*slightly longer blog than usual because of university module requirements
Self reflection (the business end of action research) is frequently used as an emotional lever in the media. Broadcasters have for decades placed individuals in strange settings, set the cameras rolling, switched on the microphones and waited. Wife Swap and Big Brother are examples of this popular ‘fish out of water’ production technique.
Participants react in a variety of ways. Some find weeks of self-reflection and self analysis a positive experience. Others are afflicted with a variety of feelings, some overwhelming, and unravel under the spotlight. The results can be revelatory, occasionally deeply uncomfortable.
One news story this week reported on the down side. It featured a decision by an individual to immerse himself into something he thought he knew about backfire. Grimsby Labour MP Austin Mitchell was one of four MPs from the main parties to spend a week living in some of the country’s troubled estates. He was embedded into a family on a Hull council estate as part of Channel 4’s ‘Tower Block of Commons’.
Mitchell, with 33 years service as an MP, initially agreed to take part to put the case for council housing, a solid socialist principle and something close to his heart.
He wanted to see life on the inside, for himself, and for once not rely on lobbyists, commentators and perceptions partly formed by the media. Like all MPs willing to participate in the series he felt such an experience could develop into a call for action and a genuine lasting legacy.
From day one Mitchell- the oldest participating MP at 75- was going to adopt a different approach with one significant condition. While the other parliamentarians were happy to sleep on the sofas in their families flats, Mitchell and his wife moved into their own flat on the estate.
There are no media reports suggesting problems during filming but last week while the series was midway through transmission Mitchell wrote on his blog that the series was a big mistake claiming the production company responsible for the programme didn’t want to plead for improved conditions for council tenants but had set out to humiliate him as a greedy and out of touch MP.
He wrote: “Press releases about the programme briefed against us from the start. Result? A deluge of abuse about MPs but nothing said about the neglect of council estates, the betrayal of council housing, the need for new builds and innovations, the plight of tenants penalised by poor facilities or the betrayal of Bevan’s vision of mixed communities by turning them into dumping grounds.
“A disgrace. To Channel 4 for putting it out. To Love Productions for its cynical distraction of the real story. To me for taking part in the first place. The bastards.”
His performance got a mixed reaction from his Grimsby constituents on their local newspaper website:
“Mitchell seemed to have no idea what happens in the real world. Hull has the same problems as Grimsby, so I would assume from this programme Mitchell has never interacted with local people and does not realise drugs are rife and lots of people live in appalling conditions.” Lesley, Clee
“He looked puzzled at the methadone treatment … I had no idea … he stuttered … and then asked where his Telegraph was! And this from a bloke who crows about his support and concern for the people of Grimsby? A town that is racked with heroin and other serious drug addiction. Well, I for one wasn’t surprised to see how false and out of touch he is. Thinly disguised disgust was evident on his face when he was “interacting” with the people he was with on the programme. He couldn’t get away fast enough could he?” Liza, Outathere
One key question arises from this episode. As a method of self reflection on an issue clearly close to his heart was reality television the best way for Mitchell to go about it? A former TV journalist, he would surely know how commissioning and programming works. Taking MPs out of a privileged comfort zone into a tower block was always going to be a key area of content for the production team.
Mitchell’s constituency is Grimsby, down the coast from Hull. The readers comments would suggest similar housing issues there. If Mitchell wanted to know more about living conditions in run down estates it would seem clear that he could have done it any day of the week – quietly and out of the glare of the TV arc lights in his own back yard. He could have stayed as long as he wanted, absorbed everything and after suitable action research (such as speaking to residents, social services and local authorities) and self- reflection come up with a conclusion and some workable solutions. Instead he chose the TV reality show route. And ratings alone are not going to change living conditions.
This BBC news story on Mitchell’s comments:
programme details from broadcaster:
The MP’s website:
Comments on MP’s performance from the public: