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  1. Politics
4 February 2014

The Big Benefits Row: Was it ever going to change anyone’s mind?

Perhaps if Channel 5's dramatic “debate” about benefits had given less time to attention-seekers like Edwina Currie and Katie Hopkins, it would have been a better conversation about an important issue.

By Frances Ryan

Upon first glancing the title of last night’s The Big Benefits Row, I had thought television’s depiction of benefits had finally succumbed to where it has inevitably been heading: a malnourished Job Seeker’s Allowance claimant pitted against a sobbing disabled single mother in a fight to the death.

Unfortunately/fortunately (delete as humane), this was not it at all. This was the debate sort of row, with words and opinions and Matthew Wright occasionally reading out racist poll results.

It soon became apparent this was going to be a very dramatic debate too, with a zooming compilation of different people saying the word “benefits” over and over again. BENEFITS. They’re everywhere! And everyone was talking about it. At least they were about to be because why else would Katie Hopkins and “White Dee” from Benefits Streets be in the same room?

Ken Livingstone kicked things off by introducing the radical idea that people should be able to find jobs and those jobs should pay enough to be able to live on. This was followed by a row of fiction-busting facts, which seemed very inappropriate for a discussion about benefits and I wondered if Channel 5 had become confused.

Peter Stringfellow, doing an impression of a man who didn’t know where he was, was soon pointing off-camera to “those people” who actually did deserve benefits. I thought at first he was being clever and pointing to an empty space but then I realised he’d probably spotted some crippled people that had been put in the corner.  

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Away from the audience, Channel 5 had decided to do the whole thing without letting a single disabled person on any of the panels. Which was brilliant because it was sort of like an ironic commentary on mainstream society’s exclusion and isolation of us. Or was insultingly and tellingly dismissive of swathes of people affected by the issue at hand. As Sue Marsh, a disability campaigner who had originally been asked to be on the show, tweeted last night:

Luckily Edwina Currie was there instead to say things that were in no way true and/or made no sense. “There are loads of jobs”, we don’t pay people a living wage “because we can’t afford it”, and anyone could wander into food banks and take bags of food, she announced, as if not hiding her belief that the point of being on television was to say anything that may get a person attention.

Not content, Currie took it on herself to challenge austerity food blogger Jack Monroe on whether her grandfather was rich, as if believing if only she could prove someone in a working class woman’s family had at one time in history had some money the entire social security system would fall in on itself and poverty itself would be disproven as a left-wing fabrication. “My grandfather’s dead,” Monroe said. “I know, I saw the obituary,” retorted Currie, somewhat menacingly.

The microphones muffled out and Matthew Wright turned to camera, with the face of a man grateful he’d soon be back on the civilised sophistication of The Wright Stuff. “Who knows, perhaps some have you have changed your minds after tonight,” he said optimistically. 

Ironically, that would have been more likely to be achieved if the two panelists who needed to change their mind hadn’t been there at all. Currie and Hopkins – all fabrications and hysteria – do a good row. But we might get further if producers simultaneously lost attention seekers’ phone numbers and tried for The Big Benefits Conversation instead.

 

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