‘Poverty porn’? Who benefits from documentaries on Recession Britain?

Are documentaries about poverty and recession just ‘poverty porn’, objectifying people in poverty for the sake of entertainment? asks Abigail Scott Paul.

When public attitudes are hardening towards people in poverty and when life is getting worse for people at the lowest end of the income scale, is it really right that broadcasters commission shows that compound stereotypes by pitting deserving against undeserving poor? 

According to Emma Cooper, Documentaries Commissioner at Channel 4, it is a ‘really exciting time’ for people wanting to make programmes on how hard life is for many people in Britain today. I doubt those at the sharp end of service cuts, unemployment, high housing costs, rising costs of living and benefit changes will find it exciting… But still, I was told that the new recession/poverty genre was the equivalent to the ubiquitous ‘Changing Rooms’ genre of the Noughties. Let’s be grateful.

To be honest, I was left quite depressed by the panel discussion of ‘poverty porn’ at The Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival yesterday. Hearing the TV executives responsible for shows such as Skint and Nick and Margaret: We all pay your benefits discuss the people featured in their programmes only served to reinforce how people in poverty are objectified on TV for the gratification of others. The absence on the panel (and in the audience) of any of the people they were talking about was conspicuous. 

Skint was a huge ratings winner for Channel 4. Four million people tuned in. According to Emma Cooper, it was fantastic that this number of people could see how awful it was that there were no jobs in Scunthorpe. I did suggest that a lot more than four million people in this country know what it is like not to have a job...  

What depressed me most was how far removed the people with the power in the media to set and shape the debate are from the realities of life on a low income. The debate felt a bit like a middle-class dinner party discussing those poor people over there.

So what is the role of a documentary? Is it to inform, educate or to entertain?  Listening in to the discussion, it became apparent to me that the agenda of the commissioners seems to be totally driven by the lowest common denominator – to win ratings. It is interesting that the festival’s keynote speaker Kevin Spacey also challenged broadcasters on this in his MacTaggart Lecture last night.  

I wanted to know what the panel thought about the impact these shows left on the individuals and communities – something that I blogged about last year. I didn’t really get an answer 

From JRF’s research on the portrayal of poverty issues in the media, we know that the media is partial, and that people in poverty themselves feel victimised, stigmatised and objectified. There *are* good filmmakers out there who understand the complexities of poverty and are willing to bust myths – we have worked with a range of them and the films have been received well.

There is a real challenge for the anti-poverty lobby. How can campaigners attempt to shift public attitudes, when the media is dominated by such programmes? Just as Kevin Spacey has challenged the TV industry to adapt, perhaps campaigners will have to too, bypassing traditional media to make themselves heard.  

  • Abigail is leading the communications strand of JRF’s anti-poverty programme. She is convening a group of leading communications specialists (including media, online activists, campaigners, communications agencies etc) to explore how we can best build consensus for anti-poverty measures