Chris Marks reviews Dispatches (Channel 4, 23 June)
This programme focused on the rising cost of living, and specifically the price of food in Britain today. It followed the Harpers, a “typical” middle-class family, as they cope with the rising cost of their weekly grocery shop. But from the very start we see that this is no “typical family”, for instance, in the first introduction to the family Kevin Harper, who works in the City, has to decide whether or not it is expedient to carry on buying free range organic eggs with added Omega 3 or switch to a budget range.
Other than the Harpers the programme was interspersed with some very simplistic economic analysis by Russell Group professors and former business leaders who offer little more than 'the price of production is increasing, hence the increase in food prices' and that 'some people are going to have to choose between eating and heating', with the ex-director of the Office of Fair Trading qualifying this as “a tough choice” — no shit, and not for you — you’re loaded. The programme included some quite interesting statistics, such as the average proportion of income spent on food “only” being 15% — although in reality the majority of people spend a greater proportion than that, and many of the lowest paid workers also pay over 50% of their income on rent.
What was really quite absurd about the whole production was that apart from the piece on the impact on consumers (remember the middle-class family), the rest of the programme focused on the hardship fared by business owners! Without mentioning that they only pass on price rises to us so they can maintain a profit the presenter sympathetically listened to the sad story of the cattle farmer who is being screwed over by the wheat farmer, to the Smithfields meat seller and to the greasy spoon owner on the A1 who laments the passing of the “great British fry-up” — apparently now up to £4.80. The insinuation is that these people are starving, when in fact they are all still making a profit. The people that are suffering are their staff who are having their wages, working-conditions and even jobs slashed to keep the profit margins as wide as possible (not mentioned) and the workers who have to buy produce off them to survive.
The second part of the programme was dedicated to an interview with a hedge-fund manager. When beheading bunny rabbits these people sit in shiny offices and artificially raise the price of commodities — in this case wheat — by speculating on the futures markets. As he candidly admits, what he does is comparable to loading 1000 tons of wheat onto a boat, and sinking it. But, he argues while nonchalantly waiving his hand across a map of Africa, this increase in price will stimulate investment in wheat production and the balance will be restored. Of course, in the meantime millions are starving and he’s laughing all the way to the bank.
In the meantime they’re back with the Harpers, and the advice is simple: economise. A woman is brought in to advise on how to save on their weekly shop. She tells them not to let the supermarkets dictate how much they spend, and to shop at different supermarkets and local shops. The message from Channel 4 is clear — tough times ahead, but the great British Blitz spirit will carry us through. The reality is that this submissive attitude and acceptance of austerity only serves the owners of the means of production as it guarantees their survival.