Poverty porn? Maybe. The Scheme is back on the BBC

Last year I blogged about BBC Scotland’s The Scheme, a fly on the wall documentary series filmed in Kilmarnock. It was pulled for legal reasons – people featured in it ended up in court, and the episodes including them couldn’t be shown until the legal process was complete – and it’s back tonight. If you watched it last time you can skip this week and next, as they’re showing the full series. If you’re not in Scotland you’ll be able to watch it on iPlayer.

The programme has attracted fierce criticism, and it’s been dubbed “poverty porn”. The critics have a point. As I wrote when it first aired:

People doing nice things or even normal things aren’t exactly riveting TV, so there’s precious little of that in the programme. What you get instead is a freak show, a “look at the funny poor people!” programme for the smug middle classes.

Then again:

I suspect few sensible people would agree to be filmed for that long in the first place, so what you end up with is a year in the life of attention whores and idiots, edited to make them look more whorish and idiotic. Of course it’s not representative: most people’s lives aren’t interesting enough to watch.

13 thoughts on “Poverty porn? Maybe. The Scheme is back on the BBC

  1. Gary says:

    Quick correction: they’re showing episode 2 tomorrow, not next week.

    On second viewing, some of the camera work is pretty nasty – stopping following someone to make sure you notice the big TV, shooting from inside electricity substations so flats are viewed through scary fencing and so on.

  2. Heather says:

    The thing is, it’s not poverty porn. Because it’s not poverty.

    “Poverty” is not the Cunninghams, having a house, a car, free cradle-to-grave health care, a Spanish holiday, £300 sparkly dance outfits, and yes, a 48-inch TV.

    Poverty is losing your house to pay the medical bills because the insurance doesn’t cover terminal illness (as happened to my family.) Poverty is going “off the grid” because you can’t afford to pay the bills for which there is none of the state assistance which is considered a basic human right here. Poverty is a wee kid from school hanging out at your house all the time because there is literally no food in his home (my family again.)

    If you want to see real poverty, go visit the American south or many inner cities. The Scheme is and is not many things, but it’s definitely not poverty.

  3. Gary says:

    True. I suspect that one of the problems with The Scheme is that we’re seeing the ones who are either really good at playing the system or who have, ahem, additional sources of income, rather than the people who are utterly honest and barely getting by. I agree that things such as the NHS provide a safety net that’s lacking elsewhere, but I don’t think the Cunninghams are particularly representative.

  4. mupwangle says:

    Surely this is being pedantic about the precise definition of the term “poverty”? Poverty, generally, means to have less. Absolute poverty is what Heather is describing where people have too little to survive, whereas Gary is describing relative poverty, where people have too little to be socially acceptable. In those terms, describing the scheme as “poverty porn” is correct, although potentially misleading. You could describe a program about a working class person living in Beverly Hills in the same terms and it would still be correct.

  5. Squander Two says:

    Got to disagree. Absolute poverty is poverty. So-called “relative poverty” is not poverty; it’s merely being skint; in some jurisdictions, it’s not even that. The term “relative poverty” was invented by bureaucracies whose job is to alleviate poverty in order to ensure that their job will always exist. Which is why we’ve ended up with the ludicrous situation where we’re calling people “poor” when the biggest threats to their health are that they smoke loads of what is now the most expensive drug on the market and they’re obese because they have a glut of food. Michelle Obama goes to help out at a soup kitchen and the diners film her on their smartphones.

    It is insulting to the genuinely poor to conflate them with people who have too much food, a Sky subscription, and an Iphone.

  6. Gary says:

    I agree with most of that, but I’d disagree with the obesity thing – as every trip to the supermarket demonstrates, you can feed your kids shit for considerably less money than you need to spend on proper food. Especially if you’ve no idea how to cook.

    The smoking thing’s interesting. We’ve spoken about this before: smoking rates increase the less money people have. There’s an argument that for some, it’s the “only pleasure I get” argument; for others, it’s the “no future, so fuck it” approach.

    I still maintain that the people we’re talking about are extreme cases, though. There are many more people desperately trying to eke out cash, being careful what they buy and being humped by “£1,440 for a £400 washing machine but you can pay weekly!” bastards such as Brighthouse than there are people snorting coke in front of six-feet plasma TVs.

    That said, I do think the benefits system can be a problem: I spent a few years retraining long-term unemployed men in Clydebank, and many of them were in situations where they simply couldn’t afford to work: the combination of various benefits meant that taking a low-paid job – and low-paid jobs were the only jobs available, in pitiful quantities – would plunge them into real, not relative, poverty.

    The problem I have with that issue is, what to do about it – especially in areas such as East Ayrshire, where there are dozens of people for every shitty job? There aren’t enough jobs, and some people are unemployable…

  7. tm says:

    >long-term unemployed men in Clydebank

    Something of a tangent, but I recently saw a newspaper article that said west dumbartonshire had the highest ratio in the country of people looking for a job to jobs available (about 40 to 1).

    The thing that struck me about the article was that was headed that many of the places with bad ratios were in the southeast. The whole tone being that it’s harder down south than people make up, there is not so much econmic divide, etc.

    The top place was west dumbartonshire. Number two was east ayrshire. Number 4 was North ayrshire. (Or put another way for those of you who might not know this: The top two are about 10 miles from where Gary and I et al grew up, and the fourth place is *where* we grew up).

    There were quite a few southern places in the top 20 but they were universally either central london buroughs with well know issues (tower hamlets etc) or places with otherwise distorted labour markets (isle of white, etc)

    So you know, it’s tough down south. But not that tough. Tough. But not tough.

  8. Squander Two says:

    Why? The dictionary records the usage of words. I’m not disputing that loads of people do use the word “poverty” to mean “relative poverty”. I just disagree with them.

  9. Squander Two says:

    > I’d disagree with the obesity thing – as every trip to the supermarket demonstrates, you can feed your kids shit for considerably less money than you need to spend on proper food. Especially if you’ve no idea how to cook.

    No, I hear this a lot, and I don’t agree with it at all. Two things. Firstly, knowing how to cook is extremely cheap, especially if you have a TV. Saying that good food is expensive if you don’t know how to cook is like saying that repainting your living-room is expensive if you don’t know how to use a paintbrush, ’cause you have to hire a decorator. Paint is cheap; carrots are cheap. Secondly, people who feed their kids shit tend to get quite a bit of takeaway food, which is expensive.

    We can get three or four meals out of five or six quid, and that’s not because we are superhumans with access to amazing abilities denied to people on benefits. My grandmother — and thousands of others, I’m sure — would have been appalled by the idea that the poor don’t have access to good food.

    I might add that, historically, the world’s best cuisine has been created by the people with least access to expensive ingredients. No-one figures out how to make great soup out of bird-spit when they have access to steak.

  10. Squander Two says:

    > places with otherwise distorted labour markets (isle of white, etc)

    The fact that they even included that statistic marks them out as charlatans, frankly. People who live on the Isle of Wight and are looking for work are looking for it in Southampton and Portsmouth. The number of jobs available on the Isle itself is immaterial. That ferry is a commuter bus.

  11. tm says:

    >The fact that they even included that statistic marks them out as charlatans, frankly.

    Yeah, that’s the most obvious flaw with the entire excercise (Out of many). I assume that applies to west dumbartonshire with Glasgow to a certain extent and probably most of the central london areas as well. After it’s not unreasonable to assume that the same ratio calculated for the City of London itself is actually negative.

  12. tm says:

    >City of London itself is actually negative

    Er, or even less than one. Lets assume for a second I do know how to do arithmetic…

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