Thinking of applying for Britain’s Hardest Grafter? Read this first.
TwentyTwenty productions are looking for applicants for a new television show that has been described as ‘Benefits Street meets The Hunger Games’. Are you thinking of applying for the chance to win that staggering £15,000 sum? Here’s what you should know first – and I am probably doing myself out of ever getting another job in television by writing this article but you know what? Fuck it. Because I wish someone had told me.
1. Only one of you will win that £15,000. It’s also classed as ‘earnings’, so you will have to pay tax on it, and National Insurance contributions.
2. The rest of you will be ‘recompensed’ ‘not less than the National Minimum Wage’ for your time on the show. Bear in mind that the people you will be surrounded by, the presenters and camera crew and the ubiquitous ‘celeb’ they’ll roll out here and there, will be being paid hundreds, if not thousands, every day. You will be surrounded by people whose ‘wage’ will be worth dozens of yours, and some of them will treat you accordingly.
3. The media will trawl through your social networks and dig up and store any photographs they can find as evidence to fit the ‘character’ they will invent for you. Take my advice and remove completely any pictures of you with a beer in your hand, and DEFINITELY any champagne bottles or glasses. It doesn’t matter to the picture desk whether that’s a Cava from Lidl, they will paint you as a champagne-quaffer at the taxpayers expense. Ditto any photos of you with a fag in your hand (or worse), any party pictures, foreign holidays, shit even any pictures of that Devon caravan park where the weather was good because a little PhotoShop and they can legitimately accuse you of living it up on holiday. It doesn’t matter how private you think those photos are, it just takes one untrustworthy person on your friends list to right click em and save em and forward them on. And believe me, they will contact your friends list for access. It’s not illegal. It’s not right, but it’s not illegal. These days I only drink bubbles from wine glasses, firstly so the Mail can’t get their ‘Champagne Socialist’ picture caption and secondly if I’m at the kind of party where they’re handing booze out on the door, I need as much of it as possible to peel myself off the wall and talk to someone – and wine glasses hold twice as much.
4. They will dig out photographs of your children, from Facebook, from twitter, from Instagram, from any personal blogs or websites, from parenting groups, from Mumsnet, and store them to use at their leisure, to accompany any stories about you that they wish. They will name your children. They will speculate on their parentage. They will judge the clothes they are dressed in without giving a fuck about whether they were coming in from the garden or in old clothes to help decorate or a bow tie for a wedding. Commentators will judge your children on their weight, appearance, speculate on your family makeup. I write recipes, for crying out loud, and have defended about seventeen different versions of events of how I got pregnant and what happened next, including a Daily Mail piece asking how lesbians get pregnant in the first place. They could have just asked, but honest answers are hard to shoehorn into a narrative, so they invent instead.
5. It is not ‘tomorrows chip paper’. Not any more. Not in a digital age. Other peoples lies and versions of your life story are digitally stored to be pulled up for years and years and years to come. Your children, growing up, will be able to find the nasty things that people wrote about you for other peoples entertainment. They’ll be able to find the nasty things that people wrote about them, for other people’s entertainment. Lazy journalists will use old articles as gospel, and quote them in their own. The twisted version of your life story will be repeated so often as to become an irrefutable fact in the minds of the establishment media.
6. People who you thought were your friends will be queueing up to make a fast buck at your expense. Worse, people you had forgotten even existed, old cousins, people you have never even met but have some loose connection, will formulate something shocking out of scraps of memory held together with large doses of fiction and their own bollocks opinions, and try to sell it to whatever rag will have it. They’ll legitimise their version of events with a few childhood photos, or some other tenuous link. Think it won’t happen to you? I get emails forwarded to me from newspaper editors where people I barely know have ‘offered’ completely fictitious stories, demanding cash for them. It was Jimmy Carr’s dad who lit the blue touch paper about his tax – whatever you think of it, it illustrates that people who are supposed to be our nearest and dearest can be utterly shit when faced with the prospect of easy money and their face in the paper.
7. Journalists will harass vulnerable members of your family. My mum is profoundly disabled – I don’t generally talk about it, but this is the Mum that Edwina Currie tried to claim was loaded on national television to unhinge me in a debate about food banks. My mum was a nurse, until she hurt herself lifting a patient when I was about five or six years old. She has half a scrappy kidney, chronic fybromyalgia, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, and she’s deaf. She has walked with crutches for as long as I can remember. I spent most of my early childhood up to my teens not understanding why she was in hospital almost every month for an operation and fearing she would die any moment. This doesn’t stop the Telegraph banging on her door the day after she has got out of hospital from an operation, refusing to take no for an answer, returning several times (having been told she is sick in bed and it takes a long painful time to get down the stairs). She phoned me in tears asking me if there was anything I could do to get them to leave her alone. I tweeted to 70,000 people that they were utter shits or something along those lines, and they stopped knocking. For now.
8. The scummier arms of the media don’t care about your personal life or relationships beyond selling newspapers. The Sun interviewed me about my book back in 2013, and managed to twist my saying that my son’s father was an excellent, supportive man into making him sound feckless and absent. He reads the Sun. His friends read the Sun. I have maintained a good relationship with this man for the last 6 years while we raise a child together and a few sentences in a national newspaper caused such ferocious upset I feared it may never heal. His friends went mad at me, accusing me of lying to the newspaper to get publicity (it didn’t occur to them that journalists tell lies). He was hurt and bemused by the assault on his character, and I felt obscenely guilty – it was my ‘success’ causing hurt to so many people I love and care for, and I took the blame for it.
9. You will be painted as a scrounger, a skiver, reckless, feckless and workshy. Television programmes are edited for the ‘most interesting’ footage, X Factor and Big Brother style. Any arguments, disagreements, a 30 second clip of you scratching your bum, being last to turn up, will all be threaded together like a necklace of car crash pearls, carefully planting the seeds of your assigned ‘character’ in the minds of the viewers. Future employers will likely be watching this show, and you can say what you like in interview, but their minds will already have been made up for them by however TwentyTwelve Productions want to paint you.
10. Years later, you might buy yourself a roast dinner at a pub, and a newspaper will try to ruin you for it. I completed the Live Below The Line challenge this year, raising over £7,000 for Street Child United by eating barley and tiny portions of soup every day for 5 days. In recognition of that and because he’s a nice and awesome person, my friend Nick who runs the Drapers Arms in Islington invited me to lunch at the end of it, to celebrate surviving the week and to get something good inside to try to restore my carb-laden tiredness and nutrient-deprived body with some meat and vegetables. I had a wonderful time, restorative and joyous and relaxing and just a brilliant afternoon. The next day a Daily Mail features writer tweeted a photo of my lunch, claiming it had cost £60 (it hadn’t), and trying to smear me as a hypocrite ‘at Islington eaterie’. It’s not an eaterie. It’s a pub. He even tweeted the Green Party into the bargain to stir up the old argument that all Green supporters should be vegan or vegetarian. I have been gainfully employed for about three years now. I work 70 hours a week. I am typing this ON HOLIDAY at half past 8 at night because I work from waking to sleeping, seven days a week. Nobody pays me while I am sick. Nobody pays me while I am on holiday. I just work. And if I want to spend some of the fruits of my labours on a pub lunch, I fucking will. I pointed out to him my Mulberry handbag, bought with my second book deal advance, because if I am ever poor again it’s nice to know I have assets to sell to get back on my feet, although I think the 5 year old doodling on it with a blue biro might have knocked a bit off its value. Regardless, you will be made to feel bad for ever doing well for yourself or breaking ‘out of character’. When someone asks me where my loud and proud gay trousers are from, I am embarrassed to say ‘Vivienne Westwood’ because it has been drummed into me that I cannot have nice things. My nice tux I wore to the Stonewall awards? It’s from The Kooples. And I WORKED for them and I EARNED them and I will wear them with fucking impunity, and if I am ever so skint I can’t afford to eat again, I will sell them and buy kidney beans and rice and bacon. Most of the rest of my wardrobe is Oxfam. But yes, I can now have nice things.
I am writing this because I wish someone had told me. I wish someone had told me, before I signed a book deal for a recipe book – because I needed a job and it was a job – that I was going into a war, unarmed. That that war would be fought against multinational corporations with huge legal teams, against keyboard warriors, against anonymous abusers and newspaper columnists with followings of millions of devoted acolytes. I am writing this because people applying for this show don’t even have the guarantee of the cheque at the end of it, like I did with my book deal. You have ‘a chance of’ winning £15,000. That will be taxed before you get your hands on it. And take months to turn up in the first place.
It isn’t a life changing amount of money. You can clear some debts with it and pay a few months rent, but at what cost? At what price? For daily abuse and trolling and maybe even death and rape threats into the bargain? For anonymous commenters speculating about how your kids should be taken away? For Gods sake, Chukka Umunna stepped out of the leadership race for the Labour Party because the media started digging around in his private life. Lucy Meadows, a teacher who was transgender, hung herself after Littlejohn wrote an article attacking her in the Daily Mail. You really think they won’t do it to you, too?
Jack Monroe. On Twitter and Instagram @MsJackMonroe