TV Reviews

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The Independent Culture
The last of The System (BBC2), Peter Dale's elegant series about the welfare state confronted a conundrum that has engaged philosophers for centuries. How can we have true knowledge about another person's pain? The question isn't actually susceptible to any practical answer - but that did not appear to have daunted the Department of Social Security, who recently set about replacing the old sickness benefits with a new system, one designed to weed out those whose principal ailment is a chronic allergy to work. "Incapacity" focused on Glasgow, where a staggering 10 per cent of the citizens are on long-term invalidity benefit. Most of them are staggering when they enter the doctor's surgery, anyway, clearly determined to prove their entitlement to the more generous, untaxed benefit. Some of them wince noisily if the doctor so much as breathes in their direction, but on this evidence most of them receive a sympathetic hearing: "If I were in their position I would be trying to maximise my income," said one doctor candidly. "There's not a lot going for them in the industrial line."

Peter Lilley, though, has pledged to minimise his outgoings and so has introduced a new medical test. The civil servant responsible for this massive (and unpopular) change was anxious to make it clear that the government had no targets for miracle cures - chronic invalids suddenly declared fit for work - but at the same time promises had been made to the Treasury which were weighing on bureaucratic minds. Though the new test was just as reliant on the honesty of patients as the old one, the presumption of innocence had been eroded. You didn't actually see the hiring procedure for the many new doctors required to administer the scheme, but you got the impression that a trusting nature was not high on the list of desirable qualities. This cultural shift came as a dismaying shock to some clients: "He gave himself 98 points," explained one adjudication officer, checking through a questionnaire filled in by a man with a bad knee. The medical examiner took a more sanguine view of his health, awarding him only nine, some way short of the 15 required for entitlement.

The series shouldn't pass, incidentally, without praise for Richard Ranken's photography, which has even found ways to make old files look intriguing. In all the programmes the camera occasionally returned to the paperwork, staring in mute awe at the hard evidence for the scale of the problem. Last night, it finished with a nice joke about this stylistic trope, visiting the Northern Ireland department where millions and millions of used girocheques are verified. After a year on the shelves, they are finally pulped, countless receipts for human need converted into egg boxes.

The revelation in Dispatches (C4) that MI6 was instrumental in restoring the Argentinian destroyer fleet to operational service was taken very seriously by the programme-makers, and understandably so - it was a wonderful story, and though it had been gifted to them by its principal actor, a British businessman and amateur spy called Clive Russell, they had gone to some lengths to check out his allegations. So one could hardly begrudge them the enjoyable appurtenances of investigative filming - the stretch limo hired for New York interviews, the surveillance camera-work, the lurid reconstructions, the slightly breathless script ("The man the Argentine admirals dubbed the Silver Fox, took us into his lair"). But, while you wouldn't want to make light of the cynicism and hypocrisy revealed here (and while there are some large remaining questions about exactly who profited from the affair), it was hard not to see a rich element of comedy in the story too. In order to gain access to Argentine naval secrets, MI6 had provided them with exactly what they wanted, spare parts for their Rolls Royce engines. Every step in this lunatic operation was justified by the "high-grade intelligence" it was providing - presumably about the alarming fact that the Argentinian navy was making rapid progress towards seaworthiness. One wonders whether "intelligence" is really the right word.