There's nothing dystopian about the BBC's latest slice of "poverty porn" – it's just the grim reality of life in Cameron's Britain. That's what we should really be getting mad about.
Forthcoming BBC 2 programme Britain's Hardest Grafter looks set to be a grotesque circus of poverty, in which 25 British workers – a mix of the unemployed, the under-employed and those earning the minimum wage – "will be put to the test in a series of challenges and tasks," according to a release put out seeking contestants. "At the end of each episode, those who have produced the least will be eliminated and by the end of the process, just one worker will remain. The winner will receive in the region of £15,000, which is a year's living wage (outside of London)."
Unsurprisingly, people are quite upset about this. The careers website Graduate Fog, which first reported the story after production company Twenty Twenty contacted them to advertise for participants, pointed out that it "feels distinctly Hunger Games", referring to the Jennifer Lawrence film about a game show in which people are forced to fight to the death. Jezebel said, "No, this isn't the plot of a Black Mirror episode." From atop their moral perch, the Mail Online wondered if this was "a new low for the BBC?" Already, one of those on change.org is out there, decrying a "tasteless and deeply damaging concept".
It all feels very familiar, putting me in mind of the outrage over Benefits Street and every Twitter storm about a female beauty product with dickhead advertising that has noisily banged away in the last few years.
In this case, though, all the shock and referencing to dystopian programming seems out of place. Rather than a twisted, nightmarish vision, Britain's Hardest Grafter reads like a diary of the average working day for millions of British people. You have to subject yourself to various chores and humiliations under the ominous threat of being "eliminated", for a derisory amount of money. Jezebel's right – this isn't Black Mirror, it's much less fantastical than that. It's the drudgery of working life for those stuck at the bottom in Cameron's Britain. Why are we so outraged by bland reality?
If anything, Britain's Hardest Grafter is a sugared pill with a title that could have come from a government press release. A Twenty Twenty representative told Graduate Fog, "All contributors will receive compensation for their time as part of filming for the show (it will be filmed across two weeks) – we're still working out the specifics but obviously it will not be below the national minimum wage." That's a better deal than a lot of people get. For precarious workers and unpaid interns, there's nothing "obvious" about getting the minimum wage for a solid two weeks. The same goes for the young people who will soon be forced to work 30 hours in order to claim their £57.35 youth allowance – making £1.91 for every hour of work.
The programme seems at least to be an honest representation of our bleak society. If it's repulsive, that's because our society is repulsive. That "the winner will receive in the region of £15,000 which is a year's living wage (outside London)" is apt for Cameron's Britain. In Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, which began its run in the "Things Can Only Get Better" Blairite heyday of 1998, all you had to do was sit opposite Chris Tarrant, answer a series of pub quiz questions, and you could win enough to buy an enormous mansion, a fast car and several big holidays, all without having to worry about putting something away to see the kids through student debt. Everyone could buy into the idea that, given the right chance, everyone could get rich quick.
After the financial crash, that lie has been torpedoed. In Cameron's austerity Britain, you have to pit yourself against other workers in a grim fight for the ultimate prize – one year's subsistence (so long as you don't want to subside in the capital city where a huge proportion of the population happen to live). Who knows what happens to all the contestants who don't win? Maybe they clock into the nearest food bank after dropping out.
Want to learn about poverty in Britain without watching a horrible circus? Check out our documentary Shy Bairns Get Nowt: Inside Britain's Biggest Food Bank:
There is sometimes merit in being loudly appalled at the state of the world – there was some collective strength on display when women got together to say it wasn't some advertiser's business whether or not their torsos were "beach body ready". But in this case, and so many others, it's hard to feel that a lot of this mewling isn't anything but another form of entertainment in itself – a kind of outrage porn to slot in neatly with the poverty porn, a kind of depressing porn sandwich. Ultimately, most of the griping will be as useful as wanking. In a few months, the appetite for outrage will have grown and it will be sated once more when another shitty programme gets commissioned by some producers looking for publicity.
Britain's Hardest Grafter might be warped and play on some of the worst aspects of human curiosity, but in itself it did not cause unemployment and misery, and neither did it manufacture within us a prurient desire to watch other people have a horrible time. This particular controversy ultimately comes from the same outrage vortex that simply can't believe that Katie Hopkins actually said migrants are like "cockroaches", while ignoring that treating migrants like cockroaches is in fact official EU policy. There seems to be some kind of tacit acceptance that we can all live in a huge world of euphemistic dancing about, while a nauseating merry-go-round of people "tell it like it is" and act as sponges for everyone's scattergun ire.
Outrage is easy. The hard bit is blocking the sewer from which fetid poverty porn emanates. Unfortunately, that means changing society, which is much more difficult than pointing at things and saying that they are bad in return for clicks.
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