Tiffany Jenkins: Switch off lazy, tasteless TV tripe

Julie and Sue, from that other piece of 'poverty porn', Channel 4's Benefits Street
Julie and Sue, from that other piece of 'poverty porn', Channel 4's Benefits Street
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The BBC says its new reality show is a ‘serious social experiment’. It isn’t, and it has been rightly slated for exploiting the poor says Tiffany Jenkins

I thought it was a spoof, at first. When I heard about Britain’s Hardest Grafter, I thought it was a storyline being trailed for the next series of WIA, the BBC’s satire on the BBC, which depicts the corporation as bloated and directionless, overtaken by vacuous management executives desperate to make “appointment to view” television. I anticipated an episode in which a ratings-driven producer tries to get Claudia Winkleman and Tess Daly to present a reality TV programme where unemployed and low-paid workers compete against each other for money, and Hugh Bonneville has to defend the show as an important exploration of the state of Britain when it is inevitably lambasted for being tasteless and exploitative.

Only it is not a spoof. It’s for real, if without the celebrities, as far as we know. Britain’s Hardest Grafter, to be broadcast on BBC2, will see 25 of Britain’s poorest workers – that’s those who earn or receive benefits that total no more than £15,500 a year – pitted against each other, for the condescending accolade of “effective worker” and a cash prize of about £15,000. Those workers deemed ineffective along the way will be eliminated: fired – perhaps berated for being feckless, live on national television. After which, I imagine, they will be signed up for a photo shoot in one of the red-tops – if they are good looking – and interviewed for an apparently more serious article in one of the broadsheets, in which they explain, in tears, how hard it is to feed their children and how tough life is at the bottom: the sort of thing that we read and feel bad about, but feel good about really because it suggests we care.

Now, a petition is calling for the BBC to abandon its plans to broadcast the programme. Thousands of people want Britain’s Hardest Grafter stopped because it’s “poverty porn”, the term used to describe programmes such as Channel 4’s Benefits Street and others including the snappily, if somewhat repetitively, titled Shoplifters And Proud, On Benefits And Proud and Pickpockets And Proud, entertainment that exploits the misery of the poor, which has become popular with TV commissioners since the recession.

The petition reads: “Unemployment and poverty are serious social issues and should not be the subject of a cheap game show format, designed to exploit some of the most impoverished in our society for the purposes of dubious ‘entertainment’.”

I hate to agree – I won’t sign petitions such as these, as they tend to be an easy exercise in cheap and censorious outrage – but the signatories have a point.

A BBC spokeswoman has defended the programme, saying: “Britain’s Hardest Grafter is a serious social experiment for BBC2 which investigates just how hard people in the low wage economy work.” She added the series “explores the truth about Britain’s work ethic” and that “contributors are rewarded for the work they do”. But it’s unclear how people competing against each other for the title of hardest grafter, like animals doing tricks for titbits, will provide any serious insight into low productivity or the benefits system. The only thing a programme like this reveals about Britain’s work ethic is the lack of imagination of certain TV programme makers.

It’s possible the negative reaction to Britain’s Hardest Grafter is overblown. The programme has not yet been filmed. There is a chance it will be more subtle and serious than would first appear. But, even so, there are problems with TV documentaries today – Britain’s Hardest Grafter is part of a trend.

The main problem is the rise and domination of reality television. Not all of reality TV is bad, of course. Programmes like Seven Up, which began in 1964 and followed – and still follows – the lives of 14 seven-year-old British children from different social and economic backgrounds, are brilliant. The eight episodes, including the most recent, Fifty-Six Up, analyse well the relationship between the individual and society and do so whilst remaining focused on human beings. Each one leaves you with observations and questions, not quick, tabloid conclusions. More recently, The Scheme, a Bafta-award-winning, BBC Scotland documentary series, which followed the lives of families living in the poverty-stricken housing estates of Onthank and Knockinlaw, revealed something of what life can be like for those in these difficult circumstances – which is important to understand.

The trouble with most reality TV today is that it’s not trying to get underneath and understand social problems. It is looking for personalities. Programme makers appear more interested in creating characters than asking questions about society – in praising or having a go at individuals, rather than a structural analysis. And there are never any surprises. We all know the script beforehand.

These kinds of programmes are often criticised for being exploitative – the petition calling for the BBC to abandon Britain’s Hardest Grafter describes the show as “a degrading and exploitative format”. But the tendency to see participants as exploited in this way can underestimate the individuals involved. The people who are filmed aren’t stupid – they know what producers are looking for and give them what they want: it makes sense for them to do so. Those on camera try to become good performers, to succeed as reality TV stars. They bid to be liked or hated, to become notorious, to be the next White Dee – the star of Benefits Street. Who wouldn’t do the same given the chance? It’s a good career move.

With Britain’s Hardest Grafter, expect to see stock and clichéd characters: the lazy, slightly dangerous rascal; the hardworking, desperate mum; and the lost and pathetic young man, all of whom we are to feel sorry for. No matter how hard any of them work, we – the audience sitting in judgment from above – will be asked to either condemn or pity them. There will be no – or little – social analysis. This is not documentary making. It’s soap opera. We should switch it off.