So anyone tuning in to Channel 5 last night at 9.00 pm and expecting some form of high calibre debate of the kind offered by Question Time on the BBC or The Agenda on ITV1 would have felt short changed, I expect.
A show entitled The Big Benefits Row is instructive in itself. Rows imply conflict, not a cup of tea and a cosy chat. Substitute the word row for conversation and you may end up with a more productive debate useful to everyone, audience and participants alike.
For me the first paragraph of this piece from the social commentator Laurie Penny is very telling and typifies the end result the programme makers wanted from last night’s debate. Laurie says, almost prophetically;
“The producer knocked her fists together in the dark backstage. “We want you to, you know…” She made the motion again, smiling sweetly, as my hired nemesis and I were strapped into radio microphones for a five minute debate on the evening news. It was clear what she meant. She wanted us to scrap. She didn’t want us to talk sensibly and work out our differences. She wanted blood on the floor.”
In part, this is understandable as all television wants to be noticed. It wants to create those so-called watercooler moments and talkability. Not talkability that lasts for a day or a week. More like a year. Programme makers want to create a programme in current affairs that makes you pick a side. You’re either Team Hopkins or Team Currie, for the bad cops, or indeed you may be Team Jones or Team Monroe for the good cops. As a viewer and a participant you are left in no doubt that you must pick a side. For the duration of that program you must pledge allegiance to either team. Indecisiveness or dissonance is not available to you. It is survival of the fittest: dog eat dog and we must buy into it for current affairs debates to work.
Now for me I was originally a refusenik. I had planned purposely not to watch the debate. Anything to me which gives Katie Hopkins airtime is not a productive use of a platform that many people would relish not least me.
What prompted my renewed interest in the debate, was the fact that Sue Marsh the renowned, ardent and brilliant disability campaigner had been dropped from the panel at the last minute.
Given that a sizeable number of those with disabilities depend on benefits to exist I was disgusted that they were left without representation on this debate. I still am. In fact I am seething. I have read through the commentariat’s responses today to the programme and only two have picked up on Sue Marsh’s bumping from it.
You see the thing is I know roughly what Owen Jones will say about benefits. I know roughly what Jack Monroe will say about benefits. The latter put in a sterling performance last night taking on Edwina Currie over her barbs towards her family and may have dropped an F bomb on Channel 5. Meanwhile Owen Jones compared the possibility of debating with Katie Hopkins to having a cheese grater rubbed in your face. I should confess at this point I do have a love for cheese and I want to be able to eat a cheese roll again without thinking of her.
But I find myself thinking as a person with a disability who eviscerated Katie Hopkins spectacularly in this blog for disgraceful comments she made about the former Paralympian Lady Grey-Thompson, I would welcome the chance to debate with her. I wouldn’t want to be placated and told I did not have to on the grounds of my own foibles. I would instead relish the chance and grab it with both hands. I don’t want this post to turn into a Hopkins themed diatribe.
I am always amazed by the paucity of diversity within the media. There is nothing the media relishes more than talking to itself about itself.
I am concerned about is there is a huge swathe of the population that is being excluded from this debate. That is those with disabilities. It is telling that the producers saw fit to drop Sue Marsh from the debate, allegedly because space needed to be made for other contributors. I put this question to you though. Which contributor could be more important than many of those who depend on benefits to live? I make no secret of the fact I would like a media platform across all media, television and radio and online. Why? I have the qualities, I have the confidence and currently, somewhat regrettably I do not see myself represented.
The comedienne Ava Vidal was also ignored, despite pointedly shouting Matthew Wright’s name for at least enough time to induce laryngitis (maybe!)
When I switch the television on I see nobody like me is telling my story. It is nothing short of a scandal that a programme about disability benefits had limits on the numbers of people it could take in wheelchairs.
I don’t want this piece either to be too hyper focused on one debate, because there is a wider debate to be had too.
You see I am also transgendered. But, in an affectionate nod to the words of the Natalie Imbruglia song I often find I’m torn.
Trans representation on screen is increasing. Paris Lees has been on Question Time, which commands huge audiences and is the premier political programme. So the trans community is understandably very happy about this.
But I feel conflicted. For disabled people are virtually invisible on-screen and I think this is wrong. I found it hard to celebrate when the trans community were extra happy about Paris Lees appearing on Question Time.
Essentially I feel torn between two minorities. Extensive progress on one hand and zero progress on the other. But I don’t intend to give in. I think it would be fantastic if for example a person with a disability was giving their viewpoint as an invited guest on Question Time or on the newspaper reviews on Sky News. I keep across the news agenda every day. I am a newshound if you like. I am also news hungry.
Radio is slightly more progressive in this regard. With the use of telephone communication, ISDN lines, and Skype of course, there is less need for people to appear directly in a studio environment. But on the other hand, why shouldn’t we appear “in quality?” Why shouldn’t that be an aspiration for radio producers?
I have no doubt that the commentariat as it currently stands make many well-meaning contributions and interventions in the disability debate. But in terms of people like Sue Marsh, it is not the same and cannot be equivalent to hearing it from the horse’s mouth ever. It is not good enough and the boat needs rocking.
I am perfectly capable of writing articles. Therefore I am perfectly capable of translating those articles and opinions into articulate speech. I should stress that I recognise fully that this is a privilege that not all of my disabled colleagues have. Therefore I feel it is incumbent on those of us who do have that privilege to use it for maximum effect and benefit.
I have to say too, I have enjoyed the few media appearances I have done. For LBC as a caller, and another for BBC Radio 5 Live for the Eastleigh by-election debate.
But just as some of the media has a race problem I think it also has a disability problem. I would applaud the efforts of Samantha Asamadu for her consciousness raising initiative Writers of Colour which gives people of colour the opportunity to write and have their work seen by thousands and embedded into people’s consciousness. Sam was inspired to start this campaign after noticing that there was a trend for all front pages to be white, as in stories related to white people.
But also, I wouldn’t just want to be pigeonholed into a disability slot. I have views and opinions like the rest of the commentariat, I wouldn’t just want to talk about disability. Indeed panel shows require versatility and people have to be well read and briefed on a number of subjects.
But by excluding one of the most important groups from a panel about benefits last night, Channel 5 failed as a broadcaster. Of course, the terminology specially invited audience implies some level of segregation from the outset.
People like Owen Jones, Katie Hopkins and Jack Monroe are panel show veterans. Media appearances are something they do regularly and often. I’m not asking that the able-bodied commentariat is and zapped and rendered invisible from our television screens by Team Disabled. What I would like to see is parity. I would like to see disabled people welcomed into the media sphere and their views sought. Not just on disability but on the multiplicity of issues a globalised world presents.
I would like the media to cast its net wider than the usual contacts book. Current affairs could learn a lot from the soap world in this regard.Coronation Street has the character of Izzy Armstrong, played with aplomb by the actress Cherrylee Houston. Her disability is incidental compared to the rest of her character. The scriptwriters do not dwell on a disability, but rather they integrate it into her overall character.
Inevitably there would be initial shock at perhaps seeing the sofa in a different position on Sky News to let the paper reviewer in. But that would dissipate over time.
I knew what Katie Hopkins would say. However I did not know what Sue Marsh would say and I feel somewhat cheated because of that.
I am fed up of turning on the television and never seeing myself on it. Perhaps 2014 can be the year that changes. For my perspective is just as valuable as Owen Jones or Paris Lees. Sue Marsh’s perspective is just as valuable too, but programme makers will not realise this until they take a risk particularly producers.
Equally, we need more with disabilities involved in television, radio and journalism. Otherwise, programmes will never be shaped by us either. The input and who crafts it has a dramatic influence on the output. People with disabilities need to be a part of this at both ends of the spectrum, and I certainly want to be.
Also, I saw many friendly photos on Twitter last night after the debate. I was saddened not to see a disabled person in a single one. Producers, widen the scope of your guests on television and radio, and widen the range represented in your specially invited audiences. That will make for a much higher quality, less segregated debate. It is great for those like Paris, who are achieving greater representation for themselves. However, I still feel invisible. Five, four, three, two, one, run titles, and now it really is time for action. Yes producers, I fancied a drink in the pub after the debate as well. Mine’s a Malibu and Lemonade.
Whether people are still scrapping today or not, disabled people were underepresented. Maybe the media as a collective should think about that.