For most developed countries the concept of “food poverty” is controversial. A recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlighted that living costs have risen 25% in the past five years and placed an “unprecedented” financial burden on the poor”. In addition to this rising childcare and energy costs, coupled with stagnating wages and benefit cuts, widened the poverty gap. How is this affecting daily life for those who are struggling to provide for themselves and their children? What do we know about “poverty in Britain”? The latest themed series of BBC documentaries comes under the banner ‘The Cost Of Living’. The season was announced in April 2013 as providing viewers with a diverse range of programmes that look at ‘value for money’ and how to make ‘informed choices’ about what we buy. As BBC One Controller, Danny Cohen explained, “it’s important that BBC One continues to tackle subjects in prime-time that really resonate with British people’s lives.”
In “The Great British Budget Menu” we see a familiar format. Celebrity chef meets ordinary person who needs some cooking tips and in a race against time they team up to compete for the critics’ praise. The key difference here is that chefs (Angela Hartnett, James Martin and Richard Corrigan) were working with people trying to cope with severe food poverty while competing for the ‘best banquet on a budget’. The challenge was to cook on a very limited budget of just over £2.00. Worth noting is the fact that none of the chefs managed to do this – so was the programme a failure? It did not seem to work as entertainment mainly because the show made for awkward viewing. Chefs seemed confused by trying to locate the ‘economy’ section of the supermarket (one opted for salmon bought in Waitrose). They were also clearly uncomfortable in being confronted by people with so little. One tried in vain to encourage a 66 year old man to eat a second egg for breakfast and another counselled a gaunt woman who was replacing meals with copious cups of sugary tea so that her teenage daughter could eat properly.
The opportunity to move beyond the personal and discuss food production, pricing and distribution was swiftly deflected by two supermarket spokespeople (from Morrison’s and Sainsbury’s) who agreed to make reduced priced goods more easily located and add some lines to their economy products. As many people on twitter noted the rival supermarkets Aldi and Lidl, both known for good quality and excellent value products, were absent from the show. The other main factor absent from the programme was a serious consideration of how we have ended up in this situation. Why are so many people dependant on food banks? Why is there a ‘nutritional recession’ in this country? Why in one case are two people who are working fulltime still unable to afford to eat fresh meat and vegetables on a regular basis? Each chef left with a parting gift (a few chickens for one family, a set of basic curry spices for another) but it all seemed insufficient.
The programme was followed swiftly by another which featured key figures from The Apprentice – Nick Hewer and Margaret Mountford. In “Nick and Margaret: We All Pay Your Benefits” they investigated the welfare state by introducing ‘tax payers’ to ‘benefits claimants ‘(with four different sets of unemployed people including a family who will be worse off if they accept a job). The show certainly caused a commotion on twitter, with many people quickly signing up to the subversive hashtag #happytopayyourbenefits which began trending in the UK and pointing out that illness or unemployment can happen to anyone including themselves.
The premise of the two programmmes discussed here makes it exceptionally difficult to move beyond the personal. The title of the Nick and Margaret show clearly draws a divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and yet many benefits claimants (them) will also have been ‘tax payers’ too (us). These shows seem easily dismissed but it is worth remembering the power of media to shape our ideas about different issues not least the deserving and undeserving. A recent study found a huge misconception about statistics associated with benefits with the public thinking that £24 of every £100 of benefits is fraudulently claimed. Official estimates are that just 70 pence in every £100 is fraudulent – so the public conception is out by an order of magnitude. More importantly we should be reminded that stigma of accepting benefits means that many people who are most in need are unwilling to accept welfare funds for fear of being labelled a ‘scrounger’. Poverty is not covered frequently in media and as a study of media and poverty concluded:
“The media have the capacity to inform the public about the nature of poverty; there is scope to humanise and politicise poverty. However, this possibility is undermined, as poverty is rarely explicitly described or explained.”
Without seeming to hail back to a ‘golden age’ of television it seems reasonable to say we have come very far from learning about homelessness from Ken Loach in ‘Cathy Come Home’ or unemployment from Alan Bleasedale in ‘Boys from the Blackstuff’. Whilst it is important not to assume that we can predict the moral positions and affective responses generated by these encounters, the hybrid reality /factual entertainment on offer in the Cost of Living Season seems to invite opprobrium as much as social learning.