Sunday, 23 August 2009


The first Benefit Busters programme has certainly created a lot of interest in A4e. But as we wait for the second episode (which will surely be even more controversial), can we assess what the producers set out to achieve; what they actually achieved; and what it means for A4e?
The aim was to simplify a far from simple subject, with a handful of lone parents and a central character that you couldn't ignore. We were told that the bill for benefits comes to more than the take from income tax; and one of the women, Yvette, gives the opinion which has been so widely quoted - that she gets too much on benefits. The women were told at the start that if they didn't turn up they would be disciplined; in fact, A4e could only refer them back to the Jobcentre after a specified period of absence. They were subjected to what was called, wrongly, "tough love" and told that, "There isn't one of you in this room that can't go out and get a job tomorrow and that is a fact." That's rubbish, but a great many viewers would believe it. But as if to demonstrate this, the five remaining women got work trials with Poundland and four of them stayed, on minimum wage. Emma Harrison was allowed to deliver the mantras "improving people's lives" and "it's a together thing" more than once and showed her willingness to descend to the front line from her well-earned mansion.
But reactions show that many viewers saw beyond this. The women were not, with one exception, stereotypical single mums, because there's no such thing. Only Donna could rouse the ire of Middle England, with her massive debts; and yet it was Donna who first exposed the flaws in Ms Taylor's 's methods when she turned down a job that would have left her stranded in the early hours of the morning. The other women succumbed to the browbeating, feeling guilty and miserable, before being allowed to regain some self-respect. Many who saw the programme were concerned about the techniques used by Ms Taylor, her qualifications, and the realism of what we saw. It is highly unlikely that one person would have spent 6 weeks exclusively with a group of 5 clients. We were never told the overall outcome percentages. It has, however, raised awareness of the difficulty of living on minimum wage.
Was it good PR for A4e? It certainly increased brand recognition, but that is not always a good thing. I suspect that Emma Harrison endeared herself to no one. We'll have to wait for next week for a final verdict, But I think it's a pity that MPs are on their hols, or we could have expected some reaction from them.

1 comment:

  1. A4e simply do not get it. 20 years ago, thry could have gotten awy with guff such as BB (Benefit Busters). Back then there was no internet (well, not as we know it today) and the only outlet someone had to complain about a business, corperation or govt dept was through writing a stern letter to the local / national press, contacting the BBC's Watchdog or hoping ITV's Roger Cook would get on the case.

    Now with the power of the internet via blogs and sites such as this one, newspaper sites and of course You Tube, there is ample opportunity to discuss and debate progs such as BB. We can of course give BB a kicking and call it all the names under the sun. Better still, we can analyse and pick over the series and not blindly accept what the govt tells us as too many sadly do. A4e it seems has ignored or forgotten this fact and hopes those watching will simply take everything said on BB at face value. Remember, there was no one to give an alternative viewpoint, at least not in this fisrt episode.

    A4e no doubt see BB as a PR coup. And as I said 20 or even 10 years ago it would have been. However, people are already commenting on the program, both good and bad. We've already seen the inevitable comparisons made between the main 'star' of the show, Hayley Taylor and 'Pauline', the restart officer from the brilliant League of Gentlemen series. Not to mention David Brent from the Office and Marjorie Dawes from Little Britain. Not particularly positive comparisons.


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