Jamie Oliver and the Big Telly Argument.

So I heard today that Jamie Oliver is launching a new TV series about cooking on a budget. I really quite like Jamie Oliver. I admire his campaigning zeal – and the fact that he’s mostly used his fame to highlight the inequality in the diets of the rich and the poor. I love his wife’s range of childrenswear. I love the concept of his restaurant that trains unemployed people from difficult backgrounds to be qualified chefs. He didn’t just vanish up his own high-cusine-arse. He is, in many ways, the people’s chef.

And being worth an estimated  £150million doesn’t necessarily change that. Although it does make the premise of his new programme – that the way that supermarkets operate is having a detrimental effect on the diet of low-income families – a little harder to digest as you wonder quite how much of that fortune was made from adverts for Sainsburys. “OH, that!” he seems to be gaffawing. “Well. I mean clearly it’s OK for people like me to shop at Sainsburys, (though in reality I prefer a deli/farmers’ market/Waitrose/Harrods Food Hall combo) because I can afford to do it better. It’s not really designed for the, er, poor.” The poor, it seems, have misappropriated supermarkets. They embraced convenience food a little too closely. It’s time to back off, paupers.

The thing is, I agree with a lot of what he says about eating well on a budget. Supermarkets are tricky to get right. You can easily end up buying too much of something you’ll never eat before it goes off. or being tricked into a buy one get 15 free type deal of awful frozen meat products. You can pay far too much for something you can get much cheaper – and often much better quality – at your local fruit market. If you’re on a budget, you have to think much harder about eating well, and the supermarket is not necessarily the place to think hard.

In an interview with The Radio Times he said he was “not judgemental” of poor families and pointed to his experiences of people on low incomes whilst filming his previous TV show.

But then he had to go and say this:

“I’m not judgmental, but I’ve spent a lot of time in poor communities, and I find it quite hard to talk about modern-day poverty. You might remember that scene in Ministry Of Food, with the mum and the kid eating chips and cheese out of Styrofoam containers, and behind them is a massive ******* TV. It just didn’t weigh up.”

And, oh. It seems that Jamie may have taken on more than his recommended amount of Daily Mail. The big-telly-argument is a favourite of the right-wing press when an argument is needed that the poor will just insist on making themselves poorer. “They’ve got no bloody furniture but they’ve got a massive satellite dish pinned up to the side of the house and a 60 inch flatscreen. Ha! See? No sense, those people!” (I paraphrase, a bit.) OK, Jamie, let’s think about that massive telly.

(Firstly – perhaps it looks especially large because it is in a very small room, and therefore you sit closer to it. Lots of rich people have vast TVs, but that’s ok, because they also have 50ft lounges, so when you’re on the sofa, the telly looks a lot smaller.)

If you, Jamie, or indeed anyone else on a decent salary, wanted to buy a new TV, where would you go? You’d probably stroll into John Lewis (other retailers exist, though Mrs Oliver has impeccable taste so I bet it’d be JL) and choose the one you wanted. You’d put it on your credit card, and walk out. Or your debit card, as you’ve got that kind of money readily available. Say you chose this one:

Samsung UE40F5500 LED HD 1080p Smart TV, 40″ with Freeview HD Special Offer: Save £100 £479.95 Buy Samsung UE40F5500 LED HD 1080p Smart TV, 40" with Freeview HD Online at johnlewis.com

Pretty good deal, hey?

If you were a poor family who wanted a new TV, where would you go? You haven’t got £500. You can’t get a credit card – perhaps you don’t own a debit card either. You might go somewhere like Brighthouse, where you can get some credit, and pay it back weekly. In cash, if you need to. Good news! You could get the same TV!

The less good news is how much you need to pay for it: with 156 weekly installments of £11.04 at an APR of 29.9%, you can have that very same TV for £1,722.24. Ah, less of a good deal then.

No one in Jamie Oliver’s position would pay almost three times as much as they needed to for a telly. But they’ve got a bit more choice, haven’t they? And that’s what much of this boils down to: choice. Speaking personally, we don’t have a big TV. We don’t have a proper DVD player either, we use Rich’s old Playstation 2, which sounds like it’s going to take off when you use it. (Pretty sure it’s not going to take off. Hope not!) We’re not particularly fussed about TV. But in the evenings, we have other options. We have a PC, two smartphones, a laptop. Or we read. We could use the kids’ Nintendo Wii, but I tend to smash stuff with the remote, so it’s best avoided. I bet the Olivers have a couple of iPads; their kids probably have iPads. I bet they have a laptop or two, I bet they own smartphones. Having a TV really doesn’t seem that important. But also: I bet Jamie and Jools go out to the cinema (£14 + for two tickets.) I bet they go out to the theatre a lot. (£40+ for two tickets) I bet they go out for dinner (although that’s probably an interesting outing.) And then there are holidays. A nice break for some sun at Easter, a long holiday in a villa in Tuscany over the summer, a week in Cornwall; perhaps a mini-break in Autumn. (I’m only guessing, here, but I’m happy to bet they don’t do a static caravan holiday for a week in Great Yarmouth. ) No telly needed, really, if you think about it.

What if you’ve got a disposable income of £50 a month? Doesn’t run to many cinema trips, visits to Tuscany, nights out, iPads, meals at Pizza Express, trips to museums and galleries (although lots are free to go into, the travel is not free. ) Culture costs cash. TV, even at extortionate APR, costs less. What if you’ve got no iPad/Kindle/WiFi at home? The long summer holidays stretching out before you with the kids at home; no long holiday abroad to look forward to. Suddenly, a TV seems a LOT more essential. And yes, people can read, for free, and I would always advocate that. But then I would. I was lucky enough to be brought up in a house where reading was valued. Books were always available. My parents were able to support me through an English degree. I’m very grateful, but I am aware that it’s not the same for everyone. TVs have come to represent a community, a sort of equality. Pensioners get their licence fee paid for them, in an admission of how TV can be a lifeline for the vulnerable.

So Jamie, I appreciate your sentiments, I hope that you are successful in your mission to make people aware of how much better you can eat on low a budget when you are not shopping in supermarkets. I just hope you appreciate the realities of living in poverty in modern Britain. Of the cash points that charge you £1.75 for withdrawing cash – which is your only payment option – of the money it costs to get kids to the market on a bus , and how every journey take just that little bit longer if you don’t own a car. Of the irresponsible lending, the way that people on electricity meters pay more for their power. (Mention slow-cooking a pork joint whilst you’re out at work all day to someone on an electricity meter and watch their eyes widen in fear.) Of the cuts to tax-credits and housing benefits and the lack of opportunity. TV has been providing escapism for decades. Some people need that more than others. Keep the TV off the menu, Oliver, and we’ll be OK.


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