchers were all genuinely shocked at the lack of government engagement. All said they'd never known such blanket refusals to debate an issue.
Perhaps more sinisterly, they were shocked that invariably the DWP refused to take part unless the stories were edited their way. Iain Duncan-Smith has written repeatedly and furiously to the BBC about their lack of balance in reporting welfare issues… it's clever isn't it? Refuse to debate at all and generally it will mean there can be no debate. You can shut down any and all opposition simply by saying nothing at all.’
It’s a bit sad that the researchers in question were so naïve as to be ‘shocked’ by the secretary of state's attitude, but that maybe tells us that the media bubble and the Westminster bubble don’t necessarily overlap. Sue finishes her post with what might be interpreted as a rallying cry around ‘social media if nowhere else’ so maybe my thoughts aren’t entirely misguided.
Finally on this theme, here’s the excellent Suzanne Moore writing about how ‘everything now starts from the prevailing Tory narrative that "welfare" is a luxury we can no longer afford’. She's right, and of course the use of the word 'luxury' is supremely, imperiously insulting to thousands of people who need support. Moore concludes:
‘None of the main parties represent a significant challenge to the idea that at the bottom of society a "culture of entitlement" exists. The culture of entitlement in reality exists at the top, in the form of sanctioned tax avoidance. But the supposed trickle down of wealth does not happen. Instead, there has been a trickle down of the attitudes of the wealthy: a disconnection from the state, mutual obligation and shared humanity.’
I just wonder, post-Benefits street, if there has been a significant attitude shift? If so, you wouldn’t expect politicians in the main parties to be among the first to notice.