Time was when the BBC’s Panorama programme was the journalistic jewel in British TV’s crown. Hard-hitting, but dispassionate; evidence-based and offering information from which the viewer might draw their own conclusions. That way of reporting is not the same thing as being in some artificial way neutral: investigative journalism isn’t about neutrality in the face of manifest wrong-doing, but it is about creating some distance between the reporter and the issues reported. A good piece of journalism in this genre is about the issues investigated: it is not some sort of opportunity for the reporter to display their own commitment to being on the side of the angels. It is not about them, after all.
Last night’s programme was investigative journalism re-packaged as consumer outrage, with the reporter breathlessly centre-stage throughout. “Look how appalled I am”, the programme screamed. It was all focused on the emotions of the daughter whose mother was being badly treated, and equally on the reporter’s emotional solidarity with her. It was reminiscent of Watchdog, or worse still, That’s Life. No attempt whatever was made to contextualise the undercover footage collected by the daughter. Nothing was said about the politics of elderly care in modern Britain. No politician was questioned. No economic analysis was offered. Nothing was said about the employment and recruitment practices of private care providers. When the regulatory environment was mentioned, we were pointlessly taken to outside the regulator’s offices to see again the reporter’s outraged and emotional credentials, but once more it was consumerist outrage that was uppermost in the programme’s mind. It could as easily have been a programme about a supermarket’s mouse-enclosing loaf of bread. “Ain’t it awful!” we were invited to agree. Well, yes, it many ways it was, but the programme merely scratched the surface, and left much more concealed than revealed.
Relentlessly the programme’s moral outrage was focused on the individual care staff, who were eventually hounded into unemployment and in one case, the courts. How disgraceful that these hapless workers should have the temerity to discuss their appalling terms and conditions of employment. One thing that united these care staff, apart from their manifest professional inadequacies and slave-labour wages, was that they were all non-white, and immigrants. Before everyone gets the impression that I am suggesting that there is something wrong with having either of those attributes, let me be clear. It is not their race or their immigration status per se that’s important: it’s what those things say about the market in care work staff. Poor conditions and poor pay cannot attract sufficient workers from the British labour market, and so employers must look further afield to where wages are lower, conditions are worse, and thus make their offer attractive to workers in low-wage and labour rich markets. Couple this with lack of training, and criminal negligence from their managers, and the ghastly events recorded by the programme are indeed repugnant, but they are not a surprise. Left without any contextual analysis, the programme was effectively reinforcing the notion that if you employ Filipinos or Africans, this is what you get.
The problem of care for the elderly is indeed a scandalous and a pressing one. What we need are programmes that help us to understand what has led us to this malaise, that challenge the cuts in spending, and the cultural changes that leave our elderly citizens with no-where to go other than to institutions run by private sector commerce needing to make profits out of paper-thin margins. The problem is one of social, economic and political priority – or the lack of it – given to the needs of our ageing population. Difficult matters. Challenging matters.
How much easier to show emotive footage and an earnest reporter, and leave the difficulty and the challenge aside. How much easier, too, to hang out a few individuals to dry – and to show with triumphal, callous indifference, a wife and child who will now be husbandless fatherless for 18 months, and to revel in the perpetrator’s likely deportation. Job done.