Hot on the heels of ‘People Like Us,’ BBC3’s portrait of Manchester’s Harpurhey community, comes Channel 4’s ‘Skint’ a maggot on the carpet look at the residents of Scunthorpe’s Westcliff estate. Both programmes are snide, voyeuristic portrayals of what sociologists now term ‘the precariat’ (aka the ‘underclass’). Both pretend that they are offering an ‘insight’ into the lives of those caught in the so-called ‘benefit trap’ or who are struggling to make ends meet, by hook or by crack. Addicts, alcoholics, shoplifters, prostitutes, market traders, karaoke singers, cross-dressers, drug dealers, dancers, thieves. Y’know just like on ‘Shameless’ or ‘The Royle Family’ or ‘Jeremy Kyle.’ Laughing at poor people has a long and ignoble heritage dating all the way back to the beginning of TV itself. Whereas once we had RP voiced toffs trawling around terraced back to backs pontificating on the sense of community spirit in the slums, now we have Finchy from The Office narrating scripts seemingly written by Daily Mail editors.
This isn’t a coincidence, the current fascination with ‘Chav-o-vision’ is a direct result of the Tory/New Labour abandonment of the inner cities and urban heartlands particularly in the north. Whilst Major and Blair, Brown and Cameron fought for the middle ground, those solid Labour constituencies were left to rot and fester with fewer and fewer people voting and a cycle of deprivation trapping generations into a ghetto of social stasis. Well, those chickens have come home to roost and now the shit’s beginning to stink the coup out.
Here’s how The Telegraph’s Chris Harvey saw ‘Skint.’
This was TV as a window into lives that most people in this country have no way of comprehending, and the makers had captured them in the raw. It wasn’t fun, but it was compelling and insightful.
Well, maybe Telegraph readers have no way of comprehending these lives, but perhaps Guardian readers are a tad more ‘down wid da hood’ yah? Here’s what their TV critic, Sam Woolaston had to say :
It could have been awful – gawpy and patronising, or worthy and dull. It’s none of those things. It’s funny, fair, frank. And it still manages to highlight the very real issues of poverty in this country.
So, that’s OK then. We have a consensus on ‘Skint’ from both hard right and soft left. People Like THEM!!! You wouldn’t want to live in Harpurhey or Westcliff but atleast via the power of ‘Chav-O-Vision’ you can get to see how feral scallys smoke weed all day and heroin addicts ‘graft’ stolen goods in a frank and fair, non-gawpy and non-patronising, compelling and insightful way . This is NEWS to some people. Finchy’s doing the voice over, so it must be true.
Yet, ‘documentaries’ (if you can call these programmes as such) are only the tip of a very cold and slippery iceberg. Switch on breakfast tv and ‘Saints & Scroungers’ is showing on BBC2. Daytime’s got the Kyle Krew crawling from DNA test to DNA test and then of an evening you can settle down and enjoy ‘The Hoarder Next Door To The Extreme Hoarder’ and ‘The Filth Files Extreme Filth Extra’ where poverty and mental illness give viewers a two-for-the-price-of -one freakshow bonanza.
The commissioners and top brass will ofcourse excuse this type of garbage as ‘opening a debate on the issues’ or even ‘providing education and information’ – check those helplines folks if YOU’VE been affected by any of the issues featured. But it’s not just TV wallowing in poverty porn. The press, both tabloid and broadsheet as well as magazines and publishers delight in featuring extreme tales of lowlife brutality and neglect. Most readers of this type of slime are ofcourse poor people themselves. Just as they’re more likely to buy scratch cards in an attempt to escape the reality of their situation, so the poor will devour slime to make themselves feel a bit better about their often terrible lives.
There is a deliberate attempt to demonise and marginalise the people featured in these programmes and in these papers, mags and books as ‘The Other’ as sub-human examples of a welfare system gone to rot, not an economic system that has failed them. They are the ‘undeserving poor’ as opposed to those who accept their poverty and beg for crumbs from ‘Secret Millionaires’ or temporary swaps with wealthy show offs to see ‘How The Other Half Live.’ Private philanthropy not government subsidies is the Victorian ideal.
‘Skint’ is the just the latest piece of state propaganda directed not at those who create the conditions that these people are forced to survive in but the often un-educated, inarticulate and naive people whose lives are being exploited. ‘Cheap holidays in other people’s misery’ as Mr Rotten put it. The ‘drip, drip’ effect of this constant stream of negativity and stigmatisation only provides ammunition for the rich kids who inherited their wealth, who have never worked in their lives or had to struggle for their education, or their jobs, or their position yet see fit to lecture others on self-discpline, hard work and morality.
‘Let them eat crack!’