Profit and loss

Gary Day watches a story of spiralling debt and fails to be uplifted by a fairy-tale take on unemployment

July 22, 2010

Despite its title, X-Ray (BBC One Wales, Monday 12 June, 7.30pm) is not a remake of a 1950s science fiction film, but a consumer programme - one whose name promises to reveal the fundamental structure of capitalism. And in a way, it does.

The system can't operate without debt. Michael Russell is a care worker who lives with his parents. He doesn't earn enough to rent, never mind buy, his own place. He doesn't even earn enough to buy the bike he needs for transport. So, guess what? He has to borrow. The bank lends him the money but insists that he take out payment protection insurance. The nice man or woman tells him it is a legal requirement. It's not. But, hey, the bank has to protect itself. It's not in the business of losing people's money. Just making a profit from it.

Then Michael learns that he doesn't really need this policy. He's cold-called by someone from Money Claiming Experts who offers to recover his cash. All he needs to do is pay them an upfront fee of £300. Oh, and they will also take 30 per cent of what they recover. Look, they're not going to do this for free, are they? Why shouldn't they make profit from helping someone in difficulty? They take their fee before they send Michael the contract. Which they're not allowed to do. They're not allowed to cold-call either, but how else are they to survive? Why, hiding behind several other companies of course. That is a road the directors took but we cannot, for we must press on.

Result! The company informs Michael that he has won his case, that his loan is wiped out and that he will receive £2,000. Unfortunately, he will have to wait about a year unless he wishes to fast-track the payment. Michael would like that very much, but he doesn't have the £299 it will cost. And, what's this? The bank is still taking his repayments. But hasn't the court case been won? Er, it never went to court. Oh dear. Michael is even more out of pocket than he usually is when he receives his payslip. Although the company has not - how shall we say? - followed procedures, there is little that can be done because there are too few regulators to cope with the number of companies who prey on people like Michael. "Why pick on someone like me?" he asks. Obviously he hasn't watched any Mafia movies otherwise he'd know that it's nothing personal, just business.

Michael, of course, has a job. But Dean and his partner, Maxine, do not. They live in Middlesbrough, one of the areas least able to cope with debt. At the end of each week, after bills and debt repayment, they have £35 left. Often they can't afford nappies for their daughter, Olivia. Dean would like to work, but there are no jobs. Or rather there are, but they've been taken by Poles. In any case, what's the point of having a job when he would be worse off financially? He sits on the black plastic sofa, reading a book called Hard Bastards.

But who's this, marching up the front path, trundling her suitcase behind her? Can it be The Fairy Jobmother (Channel 4, Tuesday 13 July, 9pm)? Hayley Taylor, "employment expert", doesn't have a magic wand but she does have a concealer stick that she uses to disguise a scar on Dean's face. If he improved his appearance, she reasoned, he would get a job. And so she worked on his posture, his walk and his eye contact. She did the same with Maxine, who told her that she had never shaken hands with anyone before. Then she went out and got them both an interview.

Dean got the job, a factotum at a kitchen appliance firm. Hayley congratulated herself. Wasn't this proof that an unemployed person could get a job if only they bestirred themselves and invited the Fairy Jobmother into their home, allowed her to patronise, humiliate and berate them, to criticise the contents of their fridge, go through their cupboards and generally pick over their lives before remaking them in her own image, and going through town with a camera crew to find them employment?

I suppose you could argue that if firms failed to gives the likes of Dean work, it wouldn't be much of a programme. But that might be churlish. Sod it. Let's be churlish. Hayley's "positivity", a word of which she is overfond, is typical of that crazed, evangelical optimism that Barbara Ehrenreich savaged in Smile or Die. Maxine, incidentally, had her interview withdrawn owing to the recession. For a moment, Hayley was almost forced to recognise that there were forces even greater than herself shaping people's lives. But she packed her suitcase and was out the door before realisation could dawn.

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