It was a scene so dystopian that Black Mirror viewers would have shivered. On the morning of Monday 5 September, This Morning’s Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby were cheerfully standing in front of their “Spin to win” wheel, a regular competition in which viewers are offered the chance of winning cash and other prizes. But instead of a new car or a holiday, one of the prizes on offer was simply having your energy bills paid.
“So we’ve got ‘we’ll pay your energy bills’, we’ve got a £1,000…” said Phil, cheerfully describing two of the winning options on the wheel, pointing out that energy bills would be paid for just four months. As viewers at home wondered whether this hard limit was a sign that even ITV budgets would struggle to cover the rising cost of bills in this crisis, Phil asked the caller, “Are you a bit worried about it all?”
“Oh major,” he responded. “I’ve got one of these pre-payment meters and its absolutely murder.”
“Oh God,” responded Holly.
Welcome to our late-capitalist hellscape. As well as Charlie Brooker’s dystopian series, the sequence was eerily reminiscent of a dark That Mitchell and Webb Look sketch called “Remain Indoors” – an apocalyptic game show presented from a bunker in which the prize was fuel. But this was not satire – it was terrifyingly genuine. The glittery wheel was duly spun, and landed on the words “ENERGY BILLS”. Celebratory trumpets blared. “Oh what a relief!” said the caller. Despite an outraged public backlash, the competition continued with this grim prize today – under the more general “household bills”.
This is just the latest example in a disturbing recent media trend. On 27 August, the Daily Mail front page contained an eye-catching advert that read “WIN your gas and electricity paid for a year”, alongside the main headline: “Energy Hikes ‘May Wipe Out Savings for Six Million’”. Meanwhile, on Good Morning Britain, the former Tory MP Edwina Currie patronised viewers by suggesting a “dirt cheap” trick to make heating more efficient – putting tin foil behind the radiator. And the Sunday Times published a list of money-saving tips, including heating your lunch in an office microwave each workday to save the princely sum of 27.5p a week (or £14.30 a year!) or charging your devices at work instead of at home to save you 38p a week (or £19.76 a year!). This came a mere two days after Ofgem announced that the energy price cap would go up to £3,549 a year, an 80 per cent increase from before.
The cost-of-living crisis is not a game, an opportunity for light entertainment, or a minor frustration that can be fixed with lucky cash prizes or small lifestyle changes. It is a desperate moment of anxiety for millions. Popular media must treat it with the gravity it deserves, and statistics that pressure the government (not individuals) to fix it. It’s the only way any of us can really win.
[See also: Is this the energy industry’s “Lehman moment”?]