I knew I'd seen Allegra Stratton's name somewhere before. Her byline used to appear on her Guardian articles. Not long ago, she was headhunted by BBC Newsnight, who made her their political editor. You would think, wouldn't you, that such a person would come to the job accoutred at least with a mild consensual liberalism. And perhaps she did. But when Stratton was given the job of investigating whether the nice Mr Cameron was right to say that there were a lot of young scroungers who should be living at home with their parents, she seems to have taken pains to arrive at the affirmative.
This is what she, and her employers, did: they found a working mother who is in receipt of housing benefits, obtained her consent to be interviewed about her situation, and they fucked her over. You can follow the link and watch the interview, then proceed to see what Shanene Thorpe, the interviewee, has to say about it. The footage shows Stratton calmly interrogating Shanene Thorpe, challenging her decision to live in her own digs despite her mother having a perfectly serviceable two-bedroom flat in which she could raise her child. Stratton suggests that such a choice is unacceptable if it has to be supported by - oh, 'the state', 'the taxpayer', 'overtaxed television professionals'? One of those, I'm sure.
Now, much of the coverage of this sorry affair has thus far led with the way viewers were misled. At no point in the interview were those watching allowed to know that Thorpe is actually in full-time, paid work, and that she only needed housing benefit due to the exorbitant cost of living and working in the capital. I understand the reason for that being the focus. Yet, clearly, such an omission by itself could have been benign. It is the manner in which this lie is articulated with a moral ideology that has got people's backs up, and quite correctly. As Shanene Thorpe puts it: "I did not expect to be personally scrutinised, have judgements made about my choices and asked why I didn’t choose to get rid of my child." Of course, Thorpe, being a pretty normal person with a normal set of mixed reactions, partly wants to defend herself in the very terms of this moral ideology that was used against her: I work hard, I am a taxpayer, I don't agree with handouts, I personally struggled with asking for benefits, etc. All of this indignant, defensive reaction coming out in a series of tweeted statements as she explains how unjustly she has been treated.
Looking a little further into this moral ideology, it revolves around the dichotomy of stigma, and respectability. The reason why Thorpe is so revolted is that she has been stigmatised. She is a respectable 'working mother' (I chose the phrase carefully), and she has been made to look like one of them, a scrounger, a social parasite, the worst sort of person. Those people, we have been told over and over, caused the recession, the subsequent social crisis and the galactic destruction of wealth, through their feckless borrowing and dependence on unsustainable tax-funded welfarism. Moreover, do you see what they do with the money? The gold chains, the twenty-four packs, the violent sprees? They are represented as the cause of all our misery, and to be identified as one of them is to incur real social costs. This, palpably, is the real horror here. And I am not blaming Shanene Thorpe for being horrified: she didn't create the stigma; she is one of its victims. For if paid work, a commodity whose stock increases as it becomes more scarce, is the ultimate guarantor of respectability in English culture - this is a truism - it is so to the extent that unemployment and poverty are associated with a social demonology, an image of criminal violence, uncultured hedonism, and savagery. So, embedded in respectability is an image of an ideal life, part of whose appeal is that it is clearly demarcated from the dissolute lives of those whom people now call, without embarrassment, 'the underclass'.
Since paid work guarantees the demarcation, Shanene Thorpe had every reason to expect that she would be treated as a respectable person by the BBC. She could not have anticipated that the boundaries of respectability in popular culture are being shifted by a considerable ideological effort. The ideologically coded but otherwise far-from-subtle reason for this shift is an attempt to suppress the wage bill. The accent may fall on benefits, but these are merely a social wage: the costs of the reproduction of labour, however they are covered, are to be reduced through this expedient of forcing millions of young people and their parents to share cramped accomodation. Even having paid work isn't a guarantee of respectaility, now, if soaring living costs mean that you still partially depend on the social wage.
But who produces this social image of the ideal life, to which workers aspire? For whom is one respectable? Obviously, the answer is, in part, the people who produce social images: the class of professionals, from media and academia, to the upper reaches of social work and civil service, whose function it is to reflect on social problems, critically account for them, and prescribe some form of intervention. Notice, when watching the interview, that Stratton's metropolitan, upper middle class manners, don't seriously veil her attack - but they do make it seem almost natural that she should be treating her subject in this abusive, judgmental, moralising way. She deploys the skills of her class, their ways of speaking to social inferiors, with persuasive authority. She invokes what "we all know" with absolute assuredness. Of course, she is prepared and well-trained, while her subject isn't - but these are attributes of her location in the class matrix as much as accent, comportment, education, sartorientation, and so on. And it is she who, in this transaction, dangles the carrot of respectability. In general, respectability is something that is conferred by social superiors. Or, as Hall et al put it in Policing the Crisis: "Respectability is the collective internalisation, by the lower orders, of an image of the 'ideal life' held out for them by those who stand higher in the scheme of things; it disciplines society from end to end, rank by rank."
There is, though, just one other question, of what role this interview plays in the encoding of the ideological product contained in the programme. It's well known that scenes of 'actuality' are there in part to conceal the produced nature of what the news is bringing us: the scenes from press briefings, war zones, conferences floors, etc., reinforce the spoken narrative of the newscaster, and attest that this is just 'what happened'. Also corroborating the narrative in a different way is the 'live debate': it shows that we don't 'take sides', but rather explore the issues raised by 'what happened' in a way that reflects no partisanship. So, this is the 'window-on-the-world' view of the media. In real life, the actual 'message' of the media passes through a complex series of apparatuses, each with its own logic and hierarchies, before it is received and implemented by the viewer. (I use the word 'implemented' very deliberately - it is intended to have an effect, to be put into practice, otherwise it would have no purpose). And in this chain of apparatuses, the media is usually articulated with several others which supply it with a product - the administration, the courts, the MoD, think-tanks, etc. The extent of this articulation is such that, for example, it makes no sense to think of the BBC as merely reporting on government policy. Like all media outlets, it is part of policymaking, a factor in its formulation, an vector for its promulgation, a condition for its success. So, one can't begin to look at how Stratton and her employers came up with this idea without looking at how policymakers, civil servants and, at a longer range, other sites of power outside the state (businesses, lobbies, financial corporations, other news media, etc), have already determined that this is a suitable and urgently relevant topic.
But to return to the interview, it combines the functions of the actuality and the live debate - there are elements of both. And it was necessary for the purposes of the programme that someone more or less like Shanene Thorpe, at least not too different in the details of her life, should have been the interviewee-cum-scapegoat here. It bore witness to the substance of the encoded message. That is why they fucked her over.