Jordan McDonald's flat looks grotty: congealed ready meal stodge splurging out of microwaveable plastic, and crumpled beer cans from the four-for-£4 section of the offy. I've not been round myself, but I'm watching Benefits Britain: Life on the Dole, first broadcast on Channel 5 in 2014, in which Jordan McDonald from Yarmouth was filmed in the aftermath of a benefit sanction which left him living off £34 a week.
In an attempt to address his evaporating finances, producers film Jordan applying for a £1,500 emergency council loan. "They aren't exactly the easiest things to fill out," says the voiceover lady in the sarcastic tone of the Come Dine with Me narrator, "but thankfully a tinny and the XBOX aren't so taxing." The camera cuts to Jordan, whose thumbs are gyrating on the pliable controller buttons, a king-size fag stumped between his fingers, the ash threatening to peel off onto his carpet.
The next time we see Jordan he's with his flatmates, trying to cash out £130 of their friend Daniel's benefit money before the gas and electric is cut off. "On the way they decide to splurge Jordan's last tenner on Yarmouth's finest kebabs," says the voiceover, as we see greasy meat spilling out of Styrofoam boxes and Jordan and his mates wolfing down taxpayers' hard-earned money.
The trailer for 'Benefits Britain: Life on the Dole'
Ever since Benefits Street – the original benefits docusoap, on Channel 4 – amassed 4.3 million viewers, TV commissioners have been falling over each other to devise shows about benefit claimants. Channel 5, in particular, has become a prime location for these programmes. In the past year it has aired Breadline Brummies, Breadline Scousers, 100 Stone and on the Dole, Bargain Brides on Benefits, Costa Del Dole and 90 Years Claiming.
"Adding 'benefits' to the title of a series brings in half a million more views," TV producer Julian Dismore tells VICE. "So Channel 5 changed the title of my programme from Jaywick Fights Back to Benefits by the Sea: Jaywick."
Unlike the original Benefits Street, which, despite its provocative title, was a well-received and fairly honest portrayal of a low-income street in the UK, these newer shows are often posited as entertainment, with sardonic voiceovers and sensationalist marketing.
"They royally fucked me over, no doubt about it," Jordan tells me over the phone about his appearance on the show. "They told me it was about life on benefits and all that crap, but they made me out like a total tool, basically."
Jordan claims that Benefits Britain didn't tell the full story. "You know when the flat looked like a complete and utter state? I may not have had enough money for the best flat in the world, but it was always tidy – I made sure of it. They rang me one day and said, 'We're coming round,' and I said, 'Alright, I'll do a quick tidy up,' and they said, 'No, don't, because if we make it look like you are struggling on benefits then people will feel more inclined to feel sorry for you.'"
"The producers brought us round beer and baccy and said, 'Drink them while we're here or we'll take them away with us when we leave.'"
On a different shoot, he alleges alcohol and cigarettes were purchased by the crew rather than himself. "They brought us round beer and baccy and we said, 'We're out tomorrow night, we'll have them as pre-drinks before we go out,' and they said, 'No, you'll either drink them while we're here or we'll take them away with us when we leave.' I thought, 'Fair enough, free beer,' but when I thought about it properly, it was obviously to make it look like we were spending all our benefits on tobacco and drink. I only ever drink if there's a family gathering, like a birthday or at a Christmas party, or something stupid like that."
Jordan also claims that producers bought kebabs for them, even the show made it seem like they'd spent their own money on it. "They said on the programme that we got four shish kebabs with our last tenner, but they're about £7 each – they're massive. How we managed to get four of them, I'm still trying to figure that out, because if I could do that every weekend I'd be well happy."
I put Jordan's claims to Channel 5, whose production arm, 5 Productions, made the show. A spokesperson responded, "The programme was observational and depicted the lives and activities of those featured fairly and accurately."
"Benefit TV programmes are becoming like soap operas – they are far more bloated and over the top."
Even if the shows are entirely honest depictions of their subjects, they still amount to a form class tourism. I ask Julian Dismore why he believes watching people live below the poverty line has become such a popular form of entertainment. "When I was at university, the best parties were the ones either with really posh people or the more working class groups," he says. "Those people are generally more interesting and less self-aware and bothered about how they come across. The same applies with all television, whether it's the Royals or really posh lords and ladies. Voyeurism is clearly part of it."
The attraction of voyeurism is certainly clear in the way these shows are marketed. Channel 5's trailer for On Benefits and Proud markets it like an episode of TOWIE. "They say you should always take pride in whatever you do," begins the voiceover, "even if that's relying on the state." The camera pans to two men who are shown running down the road with a sofa in tow, like they have just robbed DFS, then they cut to shots of Iceland bags, iPads and an inflated paddling pool.
The trailer for Gypsies On Benefits and Proud begins with the words, "From over there, to over here, hoping to cash a very different type of traveller's cheque," before the camera cuts to a bunch of money flapping out of a cash point. The trailer ends with a severely disabled man pulling his torso along on a skateboard. Channel 5's YouTube description reads, "Documentary special lifting the lid on one of Britain's biggest controversies: the immigrants who come to the UK to milk the benefit system."
"Programmes that focus on people who are on benefits are becoming more like soap operas," says Chris Ruston producer of Bridgend: Battling With Benefits. "They are cast by the producers with larger than life characters that will help the show get the ratings. There are so many of them now that the characters who agree to go on them know exactly what they are going into, and they play up to what they have seen before. Very few of these often long running series actually tell us anything new about the reality of life on benefits."
"I was gobsmacked by some of the Twitter hostility towards the contributors [on Benefits by the Sea: Jaywick]."
Increasingly, these benefits "documentaries" are also feeder shows for the entertainment-reality complex. White Dee from Benefits Street came fifth in series 14 of Celebrity Big Brother. Stephen from Too Fat to Work now has his own PR website and featured on an episode of This Morning. He even went on Jeremy Kyle, under the tagline, "My transgender love rival is trying to steal my husband."
The shows also fuel tabloid and government narratives about those in poverty. When George Osborne makes a coded distinction between the "strivers" and the "shirkers", and the Daily Express (whose owner, Richard Desmond, also owned Channel 5 until recently) bleat about benefit cheats, society teaches us to become furious with anyone who runs counter to this logic. Those views are reinforced by these shows, something Julian Dismore noticed after the programme he worked on aired.
"I was gobsmacked by some of the Twitter hostility towards the contributors," he says. "People would say, 'Look at her face, covered in tattoos – how can she afford tattoos when she is on benefits?'"
The discourse permeates throughout society, especially among people who have also lived near the breadline. After the show aired, Jordan moved to Derby, got a job, a new girlfriend and a baby son. Even though he was angry about the way he was portrayed on the show, when I ask him about why he thought people in Yarmouth were reliant upon benefits, he parrots back the narrative of benefits TV.
"I see people that I know and they walk past job advertisements and they don't even bother," he says. "I reckon most of Yarmouth is lazy, to be honest with you. It's easier to be on benefits, because your rent gets paid, council tax is taken down and all these other problems – and I'm not being funny: the government stitches up all people who work."
Maybe Jordan is right – that people in Yarmouth are choosing over benefits over work. But we're never going to find out the truth about the root issues in the benefits system via shows that choose entertainment over honesty and sensationalism over understanding.
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