The BBC, it seems, has recently appointed Katie Hopkins as the head of its public relations team. They have taken on the additional public service role of official propaganda machine for Iain Duncan Smith. Suzanne Collins is hurriedly putting together a case to sue them for copyright infringements. Yes, the BBC has genuinely drawn up plans to pit low paid and unemployed people against each other on national television to compete for a cash prize in what has quickly been dubbed a 'Hunger Games' for the poor. Satire gone wrong? Dystopian future? Unfortunately not.
The basic structure of the show appears to be that in each episode a series of 'tasks and challenges' will be set before our plucky precariat, and those that get the least work done are 'eliminated', something that has more than a whiff of IDS about it. Just as it was crucial for the citizens of Panem (the setting of the Hunger Games series) to ask themselves why being a ruthless killer for a solipsistical capital was something to be admired, so too we should ask ourselves why working our finger to the bone in a meaningless job for a pitiful wage is something that should be lauded, and a failure to do so vilified. This government (and now it's 'Opposition' is getting in on the act too) love to tell us that hard work is to be prized above all other virtues, but no one seems to stop and ask why?
The BBC, quoted in the Guardian, have defended the show from its inevitable backlash by describing it as a "serious social experiment for BBC2 which investigates just how hard people in the low wage economy work", seemingly oblivious to how such a show relies upon negative stereotypes to get any air time in the first place (ensuring that the BBC will endeavour to sprinkle in at least a few scroungers to keep the viewing figures up). Rupert Myers, writing for the Telegraph, defended the show too, suggesting that it could be a chance to inform public debate, to dispel this myth of lazy scroungers. The show's marketing team were clearly thinking along the same lines, producing a poster advertising the show as a chance to 'prove yourself', but these people shouldn't have to. This view itself is a product of laziness, lazy thinking that yet again conjures up an imaginary personal character flaw and a non-existent 'underclass' to disguise a systemic problem. People shouldn't have to scrub a floor until their fingers bleed whilst being gawped at by millions for us to realise this.
And gawp they will. Owen Jones has regularly talked of how the media pursue the extreme examples of those on welfare and low pay with relish, painting them as a fictitious 'norm'. Jack Monroe continues in this vein, warning would-be contestants in a powerful blog of the tirade of abuse and invasiveness they could be subjecting themselves to by choosing to appear on the show. There will be nothing serious about this show, not once the Daily Mail and the Twitterati get their hands on it. The majority of these contestants will be heralded as definitive proof of the debauchery of the lower class, as evidence of the feckless ways of those that live on council estates. There will be a winner that disproves the myth and is given a pat on the back and a miserly sum, but they will be forgotten. It will be those rare extremes that the tabloid press want us to remember, that 'prove' the scrounger narrative, that we will remember.
What is perhaps most worrying about all this is that is coming from what is usually a fairly impartial service (many will disagree with this statement, but the disagreement will come in equal measure from both the Left and the Right, so I am content). If the relatively benign BBC genuinely believes this sort of show is acceptable, what on earth are other, more radical channels and tabloids cooking up?
We are no longer seeking structural, systematic solutions to aid society, but rather looking for individuals to blame, with government rhetoric and media manipulation working overtime to supply the public with individual examples of a dangerous, unemployable underclass that they can blame for their woes. This is in lie with classical conservative ideology, an ideology that promotes individual liberty and responsibility, and distrusts an invasive state. This leaves it utterly unable to solve society's problems (it does not, after all, even believe there is such a thing as society), leading us instead down a path of spiralling division and strife.
Shows like 'Benefits Street', although not quite so overtly dehumanising nevertheless paved the way to shows such as this. The 'poverty porn' craze is both driven by and drives the national welfare rhetoric emanating from Tory HQ, a vicious positive feed-back loop with disastrously negative consequences: unless seriously tackled now it might not be all that long until those wishing to claim JSA really are pitted against each other in arenas full of weapons and traps. We'll accept this, of course, because we will still need to 'balance the books' and 'make work pay'.
Now here's a show I'd watch: CEOs and hedge fund managers are put through a series of challenges that require them to summon up basic traits such as empathy and a sense of social responsibility, with the winner not being put in jail for dodging their taxes. Perhaps, as Rupert has suggested would be true of 'Britain's Hardest Grafter', we'd end up realising we'd been a bit harsh on the rich and that they were actually a bastion of moral sentiment- but I rather doubt it. Personally I pride traits such as honesty and a social conscience above 'working hard', but that;s just me. The cause of our woes are due to a broken system, but there a certain people that actively work to keep it broken- why not pit them against each other? That'd be a real public service, something the BBC is supposed to provide.
We have allowed ourselves to become a nation that turns in on itself, blaming neighbours and friends for things out of their control, whilst the rich laugh as they tweak our puppet strings and rifle through our wallets. We should be deeply ashamed as a nation that a corporation that we own and fund has even considered such a venture, and incredibly angry with a press and a government that has conspired to make such shows possible, but we aren't. As long as it's not us and it makes for good viewing, we'll watch, tweet and discuss to our hearts content, whilst the poor scramble for the scraps we wish to throw to them.