It’s great when a programme gets two guests on to discuss a subject in the hope that they’ll have a big row…only for them to end up agreeing. Peter York (author of The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook) and Owen Jones (author of, amongst other things, Chavs) were on PM the other day discussing why the media has become a little bit obsessed recently with former public school boys committing misdemeanours.
Clearly the Producer was hoping sparks would fly.
It was a lively discussion…nudged along nicely by the wonderful Eddie Mair…but York and Jones essentially agreed with each other on the central point; that all human beings have the potential to behave badly….or indeed incredibly well…it’s just that the state and most media outlets choose to peddle the idea that it is the feckless poor, living off benefits on their awful housing estates, who commit all the crime, anti-social and generally bad behaviour. So why do we hear so much about poor people behaving badly then if everyone does it? Peter York put it brilliantly:
Well poor people open the door to you you see. So you can go in and film them doing anything. And rich people don’t.
Here is a little of their encounter: But there’s more to it than that. The kind of crimes that tend to be committed by those at the bottom of the heap get punished. And for a whole range of reasons a lot more of their crimes come to the attention of the authorities in the first place. Whilst the crimes of the rich either go on, without comment, behind closed doors or are excused on the basis that to prosecute would not be in the public interest. Our prisons are full of those on the margins of society – the poor, the care leavers and the mentally ill. Whilst bankers who cause economic hardship for millions and wealthy tax evaders are let off scot free. When I was a student I used to hitch hike from Keele Services to the end of the M1. A short walk and I could hop onto the Northern line at Golders Green and be at Stratford station in East London in no time. For many years there was a well known scam at Stratford station in East London where you could move between the underground and the mainline train to Southend without ever having to show a ticket. Lots of people did it. Every now and then a barrier would be erected and everyone passing between the two lines was asked for their ticket. Somewhere I have a cutting which lists everyone caught without a ticket on one of these occasions:
2 Bishops, a High Court Judge, MPs, Lords and City Bankers were all amongst those who had decided there was nothing wrong with a bit of fare dodging.
Almost anyone can behave badly, or commit a crime, if the circumstances are right. On Benefits Street, much maligned as poverty porn, however mischievously the footage is edited we still actually see far more evidence of kindness, generosity and community spirit than we do illegality or wrong doing. James Turner Street has meals cooked for a Romanian household after their electricity is cut off (without the aid of a Casserole Club start-up); White Dee’s home used as an unofficial ‘CAB’; and friends of Fungi offer him a free, make shift banking service to help him manage his money. Paul Taylor’s post from last year gives a nicely rounded view of the street. The point is that where someone grew up, who their parents are, or how much material wealth they happen to have (or not have) tells us nothing about what sort of person they will be. But it might tell us a lot about whether they are likely to get caught and punished for any wrong doing…or indeed be highly rewarded or honoured for anything amzing that they do. Whenever my Dad has met someone new and is asked (usually by my Mum) what he thinks of them, he always pauses….thinks for a bit….and then he usually says
My Dad has got it about right I think. People are people. They can do terrible things, they can do amazing things. But most of the time, most people are alright.