Monday, 3 February 2014

In Defence of White Dee

If I was a different person, on occasion I might have moralised about Richard Desmond. Words could have fallen onto my keyboard denouncing his objectification of women, of plastering his publications with a feminine body ideal that causes anxiety and misery to many women of all ages, of inculcating a very narrow view of womanhood among his mainly male customers, and for taking an unacceptable creepy tone as the stipulated house standard. And that's before you get to Desmond's porn titles. Well, Desmond flogged the porn a while back but his trajectory since has been far more reprehensible. Both his Express and Star are truly execrable titles. Put them on the floor next to my cat's litter tray and straight away he'll know which one to use. And this isn't because either aren't to my political taste, though that's true enough. It's the fact they're the most brazenly cynical and enthusiastic of all Britain's rags to attack the poor and vulnerable. As disgusting as The Mail is, you know it's part of a semi-coherent stunted world view designed to reflect the prejudices of its dying readership. The Express and Star are less rabid reactionary, and more desperately offer their front pages up as real world analogues of frothing click bate. So it is with this morning's front page.

To put this in context, today's monstering of Benefits Street star Deidre Kelly AKA White Dee is publicity for tonight's "The Big Benefits Row: Live" on, you guessed it, the Desmond-owned Channel 5. Media synergies, eh? This, the blurb says, is a "discussion programme in which experts debate the controversial subject of benefits." Who pray tell are the "experts"? They are Edwina Currie, Kelvin MacKenzie and Katie Hopkins. In other words, the diseased effluvia of political comment. And their purpose is to poke their flabby fingers at the low paid, the unemployed, and the disabled. To pick among the poor to see who is deserving and who isn't. It's a bit like the lords and ladies of Victorian times who did the same, except unlike this putrid bunch at least some of them were motivated by a patrician concern for the needy. 

But I absolutely object to the terms in which this is put. "White Dee: I Deserve to Live Off Benefits" says the headline. Okay, that the subsequent drivel can't muster up a direct quotation, except from the latrinial Hopkins, shows it for the crap it is. But yes, I'm going to "be brave" and stick up for White Dee. She fully deserves the support she receives from the state.

Now there's a line you won't hear on tonight's debate. As viewers know, Dee is in receipt of "disability benefits" because she's on medication for "depression". First things first, Dee doesn't present as someone who appears to be depressed. She's always having a laugh, enjoying good natured banter with her kids and neighbours. In many ways she is positioned as a positive figure, as a street-wise but jolly-hearted matriarch helping keep her multi-cultural community together. There doesn't appear to be anything wrong with her at all. Because the edit she has received does not explore her depression. It's like filming someone who cannot walk but never filming their wheelchair as they star in Are Disabled People Shammers?.

The second thing to bear in mind is the support mix Dee is likely to receive. As she does not have any care or mobility issues, it's extremely unlikely she qualifies for and receives any form of Disability Living Allowance. Alongside child benefit and housing benefit, I imagine her sole source of income is Employment Support Allowance. This comes in two categories, and a recipient is placed in one of them after spending a year on the contributions-based payment. You are either placed in the work-related activity group, which theoretically is dole for disabled people. It recognises that people on this strand are capable of some form of work and, again, on paper, receive specialist support in helping them into an appropriate job. The second strand is the support group - the payments for those considered too ill to work full stop. As Dee hasn't (or rather, her edit hasn't) mentioned mandated job interviews or work programme meetings as part of her life, it's safe to assume she falls into the latter group.

Still convinced she's swinging the lead? Look at it like this. When you apply for ESA you have to go for one of those lovely Work Capability Assessments. Have a look at the descriptors. They comprise a completely arbitrary set of classifications that are not at all medically informed, but are implemented by Atos-employed "medical professionals". It's a massive con, and you don't need me to tell you about the perverse results. Though, in the old job, I worked on cases that involved incontinent people, people in permanent pain, people with serious mental illnesses, and, sadly, one woman dying, all after being found fit by this test. Hence for Dee to get through that test demonstrates how serious her illness is.

So yes, next time you get worked up in the 60 minute hate against White Dee, remember what you're really doing is venting against a vulnerable single mum with mental health problems. Feel better?


SimonB said...

Sue Marsh is very good in her description of how C5 treated her on the "debate" last night:

Phil said...

I couldn't bear watching it. Good job really. Not good for the blood pressure.

Mat said...

I think you are of course correct Phil, and I suspect most if not all of your readers would agree.

The issue though is not to fall into the media's trap of individualising it around frankly unsympathetic and not very likely characters.

Instead we need to find people who rely on benefits who the readers of the Express and Mail will automatically sympathise with and relate to - not to buy into the deserving poor Vs undeserving poor argument but to help construct a narrative around dignity and fairness.

Like it or not that means around inwork benefits, veterans, people with disabilities, people who have clearly fallen on hard times.

Sue Marsh and Jack Monroe are great examples of that and we need more of them that we can get out there.

Which to reiterate doesn't mean avoiding defending people like White Dee, but it does mean finding the other stories first.

Brian Willman said...

See an excellent article by White Dee herself in The Spectator this week