All the signs were there. It was going to be on Channel 5, a network known for such sensitive, quality output as “On Benefits and Proud”, “Touch The Truck” and “Celebrity Colonoscopy”*. It was going to feature a panel of guests including professional wind-machine Katie Hopkins and former Sun editor Kelvin “Banned in Merseyside” McKenzie. It was called “The Big Benefits ROW”. Not “The Big Benefits Debate”.
There were reasons to be cautiously optimistic. The guest panel was loaded with trolls like Hopkins and ex-Prime Ministerial sleeping bag Edwina Currie, but it was also going to feature Jack Monroe, food blogger, cook and anti-poverty campaigner, and Sue Marsh, disability rights campaigner extraordinary and scourge of the DWP. The normally
omnipresent Owen Jones had been approached but declined due to the presence of Hopkins, Currie and McKenzie only to accept after hearing Kelvin had been dropped from the panel. Various other left-leaning tweeters and friends were going to be in the audience, thereby increasing the odds of Actual Facts being broadcast. Ok, nobody was expecting miracles but there was more reason than normal to feel confident. And obviously, that was when things started to go wrong.
Two hours prior to broadcast, Sue Marsh was informed that she was no longer needed. This left the panellists representing sick and disabled people numbering precisely zero and meant that they’d dragged a very sick woman several hundred miles across the country for nothing. Additionally, the studio being used was in a basement with very poor accessibility and only three wheelchair users were permitted due to ‘fire regulations’. Yet again, sick and disabled people were being denied a voice.
The show began with a heart-sinking montage of news footage featuring the likes of Iain Duncan Smith and David Cameron saying how broken the benefits system was, intercut with vox pops of members of the public parroting lines straight from the front of the Daily Mail about ‘scroungers’ who needed to ‘get a job’. Host Matthew Wright, usually a man so rodent-like you’d want to give him a piece of cheese and encourage him to run around an exercise wheel, then showed us a “Benefit Clock” which purported to show a real time count of the amount of money spent on benefits while the show was on air.
The first guest asked to speak was Hopkins who launched into her usual, utterly predictable schtick about the legions of lazy scrounging swine milking the taxpayer that exist solely in her own mind. But then something unexpected happened: an Actual Fact appeared.
Wright countered Hopkins diatribe with “of course more than half of the benefits Bill goes on pensions!” A little ripple went through the audience. This was not information that gets repeated very often on TV, and certainly not on this kind of show.
It didn’t last, of course. Hopkins and Currie did their level best to hector, harass and shout over anyone who tried to engage in anything resembling a mature debate, provoking anger from audience members and panellists alike. Ms. Monroe was so incensed by Currie’s goading her about the supposed affluence of her grandfather, that she dropped the only F-bomb of the evening (“…we’re not the fucking Johnsons!”) but she came out of the exchange with her dignity intact, while Edwina came across as an ice-cold, intellectually barren, bullying harridan. Oddly enough.**
The “debate” continued, lurching clumsily from one car crash to the next (“GIMME A JOB, INNIT?), but throughout it all I got the impression that there had, somewhere, been good intentions underlying everything. There *had* been an effort by Wright to be a decent and impartial host (he was the surprise of the night for me), there were Actual Facts about social security delivered by knowledgable guests and some myths about who gets benefits *were* busted. But any kudos that had been earned were swiftly pissed away by the crudely sensationalist choice of guests, the shows title, etc.
My over-riding impression of the show is of two producers (or one producer and one Richard Desmond) battling it out behind the scenes, Spy vs. Spy style; one trying to inject nuance and subtlety, the other dumbing things down to a level that even a brain-damaged moose would find patronising, until the whole sorry mess implodes in a mass of bellowing, name-calling and wheelchair parts. But not more than three wheelchairs worth, obviously.
* This last one might be made up. Or not. I give it six months.