Whether it's Poverty Porn or Poverty Pawn, who really does benefit from TV recession documentaries?

Downturn Abbey next? Suddenly we have all this misery, says television commentator

Media Editor

The television industry is agonising over its portrayal of the biggest domestic story of recent times: the stagnation of the British economy.

Turn on one channel and you might find the “poverty porn” of factual documentary (Skint or Nick and Margaret: We Pay Your Benefits), focusing on the chaotic lives of the underclass and their financial gymnastics in surviving on benefits. Switch to another network and there’s “misery drama” (The Village or The Mill), highlighting the grim social conditions of a previous age.

Either way, the typical viewer is left with the same impression: things could be a lot worse. “The problem with these programmes is that they make poverty look unusual,” said Kate Bell of Child Poverty Action Group. “Poverty could happen to anyone through job loss, relationship breakdown or illness.”

The industry knows it has questions to answer over whether it is properly representing the most serious subject in modern Britain or being trite. One of the sessions for this month’s Edinburgh International Television Festival is titled: “‘Poverty Porn’: Who Benefits from Documentaries on Recession Britain?”

The festival’s literature poses the question: “Programmes about the poorest in society are a mainstay of the documentary tradition but in a world of ratings chasing and the search for the next big hit, has the purpose of these programmes changed?”  

A recent YouGov survey – following the broadcast of Skint and BBC3’s People Like Us about the UK’s “most deprived suburb” found that 45 per cent of respondents felt that reality programmes on the urban poor were “in bad taste”, while 23 per cent found them “interesting and entertaining”. Joe Twyman, YouGov’s head of political and social research, said: “In today’s fragmented media environment you don’t need everyone to like it. Polarizing the audience and getting people to complain helps to boost publicity.”

Channel 4 yesterday announced a raft of new shows which appeared to introduce a new sub-genre - “poverty pawn” – highlighting the new wheeler dealers getting rich off the pickings of the downturn. “The Man Who Will Buy Anything” is a documentary featuring “real-life Del Boy” Steve Elwis. “Scrappers” is a two-part insight into a south London scrap metal yard. “The Pawn Shop” will show how the rich are not immune to the hard times and that Hermes handbags and Ferraris are being given up in “cash-strapped Britain”.

The broadcaster pitched the shows – to be screened next month in a “Who’s Getting Rich?” season - as a “fresh perspective” on the downturn. Anna Miralis, Channel 4 Documentaries Commissioning Editor, said: “I have been exploring counter-intuitive ways into recession Britain. Through commissioning a two-part series which aired earlier this year, Repo Man, I discovered that some people are actually thriving despite the recession or perhaps even because of it.”

Television “poverty porn” has been the subject of extensive criticism. The Independent’s reviewer Tom Sutcliffe complained that Margaret Mountford, presenter of BBC1’s Nick and Margaret: We Pay Your Benefits admitted: “The benefits world is not something I know anything about.” He said of Channel 4’s Skint and its depiction of a Scunthorpe shoplifter smoking crack on camera: “It felt unclean to watch.”

Nick Hewer, Mountford’s co-presenter, said he hoped the programme had challenged the idea that benefit claiming was a chosen lifestyle. “The only thing we were interested in was taking an honest and balanced view and trying to redress the general condemnation of benefits claimants that is happening at the moment,” he said. “Frankly we are all bloody lucky we are not benefit claimants because if you are out of a job what are you meant to do?”

Tim Dams, editor of Televisual magazine, believes the industry has gone through a difficult journey as the economic problems have lasted longer than expected. “When the recession began the mantra from a lot of commissioning editors was ‘We have got to create feel good programmes’ and there was a big push to laugh-out-loud comedy,” he said. “And there were programmes about thrift, all with an optimistic spin on them.”

When the economy failed to make a quick recovery, television had to reconsider. “Suddenly we have all this misery,” said Dams. Three years ago audiences were charmed by Downton Abbey. According to current drama commissioning trends, today’s equivalent might be Downturn Abbey. “Period dramas, which often used to be soapy and fun, have got gritty and miserable,” commented the Digital Spy media website this month.

Steven Barnett, professor of communications at the University of Westminster, said modern television’s treatment of hard times is quite different from the programming during the Seventies recession which is remembered as a golden era in escapist situation comedy. Unemployment, poverty and self-sufficiency were dealt with in comedies like Citizen Smith, Rising Damp and The Good Life.

Barnett said British television, with its gritty soap operas, was far more effective than its American equivalent in depicting poverty. “It’s a very British thing to make stuff that is rooted in people’s economic and social experiences,” he said. “American producers watch EastEnders and Coronation Street and say ‘Where’s your Dallas, with stories on the rich and powerful?’”

Tom McDonald, BBC commissioning executive for documentaries and science, said the organisation aimed to cover a “whole range” of experiences of the downturn, including the “staff and guests of an institution such as Claridge’s or the business operations behind some of Britain’s most successful pound shops”.

Despite the concerns over the exploitative content in some poverty programmes, Dams pointed out that in happier economic times, when celebrity-driven reality shows were all the rage, social affairs documentaries would have been lucky to make it to air at all. “Maybe it’s to be celebrated that they are now at the heart of the schedule.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
voices
News
general electionThis quiz matches undecided voters with the best party for them
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen starred in the big screen adaptation of Austen's novel in 2005
tvStar says studios are forcing actors to get buff for period roles
News
Prince William and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge show their newly-born daughter, their second child, to the media outside the Lindo Wing at St Mary's Hospital in central London, on 2 May 2015.
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Database Executive - Leading Events Marketing Company - London

£23000 - £25000 per annum + 25 days holidays & pension: Ashdown Group: Databas...

Recruitment Genius: Publishing Assistant

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for a...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before