Monday, 11 July 2011

Mixed motives

I have very mixed feelings when I'm watching one of those frank and gritty documentaries about the people who get shat on by society - families coping with squalid housing or loan sharks or chronic unemployment.

Am I someone with a social conscience, keeping in touch with what's happening outside my cosy middle-class cocoon? Or am I just a gawping voyeur, drinking in the sordid details of other people's miserable lives that I can do little to change?

I asked myself this when I was watching a particularly grim TV programme about tenants being conned and abused by ruthless landlords who let their homes disintegrate, jacked up the rent or evicted them overnight.

I wondered why I was continuing to watch a parade of humiliated and distraught people when I was already very familiar with the problems they were talking about, problems that have been going on for decades. What more would the programme tell me apart from how thoroughly wretched the victims were?

It's glaringly obvious that many people are struggling to survive and have decent lives. Why was I conspiring with journalists to make a pointless spectacle of their private anguish?

Apart from the voyeuristic element, there's the feeling of helplessness such programmes create. Naturally I want to relieve the suffering of these downtrodden people, but what can I actually do about it? As a solitary powerless individual, virtually nothing, so I'm left feeling inadequate and irrelevant in the face of overwhelming need.

Alternatively, I'm prompted yet again to rage against the incompetence of politicians who allow these injustices to go on year after year while they themselves enjoy decent lives in comfortable homes. And what does that rage achieve except to raise my blood pressure and remind me of other people's smugness? Nothing.

Is my ambivalence about these programmes just squeamish over-sensitivity? Or am I right to be dubious about such muck-raking journalism?


  1. Maybe you are not the target audience. Maybe there are many people out there who blame the poor for being poor, who are under the delusion that me live in a meritocracy. Maybe these programs are intended to grab the attention and change the views of those people and not you. Maybe.

  2. On the one hand I feel such programmes remind us, bring back to the forefront of our minds, that there is still a lot to be done in the fight for equity.

    On the other hand I feel they serve as a threat to make sure we behave ourselves, that is keep on the right side of the (nebulous) law; keep working hard, etc., or else we could find ourselves in such a situation.

    I also think, though, that television is about entertainment, and thus such programmes can make one feel superior, lucky, relieved, and smug.

    However, it is possible that some people watch and feel such horror and outrage they actually do try and do something about it. These days I seem to sign at least one online petition a day, adding my small voice to various outcries regarding inequities. All of them have been instigated by someone who could not sit and do nothing any longer.

    I think you sound more jaded than over sensitive, which is probably the main problem with such shows: too many of them are likely to dull us.

  3. Wendy - In the best instances, such programmes can arouse sympathy and understanding. The danger is that they can also reinforce people's smugness and superiority.

    Eryl - Unfortunately I think a lot of these programmes are preaching to the converted. Those who feel compassionate and concerned will respond positively, others will be indifferent. I don't think I'm jaded, far from it. I'm as outraged by injustice and deprivation as I was in my youth. I just wish something effective could be done about it.

  4. I think its fair enough to be question the motives of those who make the shows. If they offered suggestions at the end about how to help, perhaps the show might be more useful. But I worry that there are many who revel in the misery of others.

  5. Don't watch them myself but there's always some lonely hearts or disadvantage story on the news which is unavoidable . . I guess sometimes it's nice to know that there's someone worse off than us when we're wallowing in our own self pity. I do question the motives of actual programs that focus on these things unless they're documentaries trying to highlight awful people can be to each other and let's face it we can be pretty ruthless and unfeeling

  6. I knew I felt that about some of the news coverage after the tsunami in Japan.


    I watch very little television and no reality tv shows or documentaries now.

    *sigh* I'm sorry, I have nothing useful to contribute. I'll go to bed now.

  7. Secret Agent - The programme's presenter, Jon Snow, is a well-respected journalist, but nevertheless by the end of the programme, he hadn't achieved much except righteous indignation.

    Baino - Yes, it's helpful to know there's someone worse off than us, but don't we know that anyway? These programmes are merely rubbing our noses in it.

    Roses - The tsunami coverage is a good example of something that gets sensationalised way beyond its natural horror.

  8. Disconnected the TV 20 years ago now. No regrets when I read about this highly manipulative infotainment crap with no social message or suggestions apart from alarming the slave drones into working harder.

  9. www - There are good and bad TV programmes but certainly an awful lot that make a melodrama out of something without suggesting any possible solutions.

  10. I am in agreement with Eryl, especially this bit: On the other hand I feel they serve as a threat to make sure we behave ourselves, that is keep on the right side of the (nebulous) law; keep working hard, etc., or else we could find ourselves in such a situation.

    Eryl's theory can also be applied to programmes about the very obese that seem to be prolificating on C4 at the moment.
    I try to avoid it all. Although I like How Clean Is Your House for some bizarre reason.


  11. Scarlet - I think that's a very big function of those programmes, to fill us with horror and panic at the thought we might end up in the same mess. Usually quite irrational because most of us are actually too smart and too resourceful for our lives to go totally off the rails.

  12. Nick leaving aside your own reaction to the show, let me share some views on the situation here. Many decades ago, the Indian government in its enlightened view brought about a law called the Rent Control Act which in effect froze rents at the then existing levels with no option to the landlords to evict tenants. Inflation, demand/supply equations and time took its toll and what do you expect land lords to do with 1950 level rents not adjusted to inflation to do? How do they repair and maintain their property at those rental incomes? The logical answer is to let the tenants take care of the maintenance and repairs, and would they do it?

    Today, tenants cannot find accommodation on rent and have to depend on a system called leave and license which in effect means that the tenant has to vacate the accommodation every eleven months or pay the increased rent demanded and a fresh L&L agreement signed.

    Many flats lie unoccupied and many accommodation seekers have to do with either the inconvenience of shifting every eleven months or seek paying guest accommodation.

    In the meanwhile, the older buildings are collapsing, often killing someone or the other and the property finally reverts to the land lord to build a modern edifice on it. Criminal elements often enter the fray along with politico/bureaucrat connivance to evict tenants even in dilapidated places.

    Well intentioned or not, the aim of protecting the tenants who were thought to have been exploited by the land lords have suffered.

    Look at it from the land lord's point of view. Who exploits who?

  13. Ramana - There used to be strict rent control laws in Britain but they were gradually scrapped. They did allow tenants to appeal against rent increases but the increases were often permitted.

    The leave and licence system sounds very strange. Having to move every 11 months or accept a rent rise seems pretty tough on the tenant.

    UK rents in general are at hefty market rates (except for council housing) but landlords still let their properties fall to bits. Controls on landlords are now pretty lax, which is why the number of landlords has been steadily rising.

  14. I have the same mixed feelings, so am not qualified to answer your questions. Maybe some people watch such public misery to remind themselves that their own lives are not so bad after all.

  15. Heart - I think they do. But again, do they not already realise that their lives are much better than many other people's?

  16. Difficult one this. My daughter has started watching these sort of things now, and I am wondering if it is voyeuristic or good for her to see the 'real world'?

  17. Suburbia - Oh dear, if she's already a hypochondriac, she'll be imagining herself in one of the horrific lives depicted in the documentaries! Keep her away from the telly!

  18. good blog you have here
    I have enjoyed the read

  19. John - Good? My blog is seriously excellent, in fact it's beyond excellent (or so my imaginary friend tells me). I see you're an animal lover with a teeming menagerie up in North Wales. Rather you than me, I have absolutely no talent for looking after animals!

  20. Depends on the content of the show an how it is presented.
    But any anger need not lead to feelings of guilt or powerlessness - it could be a spur to action - if not on the specific issue raised, on some other good cause.
    I suppose the analogy could be people begging on the street. You think to yourself that you can't go giving money to every single person you see, which makes sense, but also leaves you (me anyway) feeling unhappy. But if you can add on the thought, "but at least I'm doing..." this, that or the other thing. I'm not going to buy 20 issues of the Big Issue, but I could buy one. Works for me anyway.

  21. Blackwater - Certainly I can buy The Big Issue or give someone a quid. But tackling widespread malpractice by private landlords is beyond my abilities.

  22. I know how you feel. I felt a bit like that watching the recent Channel 4 programme on homeless people. What I took away from that was (a) that homeless people have feelings and (b) most of them - or at least the ones portrayed - have serious, serious problems which they may never be able to sort out. So they might never be OK. Well, should I be prying on their deepest secrets?
    More to the point, what do I do about it. Do I refuse to watch documentaries which might be like this?
    I get particularly concerned when children are the ones being featured on these social problem programmes. They can't really consent or at least I don't think they can. And you bet the grown ups arent around when they're being teased about whatever it is was said on TV to be their problem.

  23. Jenny - Indeed, thousands of people are suddenly gawping at some poor homeless guy and what does he gain from it? Probably precious little. And that's a good point about children who're barely aware of what these curious journos are up to and then get teased about it afterwards.