TV preview: Nick and Margaret: We All Pay Your Benefits

Nick Hewer and Margaret Mountford in We Pay All Your Benefits

Nick Hewer and Margaret Mountford in We Pay All Your Benefits

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In years to come, when historians seek to ascertain the cause of Britain’s slide into callous right-wing selfishness, they will surely point to Nick and Margaret: We All Pay Your Benefits as an emblem of the rot.

NICK AND MARGARET: WE ALL PAY YOUR BENEFITS

Thursday, BBC1, 9pm

Torn from the pages of the Daily Mail, this ill-conceived “social experiment” finds Nick Hewer and Margaret Mountford, servants of multimillionaire Alan Sugar, pitting taxpayers against unemployment benefit claimants in order to gauge whether the latter deserve their money.

Just let that sink in for a moment. We’re living through a recession, in a nation ruled by a shamelessly uncaring government, where the most vulnerable members of society are systematically demonised and punished. And here come two celebrities in a chauffeur-driven car passing judgment on the poor, in what is basically Wife Swap with a hint of social conscience. It’s sickening.

It consists of this: four taxpayers – all of them hard-working, of course – visit claimants’ homes and tut at their flat screen TVs. Never mind that these TVs aren’t a symbol of wealth, but the predominant model owned by practically everyone in Britain. No, they’re a sure sign that lazy scroungers are cheating the system.

Two of the hard-working taxpayers (HWTs) are so effortlessly patronising, they only heighten one’s sympathy for the struggling claimants. Before meeting an unemployed single mother, one HWT says she won’t be happy if her victim spends money on cigarettes and alcohol: cut to the woman smoking a fag while some beer cans rest in a nearby bin bag.

We know what’s going on here. Television thrives on conflict, which is why this drivel is populated by the most reactionary HWTs imaginable. An unbearable scene in which a claimant is harangued for spending money on her kids makes, as far as the producers are concerned, great telly. But all it proves is that some people are horrendous. We’re not only being encouraged to judge the claimants, but also those who look down on them. It’s a programme designed to provoke and little else.

Granted, it dutifully points out that only a tiny percentage of the welfare budget is spent on unemployment, and I can’t deny that, underneath its infuriating surface, it does attempt to challenge knee-jerk prejudices. But the execution is so insensitive, it buries whatever good intentions it has.

Inevitably, some of the HWTs soften their views over time, thus satisfying TV’s need for enlightening emotional journeys. And maybe some viewers will follow suit when they’re exposed to the depressing reality of unemployment. Does that justify its existence? Possibly. But it’s disgraceful that we’ve reached a point where the BBC feels it necessary to point out that – Hey! – benefit claimants are people too. That it has imparted this message in such a dubious fashion merely compounds the misery.

Anyway, let’s look forward to the sequel in which Nick and Margaret tackle the moral turpitude of bankers and politicians. That’s coming soon, right?

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