Recently we got another message from a television company. We are always wary about television. Generally, when media people contact us it’s to ask us to source people for them who are facing a particular problem situation. This isn’t easy as even when we know people who fit the bill, they probably won’t want to talk on camera. And we have learnt through experience that after we have worked hard to find someone and they have given their, often very personal, story, the chances are it won’t be used. Now we need to be convinced that media people are committed to a serious bit of reporting; otherwise we tell them to go to a jobcentre themselves and talk to the folk coming out.
But this message was about a different sort of programme. This was for reality TV, and the plan is to combine two tried and tested favourites: people on the dole, and the personal makeover. Unemployed people will be invited into their ‘salon’ and be given a makeover by ‘top stylists’ in order to prepare them for a job interview, or simply to give them confidence after long term unemployment. It would all be well and fine, were it not being screened for public entertainment. For fifteen minutes of fame and a haircut, participants will expose their lives to be picked over by strangers. Added to which, the naïve simplicity of the programme’s premise feeds into the idea that there are no structural problems affecting people’s life and work chances – in fact nothing that can’t be solved by a good stylist. We know of examples in the real world of hairdressers offering free haircuts to unemployed people, and these are a fine example of community support, but they are private arrangements – and no-one expects them to be life-changing.
We thanked the company for contacting us and told them that we don’t consider unemployment a suitable subject for reality TV. In fact it is hard to think of any subject that would not be damaged by this sort of exposure. Humiliation served up as entertainment seems to be the twenty-first century version of the Victorian fairground freak show.
Would it be too much to hope for that we might one day see TV programmes that actually examined the structural causes of unemployment and questioned the political imperative of austerity?