In Flat Earth News, the journalist Nick Davies writes, among other things, about the decline in investigative journalism at Britain's papers and TV channels. Where Panorama and the Sunday Times Insight team used to rake through the muck and expose the wrongdoings of the powerful, these days an investigative journalist is more likely to spend his time filming other people emptying their rubbish as part of a tabloid-style investigation into corruption among Britain's binmen. Students of this decline in the work of the Fourth Estate could have asked for no better illustration thereof than last night's primetime BBC1 'documentary', On the fiddle?, which presented an example of journalism so debased as to be indistinguishable from propaganda for the Department of Work and Pensions.
On the fiddle?, in case you missed it, was an 'investigation' into disability benefit fraud, and took the form of an extended ride-along with two inspectors from the DWP. I couldn't recall their names when I awoke this morning, and checking the BBC website only reveals that one of the inspectors is called Terry - I'm assuming he was the older of the two, a thickset, grey-haired chap who seemed to suffer from an inability to button the cuffs on his shirtsleeves. Terry was - and who would have imagined this, of a man who enjoys spying on his fellow citizens - an intensely dislikable human being, a pompous bag of slime who seemed to genuinely believe he was some kind of instrument of divine justice, rather than just a voyeur in the pay of the state.
Terry was assisted in his peeking expeditions by an unnamed young man with a face that would have given Cesare Lombroso nightmares. This second kegebishnik was in the habit of remaining silent when Terry 'interviewed' their victims, fixing them with what he no doubt imagined was a stare of coiled menace. Unfortunately the effect was more one of blank, unthinking incomprehension, as if Terry's assistant - let's call him Julian - had just come across a particularly difficult word on page three of the Daily Star.
One got the feeling that Terry and Julian spent a great deal of their time scratching their simian heads and trying to puzzle out the meaning of unfamiliar vocabulary. Stoicism, for example, was a concept that had clearly never found room in their heads, perhaps because it would struggle to fit in the space left unoccupied with their sense of self-importance. Time and again, Terry delivered himself of the opinion that his targets couldn't be disabled because they didn't look like they were in pain.
If you're spluttering with shock at this point, imagine my reaction. It needn't be said that Terry wasn't a doctor. How, then, could he have such penetrating insights into the feelings of others? Does he possess psychic powers, like the baby mind reader? Or is he some master of deduction? Or could it be that he's simply a self-righteous dingbat who's too utterly bereft of empathy to consider the possibility that some people may bear their pain with a dignity he will never comprehend? Utilising my own powers of deduction, skills honed by many hard hours watching Jeremy Brett, I reason that it has to be the last possibility. If Terry were really gifted with profound extrasensory powers, he'd have a show on LivingTV; and if he really had superior deductive skills, he'd be working as a real copper, instead of in a mickey mouse branch of law enforcement where he gets to use all the trappings of a proper detective without ever running the risk of encountering a really violent and dangerous criminal. It's not that Terry's a coward: it's just that his idea of a fair fight is taking on someone on crutches.
Mystifyingly, given the absurd lengths the BBC will go to to display 'balance' in its programming when discussing issues like global warming, the producers of this programme didn't feel compelled to offer any counterweight to its heroic portrayal of these state-sponsored spies. Nobody suggested that Terry might not be some unholy combination of Sherlock Holmes and Derek Acorah; no-one suggested that, by following his suspects around with a video camera, he might be breaching their human rights; nor did anyone bring up the highly salient point that benefit fraud costs the exchequer a mere one billion pounds a year, while corporate tax avoidance from the kind of thrusting entrepreneur offered the breathless worship of Evan Davis on Dragon's Den costs a whopping £100 billion. In vain did I hope that a journalist from the honourable British Broadcasting Corporation might beseech Terry, in the bowels of Christ, to think it possible he might be wrong; but no such balanced view was forthcoming.
If there was no true balance there was, at least, a half-hearted attempt at symmetry. Clearly the producers were of the opinion that they needed a 'deserving' recipient of disability benefit to offset the 'undeserving' claimants outed by Terry and Julian, so we were introduced to Ross Smith, a wheelchair-bound young man who needed 24-hour care, and was about to begin his first job. Tellingly, we never witnessed a meeting between Ross and Terry, probably because Terry would complain that Ross didn't really need his wheelchair, and Ross himself would be too hypnotised by Julian's 100-yard stare to react. But what we did see was, in a sense, sadder. The clearly-disabled Ross was able to get a job - but, disappointingly, it was with Ofsted, the 'Office for Standards in Education' or, as we used to call them in less euphemistic times, the School Inspectors. In this hymn to the octopus of state surveillance, Ross was held up as a success because he had got a job working for one of the tentacles, and, worse, he had to send all his payslips off to the DWP on a regular basis, lest that tentacle should fasten on him and choke him into poverty. Franz Kafka would have loved it: 'you ask if there are control officials? There are only control officials.'
But his absorption into the kind of monolithic bureaucracy that haunted Kafka was the least of poor Ross Smith's humiliations. The nadir was his presentation in this programme as the deserving face of disability, a wheelchair-bound Horst Wessel being victimised by the kind of eintartete individuals that Terry and his gimlet-eyed crony took such delight in 'exposing'. How far, I wondered, would Terry and Julian go, if they were given greater powers, a wider range of targets, perhaps a dashing black uniform? Would they beat their suspects? Humiliate them? Kill them?Of course they would. We all know what people like that are capable of when given license by the state; and we know the lengths to which a state will fall which licenses voyeurism, thuggery and prejudice. It should be the role of the media to hold such people to account: when instead it holds them up as heroes, we should worry.