It was nearly 2,000 years ago that the Roman poet Juvenal coined the phrase ‘bread and circuses’ to satirise the politics of his day.
In the years since, the words have come to describe the sort of crowd-pleasing distractions that are used to preoccupy proles while the societal scenery collapses.
For some, it’s a description that would fit The Benefits Estate; a documentary gawping at the poor which was borrowed from Irish TV and given a more demeaning name by Channel 5.
At a time when tax-dodging and lobbying scandals are making headlines it’s easy to argue that such programming, so often emphasising petty crime and bad judgement amongst the poor, is a sideshow.
But when Juvenal wrote his satires his anger was not at the establishment – it was at the people. They had given up their power. They had abandoned their responsibility. All they wanted in return was shallow appeasement.
Channel 5 alone has aired shows called Benefits, Benefits Britain: Life On The Dole, On Benefits And Proud and – for those who want two prejudices satisfied at once – Gypsies On Benefits And Proud.
These programmes may serve the interests of the wealthiest, but their prevalence is the fault of the Great British public.
People of my generation may remember the MTV show, My Super Sweet 16. In it, the horrifyingly out-of-touch offspring of the super-rich were shown organising opulent parties, while prancing to and fro inviting and disinviting friends as if choosing who lives and dies.
The appeal of the programme, so far as I could make out, was it made you feel better about yourself. Watching idiots living extravagantly with money they did nothing to earn makes you feel grounded.
Imagine then the delicious mix of self-righteousness and outrage that comes with watching someone live extravagantly off taxpayer cash that you – yes you – had hard earned and nobly sacrificed.
And the threshold for luxury is low for those living off the state. One shot shows a mum moaning about money while another shows her son on the Xbox. Look at them – living like normal people!
In our minds, benefit claimants should look like Oliver Twist; clothed in rags, permanently hungry and sporting a forlorn (if hopeful) expression. Well, for my part, I’m glad that the poorest in our society aren’t living like those of Hogarth’s London.
That’s not to say that change isn’t due. Elderly people who find themselves in need of help could have paid taxes all their working lives, but face sacrificing their children’s inheritance if they want the government to chip in for social care.
Nor do I deny that there are benefit claimants in dire need of a reality check. If you wear only designer clothes and have the latest Mac, MacBook and iPhone, then face it, things could be worse.
Yet our national obsession with benefits – and its commensurate coverage – is completely disproportionate.
Figures from November show that dosh dished out to the poor or unemployed accounts for six per cent of state spending. Meanwhile, one calculation for what we lose in uncollected tax suggests a number roughly equivalent to 17 per cent of the public purse, £119bn.
Within that welfare spend on the jobless and deprived are an honest majority of claimants whose deservedness most would never query, but still we focus on the minority and let them influence our views.
At the same time, someone at the other end of society complains that £67,000 of taxpayer cash is just not good enough.
Documentaries about benefits and those who get them can be insightful, but when you’re tuning in for a thrill it’s poverty porn – so do remember to feel a tad ashamed when the credits roll.