Belinda Webb may call it "poverty voyeurism", but frankly we should be looking directly into the lives of Britain's low-income families. It's a shame she judged How the Other Half Live before she watched it. Despite my reservations about its premise of a wealthy family sponsoring a poor family, I found the first episode moving, sensitive and informative.
In giving one of Britain's most disadvantaged families a rare primetime voice, it made visible many of the factors limiting the lives of the UK's 4 million children below the poverty line and that act as barriers to families moving out of poverty.
Yes, reality shows can exploit their subjects, but they don't always. When did you last see an hour-long prime-time programme driven by the voice of an intelligent and articulate 10-year-old girl stuck in a small, barely-furnished flat in a grotty London tower block?
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has spent over two years on a major stream of work researching public attitudes to UK poverty and media portrayals of those who lose out in Britain's culture of inequality. The research finds people are sceptical about UK poverty because it has so little visibility in mainstream culture. This leaves public perceptions to be distorted by misleading and stigmatising portrayals, ranging from tabloid hack jobs on families receiving benefits to the vulgar chav stereotypes in Little Britain and The Katherine Tate Show.
While Matt Lucas has never called up the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) to discuss the veracity and impact of his portrayals of low-income families, the producers of How the Other Half Live did. In fact they spoke to dozens of organisations working on behalf of low-income families and working in deprived communities. This kind of dialogue has also been facilitated by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation's project, which has sought to bring together journalists and programme makers with organisations tackling poverty. As well as working to prevent media content that stigmatises those on low incomes and misleads audiences, we have challenged programme makers to innovate formats that make poverty visible and understandable to mainstream audiences, showing positive portrayals of people struggling hard in difficult circumstances and giving low-income families a voice.
As the series continues I hope we can move on to debating the poverty and inequality it brings into view. Issues like why families are struggling on such inadequate incomes, in such poor quality housing without the money to furnish them, crippled by debt and without access to the skills support and childcare that will help them into decent work. Barriers like the tremendous social exclusion the three young girls in the Gumpo family face, that could so easily see them failed by the education, system despite their obvious intelligence and potential.
I hope that, having now seen the programme, Belinda Webb is happy that the Gumpo family's voices were heard by a mainstream audience. Maybe her next comment will be about how we should all respond as a nation to end Britain's culture of inequality and ensure that the duty to end UK child poverty by 2020, in a bill currently before parliament, is met.
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