The narcissism of the Primark haters

Panorama’s faked footage of Indian child labour shows how ethical consumerism is always about us, not them.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

It seems that the BBC’s award-winning, awareness-raising 2008 Panorama investigation, Primark: On the Rack, might actually have featured faked footage of Indian child labour. Given the lynching Primark received at the time, from the shopfront protests to the sanctimonious newspaper columns, this is quite a revelation. But it is not exactly a surprise.

On the Rack was, after all, a programme inspired by that most narcissistic of creeds: ethical consumerism. That this creed’s suffocatingly smug adherents, their recycled bags heavy with condescension towards the unthinking shopping hordes, are capable of seeing their own fantasies reflected in the travails of Indian’s poorest is entirely to be expected. Likewise, the possibility that a journalist governed by the imperatives of ethical consumerism was determined to see what he wanted to see is perfectly plausible.

And it certainly does seem that Dan McDougall, who currently works at The Sunday Times, might well have seen what he wanted to see. With Primark cast as the unscrupulous capitalist selling morally tainted goods to ignorant shoppers, McDougall headed off India to film the dark underside of our cheap and easy consumption. And, lo and behold, that’s exactly what McDougall found and filmed, in all its tawdry, child-labouring glory.

Or at least that’s what it looked like he had found and filmed. It’s just that, well, there were some inconsistencies. The needles being used by the infant labourers on the intricately stitched Primark tops were much too large; only three Primark tops seemed to be being worked on, which given the size of Primark’s operation was a little puzzling; and, more unlikely still, these same three Primark tops popped up in two locations miles apart. All of which suggests that at some point McDougall himself might well have taken advantage of Primark’s unbeatable prices.

The ruling of the BBC Trust Editorial Standards Committee against On the Rack was not exactly unambiguous. ‘On the balance of probabilities’, the statement hedged, ‘it was more likely than not that the Bangalore [child labour] footage was not authentic’. Still, on the balance of probabilities, that’s pretty damning. So damning in fact that the Trust’s head Alison Hastings issued an apology: ‘The Trust would like to apologise on behalf of the BBC to Primark and to the audience at home for this rare lapse in quality.’

Yet the problem with a programme like On the Rack is not the authenticity or otherwise of the footage. After all, there’s little doubt that child labour does exist in India, just as there’s absolutely no doubt that many Indian workers earn less than a dollar a day. No, the problem with a programme like On the Rack is that it takes Indian poverty and, in a narcissistic feat typical of the ethical consumerist outlook, turns it into a mirror in which British consumers can see their own supposedly loathsome faces, fat from greed and ignorance. That was the point. On the Rack was never about understanding Indian poverty, it was always about attacking the material aspirations of Western shoppers. No wonder the accuracy of the footage from India seemed to be of little importance to the programme’s producers.

That ethical consumerism is almost solely concerned with using the lives of the world’s impoverished to chastise those crowding the aisles of Tesco or Primark was clear from a particular segment in On the Rack. There, Panorama reporter Tom Heap confronted shoppers across Britain with the now infamous child-labour footage. This, as Daniel Ben-Ami remarked at the time on spiked, was ‘the contemporary equivalent of forcing someone to confess a sin’. It was a moment that captured the deeply elitist, profoundly snobbish core of ethical consumption. That is, it’s all about elevating those who shop ethically above those who shop on a budget: the masses can have their cheap chic, runs the barely concealed logic, they can even look good – but we are better than them.

At the time of the Panorama broadcast, one columnist in the Guardian even urged the UK government to force clothes retailers to label their products according to the type of labour that had gone into them. ‘Full disclosure on the inside of those maxi dresses: that’s what we want now’, she said without irony. Why not go the whole hog and stain the maxi dresses with the blood, sweat and tears of their back-broken labourers? That should really induce guilt among those ignorant shoppers. But then guilt is only one side of it. For well-heeled, morally superior consumers, cramming bags claiming not to be plastic with free-range, low-carbon expensiveness, shopping really does make a snob feel good. They are paying a premium not just for the ethically validating label, but for the unction that accompanies each and every purchase.

But here’s the thing, the fly in the guilt-assuaging, feel-good ointment. That there is child labour in India has got very little to do with shoppers on the lookout for cheap clothes. Rather, the fact of child labour emerges on the back of the massively uneven level of economic development. So while some Indians have indeed experienced a rapid rise in living standards in recent times, over a third, the majority of whom work in agriculture, are still getting by on very little. It’s because life is such a struggle for Indian’s poverty-stricken that they themselves send their children to work. That’s why the poorest families are so keen to flout the already existing laws outlawing child labour. As Ben-Ami stressed at the time, what India needs is not self-righteous, self-aggrandising meddling from regulation-obsessed Westerners, but something that might actually be in their interests: more development, more growth, more wealth. Then, you never know, maybe currently impoverished Indians might be able to get their hands on some cheap stuff, too.

This, of course, would be anathema to the masses-hating campaign groups and activists determined to shame high-street shoppers into their local Waitrose. Because they are the same people who, in the name of ‘saving the planet’, are also opposed to massive development and industrialisation overseas. Eager to sneer at the material aspirations of the working classes at home, the anti-Primark brigade unwittingly limits the aspirations of working-classes abroad.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today