Craig JacksonBy Craig Jackson, Professor of Occupational Health Psychology.

A new ultra-low in television’s use of the jobless as entertainment, by Channel 4

Last night, Channel 4 screened the first episode in the second series of The Fairy Jobmother. The premise is a simple and tired one – Hayley Taylor is a work “guru” who takes on a group of long-term unemployed people, and over a few weeks turns them into confident go-getters who then head out into the world to get a job. In the first episode, Hayley Taylor makes her charges engage in the usual “empowering” activities that teach the participants new skills, while ladling on the shame and embarrassment. It’s been described as “Supernanny for the Unemployed” which itself is an unfortunate term – infantilising and disempowering those without meaningful work.

This is disgraceful and unethical TV – the bullying of people too lost, uncertain and fractured to fight back, or to even know they’re being manipulated and abused. The producers went to Liverpool to hand-pick four unemployed caricatures, including the stereotypical middle aged “Jim Royal” trapped in the past, spouting off about “T’atcher dis n T’atcher dat”; his daughter who has never had a job; a young single mum; and a cripplingly shy soon-to-be father. Each and everyone of them had low confidence, self-esteem, and an absence of workplace skills. Anyone who is familiar with the character of Pauline from The League of Gentlemen need read no further. It was that bad. Taylor of course has graced our screens before in another unethical series from Channel 4 – Benefit Busters – where she barked Apprentice-style Neologisms at the unemployed in an attempt to shame them into ceasing to sponge from the State. Ironically, I would not employ Taylor – she has the hardened and unpleasant edge of a bully who has worked with the un-empowered for too long, has lost any compassion she may have had for them at the beginning of her career, and now barks and berates them while hoping the newly austere-public and their “disgust” with the unemployed will make it acceptable.

Hayley also attempted her hand at the soft psychological therapies too – surprising Jim Royal on his doorstop with a fish and chip supper in order to get over his threshold. Once she had got in, she ate with him while probing him about his arrogant desire to live on benefits, then coming a cropper and getting out of her depth when he confessed to previous severe alcoholism and losing his children. Her bellowing was not going to help at this point and the interview abruptly ended there.

Taylor’s character-building exercise this week was to get each individual to stand on a podium outside a busy shopping centre, wear a tri-cornered hat, and to ring a bell like a town crier and shout nonsensical slogans. Degrading. This act, to my knowledge, has only ever been topped by Gok Wan in one of his TV shows where he took a group of naked women and hosed them down in an empty swimming pool, all in the name of making them feel better about their bodies. However, last night, Taylor’s next move was for the four participants to each take 2 minutes to “pitch” themselves to a panel of four leading figures in local / regional commerce, and show why they should be given a job. This was the point were my anger seethed at its maximum – watching other humans begging for work in front of cameras. The dénouement was then for each participant to attend an enforced job interview. Only one was successful in their attempts – thereby robbing the show of it’s ethical defence that the indignity was worthy for the goal. Clearly it was not.

Channel 4 was once a proud channel that challenged and provoked. It was as anti-Thatcherism as any mainstream broadcaster could dare be in the 1980s and 1990s – but those days have long gone, and programming has been replaced by shallow, unethical and uncomfortable documentaries. For a channel which once had Alan Bleasdale, Phil Redmond and Jimmy McGovern as bedfellows all at the same time, such a swipe at Liverpool is pretty unforgivable. Watch it without feeling uncomfortable and guilty for being complicit in the whole mess, I dare you. When Countdown is the most edgy show on a programming schedule, the broadcaster must surely be in trouble.  And indeed they are: Channel 4 is currently advertising for someone to be the head of their documentary commissioning process. Anyone fancy a go? Have a go. Seriously.

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Craig Jackson

Craig Jackson

Head of Psychology Division at Birmingham City University