For some time now, we have been used to what were once reasonably decent public service broadcasters - the BBC and Channel 4 - churning out a diet of Government propaganda. Whether Peston on the Nine O'Clock News blabbing on in his staccato way about economic orthodoxy or Channel 4's appalling Benefits Street, which elevated a few show offs to avatars fulfilling the neoliberal wet dream that unemployed people are all fat-guzzling couch potatoes, the mass media has long surrendered itself, like the printed press, to ever more extreme forms of capitalist apologetics.
Yet somehow the latest project from the BBC sticks in the craw even more than previous sagas of distasteful voyeurism. For now we have Britain's Hardest Grafter. This piece of poverty pornography sets poor people (only people earning less than £15,500 p.a. can enter) competing against each other. In return for doing physically unpleasant tasks - who knows, cleaning out the directors' septic tank perhaps or peeling his grapes on bended knee? - they will have the chance, via elimination for not working hard enough, of winning the equivalent of one year's living wage (outside London). In a truly generous step, the producers have promised that contestants will be compensated "not less than the national minimum wage" for the time they spend taking part.
The programme is being made by Twenty Twenty TV , a London production company which has produced classics such as The Hoarder Next Door, How Not To Get Old and Bad Santas. I did in truth see an episode of the last on that list, which showed unemployed men being trained to be Father Christmas, with varying outcomes and a lot of exploitative insights on the way. While it had its humorous moments, it remained a voyeuristic treatment of human difficulties with no apparent attempt to ask why those experiencing them found themselves in such a situation.
Ultimately, what is the purpose of these programmes but to take a tiny, tiny sample of people and try to project their progress or lack of it in totally artificial conditions onto everyone else in their situation? Britain's Hardest Grafter will not, it seems, do anything to challenge the appalling undervaluing of very difficult types of work: if anything, it will reinforce it with a prize that wouldn't pay for a single advert were it being shown on a commercial channel. And by pitching it at poor people, including unemployed, it thrives on their despair - ten people a week competing for an ultimate prize that wouldn't even meet the annual living wage level for our capital city.
It's not just poverty porn. It's torture porn - inflicting yet more humiliation and suffering on people already struggling, offering no analysis of why so many are now mired in poverty other than implying they should be able to "graft" their way out of it, and, above all, setting people against each other. Divide and conquer, and what better way to do so than as "entertainment" on the gogglebox?
This may be the BBC's pathetic attempt to placate the Tory ogres, gathering at their gates to plunder their revenue and privatise the pitiful remains of public broadcasting, but it will be a short feast. Every threshold of exploitation crossed, every indignity heaped to the loudest acclaim will simply lead to demands for more, for fresh blood. Some have called this the Hunger Games, as today's parody becomes tomorrow's norm. And so true. This is the sort of media that brings forth programmes like Embarrassing Bodies and The Child Who Is Older Than Her Grandmother . These are the modern equivalents of the 19th and early 20th century circus "freak shows" that condemned thousands of vulnerable people to repeated lifelong abasement for the entertainment of the public, jabbering and judging about things of which they knew little or nothing, but encouraging and validating a cultural hierarchy where if your place was not much well at least you weren't one of them.
And as we move from documentary (who would broadcast Cathy Come Home now?) to mocumentary (Saints and Scroungers) to sticking desperate people in an ever more wretched competition, what next? Poverty we know is associated with poor health. So if we are going to make a real show of making the masses work hard against each other, why not go for Last One Standing? Or maybe I'm Having A Heart Attack, Get Me Out of Here? Or how about Celebrity Benefits Assessment - perhaps David Starkey could sniff out the deserving poor over a nice glass of red?
This schadenfreude fest will only get worse under a Government keen to find public buy-in to its destruction of the welfare system and its stigmatising of the poor, fully backed up by a media eager to do its bidding. It marks the end of public broadcasting in any meaningful sense, twistedly helping to pave the way for the abolition of the licence fee system and the fragmentation of the BBC.
And in the future? We never thought we'd get here. So how long before we see the return of Gladiators? And no, I don't mean the ones with the gym equipment and cheesy grins.
If you have been disturbed by the contents of any of these programmes, you can help by signing the petition started by Green Party activist Sahaya James demanding the BBC scrap this programme before it begins. Please sign HERE.