This week saw the closing part of the BBC docu-drama "Nick and Margaret: We All Pay Your Benefits", and I have to say the two-part series left me feeling rather cold. I was disappointed to see such blatant populism from two individuals who had previously exhibited the three essentials of decent television: Intelligence, Integrity and Insight. However, with this series of the apprentice drawing to a close, it seems they feared that which haunts all television personalities: Irrelevance.
Rather than breaking ground with any real analysis of this government's welfare reform or new insight into life on benefits, Nick and Margaret chose to cater to the lowest common denominator. Rehashing unhelpful myths about "benefit scroungers", this series reinforced exactly the kind of prejudices it claimed to combat.
The first, and perhaps most obvious pitfall was the title, which neatly suited the awful premise of the show: taxpayers going into the homes of those on benefits and judging how they spend their money. The programme was framed in an overtly confrontational manner, playing up the "striver versus scrounger" conflict that this government has so successfully worked into the popular consciousness.
By judging the lives of four benefit claimants, the welfare state was put under scrutiny with a healthy dose of human drama on the side. Rather than analysing the numbers or doing a wide survey, sweeping judgments were made based on a voyeuristic examination of the lives of just four people. The programme then thrived off the drama and conflict that followed between the taxpayers and benefit recipients. Stevie's relentless work ethic rubbed off on the seemingly lazy and unmotivated Liam, while Chris found his self respect once more again he joined Simon for a week of plumbing. These stories had perfect two-hour narrative arcs and the ability to tug a little on the heartstrings, but didn't actually say much that could be applied to the issue of welfare as a whole.
That is not to say there was no factual analysis in the programme. In the first part of the series, the pair did in fact do a little analysis on the division of welfare spending, explaining that the largest chunk goes towards pensioners, with only 10% actually being spent on unemployment benefits. This stands in stark contrast to the popular belief that taxes essentially finance those too lazy to get a job. Had the show chosen to focus on this issue: dissecting where public welfare spending really goes and whether it is enough, it might have made an interesting point. This more interesting series could have been called "Nick and Margaret: We All Pay Your Pensions". However, instead the show chose to pander to stereotypes with human drama of the Jeremy Kyle variety.
In the second part, Nick and Margaret once again embarked on a little deeper exploration of the issues. Nick very pertinently pointed out that merely cutting benefits did not seem to be a solution to the issues facing the welfare state. He emphasized that the fact that, with so many people going for each entry-level low-skilled job, the issue was not merely lack of motivation, but lack of opportunity. There was a degree of insight into the difficulties of live on benefits as he implored that the government not "drive people into poverty to save a few quid", but invest in training and job creation.
The most annoying thing about the series was that there was an interesting question to answer, which on several occasions was fleetingly addressed: "Are the assumptions we make about welfare spending necessarily correct?" The answer to this question actually seemed to be no; unemployment benefits do not comprise an overly large percentage of welfare spending and the problem cannot be solved by just cutting benefits. It seems a shame that these conclusions were undermined by the judgmental and condescending tone of the show. Once again the media underestimates the intelligence of the viewer, handing over reality-style programming that mostly just reinforces popular opinion, rather than challenging the audience with anything interesting. Margaret and Nick: I expected more.