Poverty cannot be grasped from a fleeting visit
During the programme, Johnson said how shocked she was to see that UK poverty was so bad. It wasn't Johnson's fault she hadn't realised about poverty before – it must be really difficult to find out about this stuff if you're only a well-connected newspaper journalist, who has a London mayor for one brother and a government policy adviser for another. Johnson wrote a piece afterwards explaining that she hadn't meant to be offensive by referring to her "poverty safari", and that people she knew envied her experience. You know, hunkering down with the impoverished, begging for pennies in the street to make them nourishing stew, asking what their fags cost, pondering their unfortunate life choices and, of course, mentioning their TVs. (A certain breed of well-off types are obsessed with poor people having televisions – as if they should huddle around a candle at night singing hymns.)
On the whole, the celebrities were well-meaning and I may not even be being entirely fair to Johnson, who finally seemed to realise that the fat people she'd seen cluttering up the UK, making it look untidy, hadn't been splurging in Wagamama, but, rather, had cheap, horrible, unhealthy diets to go with their cheap, horrible, unhealthy existences. What I object to is this idea that the truth of everyday poverty, the pernicious, relentless nastiness and tedium of it, could ever be done adequate justice with a flippant in-and-out project such as this.
Benefits Street was criticised for being poverty porn, but at least the people who featured in it lived there all the time. What is the point of a documentary where well-off famous people show up, look alarmed at being fed spaghetti hoops and then waltz off again?
It says something very disturbing that it could even be considered an interesting "safari"-type experience, to beg for pennies to make stew. Would Johnson wish to beg for every meal she eats? Of course not. Would she or the other celebrities be taken aback if someone who stayed with them for a few days spoke to a camera saying they had full understanding of the intricacies of their lives and problems? You bet.
Was it all worth it to publicise UK poverty? I'd have found a documentary on a food bank much more interesting, without famous people intermittently wailing: "Oh dear they're poor, have you noticed?"
Ultimately, this favoured idea of parachuting the famous in (and swiftly out again) is not only patronising and intrusive, it's also pointless. It sidesteps one of the core issues of poverty, which is it that it is the mother of all long-term commitments – relentless, never-ending and difficult to extricate yourself from. Pure socioeconomic quicksand. Even if you manage to get one limb out of the pit, something else (debt, benefit cuts, ill health, bad luck, homelessness) will suck you back in, until finally you're too exhausted to keep struggling any more.
This is not the kind of situation it's possible to visit briefly, it requires commitment. From now on, maybe people agreeing to do these programmes should sign up for at least six months. Better still, forget it altogether.
Hey guys, leave Lindsay a-LohanInteresting to see the reaction to actress Lindsay Lohan's alleged sex list – she is thought to have sat giggling with friends, writing down 36 of the famous men she's slept with. There's supposed to be a photograph of the list, with married stars' names coyly scribbled out. However, it isn't the famous men getting all the heat for sleeping with Lohan. This is about Lohan, and the fact that she slept with all those men, which makes her a giant whore. Except that it doesn't.
Here is a textbook case of "Hello double standards, nice to see you again!" It's also about the perceived difference in acceptable male and female "numbers". A man who'd had liaisons with dozens of the world's most desirable women would doubtless be classed as a formidable stud and lothario. By contrast, Lohan seems to be inspiring a peculiar but telling mixture of censure, pity and contempt.
It's hardly classy for anyone to "dish" on people they've slept with, but that's beside the point. There still seems to be a lingering attitude that, while men have sex, women have sex done to them, and that while men take lovers, women are taken. There's also the mindset that a woman must keep down her "numbers" or risk being denounced as "loose", driven from her home by a pitchfork-carrying mob and burnt on a pyre on the village green. Sorry, I just flashed back a few centuries there – that's if some people ever left.
There still seems to be the pervading view that a varied sex life with multiple partners is simultaneously a male privilege and a female disgrace. Scrape away the veneer of modernity, equality and progress, and Lohan's list reveals that prejudice endures.