When was the last time that you saw someone take out a payday loan on a television programme? When did you last see a show in which someone in full time work was struggling to pay the bills? I feel there is a discrepancy between the portrayal of poverty on our televisions and that which is experienced in Britain today.
The Office of Fair Trading believes as much as £1.8 billion a year is lent in the UK by payday lenders and the Public Accounts Committee state that two million Britons currently use payday loans. Ofcom reported that in 2008, 17,000 payday loan advertisement spots were shown on television and this increased to 243,000 in 2011 and 397,000 by 2012. These resulted in 12 million impacts from adult views in 2008, 4.2 billion by 2011 and 7.5 billion impacts by 2012, with each adult watching on average 152 television payday loan adverts in 2012.
Given the high number of advertisements in between and during television programmes, it seems unusual that payday loans are so infrequently used by the documentary subjects and fictional characters on our television screens.
When Channel 4 announces that it is making a documentary series about a poor street in Britain, I do not expect a realistic view of the struggle facing millions of Britons. The cynically and provocatively named “Benefits Street” is hugely emotive and not much more than exploitative “poverty porn”, designed to enrage the public, much like a pantomime villain.
What is so frustrating for me is that these “poverty porn” documentaries make poverty look so unusual, as if there is a hidden underclass of which we are all unaware. Contradictory to this depiction, the Office of Fair Trading found a typical payday loan user was more likely to be a young male, living in rented accommodation, earning greater than £1,000 a month and without children. There seems here to be a huge discrepancy between the portrayal of poverty on Benefits Street and that which is experienced by the two million Britons needing to take payday loans.
Where are the documentaries and dramas showing the poverty in homes in which someone works? The New Policy Institute showed that more than half of the 13 million Britons living in poverty in 2011/12, lived in a household in which someone worked and that the number of people in low-paid jobs has risen, with five million people paid below the living wage. I do not see this on television, I see Katie Hopkins raising an eyebrow and blaming people for their individual circumstances.
I read a story relating to research presented at a British Sociological Association’s annual conference highlighting that in interviews of 77 people working in television and film production, 64 were middle-class and that openings within the industry were rarely advertised but tended to rely on the grapevine and family ties.
Owen Jones in his Royal Television Society, Huw Wheldon Memorial Lecture, links the socioeconomic background of television producers with the recent wave of “poverty porn” documentaries, highlighting that in a YouGov poll conducted at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, 70% of attendees believed Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard, to be an accurate representation of “white working-class” youth.
I agree with Owen Jones and feel that programmes like Benefits Street are the middle class perspectives of producers and editors regarding something that they have no experience of and do not understand. I feel that because the film and television industry have no understanding of suffering related to everyday poverty, reoccurring themes in film and television are anxiety based on how others see us, friendships or relationships and the resulting battle for psychological survival against stress and emotional exhaustion.
At a time in which we face so many problems economically and politically, I feel it is hugely important that voters can make informed decisions at the polling booth. We need accurate, first-hand experiences of poverty on our television screens, from television producers who have actually experienced it. We have adverts for payday loans but what we need are the stories of those who found themselves needing to use them.