By Mhairi Black

IT seems like every mainstream television channel these days has indulged in “poverty porn”, where they produce programmes focusing on those who rely on benefits. Usually, but not always, the focus of such programmes is on those who are abusing the benefits system.

This is actually a change from the original definition of poverty porn. The term originally referred to campaigns by charities which used the media to promote the causes they were championing. Whereas charities used distressing images of starving children and such like to generate sympathy for those suffering and to increase contributions for their campaigns, the television programmes such as Benefits Street aim to generate outrage and anger at those who are reliant on state support.

These voyeuristic shows have moved from documentary-style reporting where an issue is explained in some detail into a cheap reality-style form of entertainment.

Although there is sometimes some focus on those who abuse the benefits system, there is something deeply distasteful in turning unemployment and poverty into cheap entertainment shows. Many people are struggling to make ends meet each day and having poverty porn turn this into entertainment demeans the struggles they and their families have to face.

Such shows, whether they mean it or not, tend to glamorise the extreme minority who abuse the system, making the public believe that too many people are claiming for what they are not entitled.

This could be one of the reasons behind the results found by an Ipsos Mori poll that revealed the public believed benefit fraud accounted for £24 out of every £100 claimed. Yet the reality is that fraud actually accounts for 70p out of every £100.

As there is such a massive difference between perception and reality you have to question how the public can be so ill informed. Yet look at almost any week’s television schedules and you’ll find at least one “poverty porn” show being broadcast. Are these shows reflecting the reality of life in poverty or are they promoting a false image that encourages the public to get their facts wrong? Is this style of programme creating a stigma around claiming benefits – even when claimants have made years of tax and national insurance contributions and find themselves temporarily reliant on benefits?

One of my concerns with such programmes is the impact they have on those who need to apply for benefits.

There is a serious problem with people not claiming all the benefits to which they are entitled. Is this due to potential claimants being concerned about the stigma of applying for benefits?

Depending on which source you look at this could amount to as much as £20 billion of benefits going uncollected every year. That is a massive amount of funding that is meant to go to those in need but each year lies unclaimed.

According to Age UK, pensioners are missing out on £5.5 billion of income-related benefits every year, vital income that could help many pensioners from facing the annual fear of winter and the choice whether to “eat or heat”. This includes 1.58 million pensioners failing to claim Pension Credit to which they are entitled and 2.23 million pensioners failing to claim the council tax benefit which they are due. Just imagine how many winter deaths could be avoided, particularly in this age group, if there was a real campaign to promote entitlement to all benefits.

The Ipsos Mori survey found that the take-up rate on some benefits was around 70 per cent. Compare that to the actual fraud of 0.7 per cent. The real issue isn’t so much benefit fraud – although that does need addressed – but the lack of any decent campaign to make sure that everyone who is on benefits gets all that they are entitled to.

In contrast to the many poverty porn programmes, what are broadcasters doing about tax dodging? Occasionally there will be a programme about one of the bigger companies who have pulled tax dodges to avoid paying corporation tax but there is never the same level of output from the television companies.

There is not a series on “the UK’s Top 10 Tax Dodgers” or “Britain’s Biggest Tax Evaders”.

The media prefer to make the public focus on those claiming benefits. Yet the scale of tax avoidance within the UK dwarfs the level of benefit fraud. According to the UK Government, tax evasion is around £35 billion per year but, according to a report commissioned by the union PCS and researched by Tax Research Associates, tax evasion in the UK in 2014 was around £119.4bn. This report complains that the UK Government’s figures massively underestimate the issue and use accounting sleight of hand to diminish the actual problem. However, the chances of collecting this money are diminishing as the UK Government are on schedule to decrease staffing within HMRC by 43 per cent over 10 years.

Imagine the difference £119.4bn could make to the UK economy every year, if only the UK Government bothered to collect it. We could wipe out all the austerity cuts overnight and start to invest in public services and a decent social security system for all. We could restore the social contract between citizens and the state by having a social security system that worked as a safety net for those who, for whatever reason, needed support.

Yet there seems to be no desire for such programmes from the TV stations. It really makes you wonder if in trying to turn your attention to benefit cheats the media are deliberately hiding the real extent of tax dodging.

Lord Reith, the first director general of the BBC, wanted the BBC to inform, educate and entertain. However, it looks like the demands of poverty porn has shifted the balance from information and education to entertainment. Poverty is a hard fact of life for too many people in this country and turning it into entertainment to fill a slot in the television schedules is distasteful.