I didn't watch Monday night's "Benefits Britain: 1949" on Channel 4, a show which subjected three victims (difficult to think of them otherwise) to a supposed version of the 1949 benefits regime, as these benefits-based 'reality' shows have a distressing tendency to make me want to hurl things at the TV - and my laptop did in fact spontaneously hurl itself to the floor in apparent despair, but I'd resolved to follow the #BenefitsBritain hashtag on twitter throughout and see if I couldn't inject some actual reality into the proceedings (as opposed to the faux-reality that was the show's entire premise), as had a bunch of other disability and benefits activists.
So rather than watching the show directly, I ended up watching it through the audience's eyes, and what a disturbing view that turned out to be. The show focussed on three people, and actually turned out to have much more of a disability focus than I realised in advance. There was the vulnerable but cuddly pensioner Melvin - ' Melvin can come & live with me. I'll make him a nice hot meal each night & he can tell me stories' said one twitteree, apparently reducing him to the status of a Cabbage Patch Doll. There was Craig, a young wheelchair user - 'this guy seems to have the right attitude'. And there was Karen, a woman with multiple invisible disabilities that limited her in non-apparent ways, who was overweight, who wasn't her own best advocate and who was the only non-white participant - 'that fat ignorant slag'. Disabled people would have had no trouble in predicting how the audience acceptance would go even without the sample tweets. Knowing a little about telling a story, it is clear that Karen had been deliberately selected to be a figure of hate for the audience, and a perceptive tweet noted 'these shows always have a cute one, a good one, and one to hate' - a view echoed in New Statesman's review of the show.
Examples shown below are all text that appeared on the #BenefitsBritain hashtag. This does mean a significant amount of swearing and hate speech is included.
And what a figure of hate Karen (and anyone else with invisible disabilities) became:
- Here she is, fucking scrounger (Some seemingly had made their minds up in advance)
- Luckily for these slackers, it's difficult to prove 'pain'
- Karen youve got all those problems cos ur a fat twat
- Ditch the doughnuts fatty..... (accompanied by a cartoon of an extremely overweight woman on a mobility scooter with the tagline 'Laziness, it's not a disability)
- She's shattered?What about all these people that have 2 go out & work to live you benefit scrounging arsehole
- a false disability claimant is the pits, same as as a conscription dodger in ww1 #scum
- You go back to fucking work you lazy cunt! Ok she’s fucking winding me up.
- Funny how it's the fat,foul mouthed bint with illness u can fake that is the one with the issues
- This woman on #BenefitsBritain is making my blood boil... she's a fucking retard
- Back in 1949 you'd be sectioned you horrible, lazy, fat, scrounging whopper!
Yet all the while disabled people were trying to educate the mob to the reality:
- DWP agrees ATOS assessors are of unacceptably poor standards with over 744,000 appeals costing £66m
- Some people need benefits. It does not make them scroungers. We need to get over it
- 29% of people think more is spent on JSA than pensions - we actually spent 15 times more on pensions
- ESA assessment fails to detect complex, hidden, fluctuating impairment
- Daily Mail usage of "cheats" in regards to disability benefits up 5-fold in 5 years
- Public believe benefit fraud at least 27%. DWP’s own statistics say 0.7%
And the response shows just how unwilling the mob were to be educated, or even to listen:
- So many stupid fucks on the #benefitsbritain trend ignoring how much is spent on benefits, purely stating percentages. So ignorant.
- Thousands of fraud cases go unreported. I know of many. Those statistics don't reflect hardly any of it.
- Coming from a working class town I think it's fair for me to say a large majority of those who claim are scroungers
Just possibly some had come to the screen with minds already made up:
- Very excited to watch the scroungers, I mean claimants
- Fucking dirty worthless scroungers half of them. Expect free money for doing fuck all
- Bring back the 'A code' amd stop all the scrounging scumbags!!!!
One consistent area of ignorance was that old favourite 'I know A with X and he works':
- Fuck me, I can list everything that's wrong with my mother, too. She still works a 40 hour week
- I've worked for 22 years and have health problems, I still work. Fucking #cunts, get a job
- That woman on benefits britain who has a bad back, diabetes, irregular heartbeat . I know ppl who work with these problems
- I work with people with high blood pressure, diabetes and a sore back....ffs....she is doing my head in.
Not to mention the usual ignorance and jealousy about DLA/PIP and Motability:
- That car is paid for by the state, right?
- Nicer car and nicer manicure than I've got
- on the sick with a brand new van, fat cunt
- #Motability What clown thought this idea up? Free cars for bone idle, lard-arses
And a profound ignorance that disability frequently causes weight gain:
- All the ailments this woman just described are all associated with being obese, and what do you know? She's obese.
- if Karen lost weight there would be a lot fewer health problems!! Fat bitch
- Fat woman on benefits cuz she's eaten too much drives off in huge vehicle provided by taxpayers to haul her flab around in
And the inevitable 'I worked for DWP and know these things':
- I used to work in benefits and housing, there's some very non-sick ppl claiming sick bens
One scene, with Karen challenged to work alongside a woman with one hand, appeared to be a deliberate attempt to invoke the Hierarchy of Disabilities. Faced with an audience with a limited understanding of disability it inevitably succeeded:
- So her mate with one hand is gonna shame her into doing a days graft
- Now she's telling a woman with one hand she can't do what this woman is doing...
- This is going to be good, refusing to work in front of a worrying woman who has only one hand
- It's actually funny that she is saying all this to a woman with no arm! Does she realise how ridiculous she sounds?!
- there are people on the show with one arm and missing one hand, get a job you #Scum...
Disturbingly there were several people inciting outright violence:
- Tbh Karen wants dowsing with freezing cold rancid milk
- I want to punch her in the face!
- I'd quite happily kick the shit out of that fat, lazy fucker!!
- This fukin lazy bitch on #BenefitsBritain should be put down you could tell she couldn't be fukin arsed! Our welfare system is to soft!
- Take the cane off that woman and beat her over the head with it
- Utterly contemptuous cow. I hope she really does become confined by her ailments. Permanently. In a wooden box.
- makes me think we should pump poison gas into every public building and just start the country from scratch!
While racism raised its ever-ugly head:
- Why has this old lady got corn rolls?? #ghettoscrounger
- The truth is Karen is a pikey but sadly that's not a disability
- No mention of the Polish or other foreigners go down to pagehall full of em
- Karen: it's coz your black
Perhaps the only grimly amusing element to all the hate on the #BenefitsBritain hashtag was that there appears to be a statistically significant correlation between 'Hey, look what a stud I am' profile pictures and/or twitter names, and aggressive posts.
I decided to try engaging with one of the more prolifically disablist tweeters to see where his views on disability lay (I picked him rather than anyone else as he was still making openly disablist tweets on the #BenefitsBritain hashtag sixteen hours later). His attitude was readily apparent:
- I've got flatulence, dandruff, a creaky knee and intermittent gout - do I get an Aston martin on Motability?
- 'Disablism' - WTF is that?? Can I claim for it??
- the glass-backed spongers who milk the system with their mystery 'syndromes' and work-avoiding illnesses
- Probably nothing a bit of hardwork couldn't cure (In direct reference to my own disability)
- I have a few mates that came back from Gulf War 1 - they're proper disabled, none of this anxiety or agrophobia syndrome nonsense
- Is it 'stress' ?? Can be awful I hear
- Me thinks you doth protest too much....
- you're happy enough when your hands are in my pockets
Point proven, I rather think, not just disablist in specific reaction to Benefits Britain, but openly aggressive towards disabled people in general, or at least those of us who aren't 'proper disabled'. And Benefits Britain gave him the platform he so obviously wanted to spread his hate.
The attitude towards disability from the baying hordes that Benefits Britain summoned on to Twitter is superbly summed up in a Manny Shinwell quote that a friend dug out of Hansard from 1952 'the Tories never trouble themselves about facts when prejudice can serve them better'. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
Ultimately it is clear that Benefits Britain served to enable an orgy of hate speech against disabled people, and it is difficult to conclude that this was unintended, with Karen clearly selected and filmed in such a way (the amputee sewing instructor for instance) as to cause maximum outrage. C4 and the producers may argue that this is what the audience clearly wanted, but their role as a responsible public-service broadcaster is not to enable the mob in its hate of a vulnerable minority, but to inform the public as to the reality those same people face. Rather than showing how difficult it is to gain acceptance of invisible disability, the programme instead set Karen up to fail, and as a deliberate target for hate, making it even more difficult for disabled people to gain acceptance and understanding than it was before. Many of these people indulging in hate speech may have already felt this way, but Benefits Britain legitimised their hate and gave them a platform to express it publically. We have already seen disability hate crime figures spiralling upwards in direct response to scrounger rhetoric from the Mail and the Express, so how can Channel 4 consider this to be responsible journalism?
I'll leave the final word to one of my own tweets during the show:
- I wonder how many disabled ppl will be abused as 'scroungers' in the street tomorrow as a result of #BenefitsBritain?