I got a traffic fine the other day. I went in the bus lane because I thought you could at weekends (you can’t); £130, or £65 if I paid immediately, which I did, because I could. OK, there were two; I got another just a few days later. This time for driving into a road where a signpost clearly said I wasn’t allowed to. Another £65 for quick payment, which again I paid. This time, my girlfriend said I was a dick. It was hard to argue: £130 – ouch! It hurt, but I could pay, because I have a job that gives me a regular income. It’s not going to carry on hurting.
When Jerome Rogers got two traffic fines, he couldn’t pay them quickly. Or at all. He wasn’t earning enough as a self-employed courier, delivering blood to hospitals on his motorbike. His income was irregular, often pitiful, once just £18 a week take home, after everything – petrol, insurance, £24 a week to rent the equipment he needed to do the job from the courier company – was deducted.
The quick-pay option expired and the fines escalated: to £390, then almost £800, finally to £1,019. A bailiff came round and eventually clamped Jerome’s bike, his means of making a living. Unable to pay, unable to make money, he was trapped in debt and despair. On 7 March, 2016, aged 20, Rogers killed himself. You might have seen it as a news story, and been shocked and saddened by what it says about the gig economy and the state of modern Britain. With this – a meticulous factual drama, with input from Jerome’s family and a beautiful, utterly believable, portrayal of Jerome by newcomer Chance Perdomo – it becomes something else: a heart-rending personal family tragedy about a young life wasted.
Actually, you might have seen it before: Joseph Bullman’s BBC3 film had been on the iPlayer for a while before this well-deserved BBC1 airing. So watch it again. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should. You won’t find it easy, at times it’s pretty much impossible; it gnaws at your stomach and your conscience. But it’s important because of what it says about what’s going on out there.
Killed By My Debt should be played, on a loop, in the offices of Camden council, which issued Jerome’s tickets, and every other local authority that outsources its debt collection to bailiffs. It should be played in the offices of Newlyn, and every other bailiffs company. And at CitySprint the courier company, and every other firm that offers only zero-hours contracts. Oh, and the payday loan companies, too. Yes, there was one of those involved: Jerome got a loan of £250, at 1,081% representative APR – 1,081%! It wasn’t the answer to his problems, of course – payday loans tend not to be; he used that to pay some of the money he owed his stepdad.
There were other factors involved. Such as the suicide websites that Jereome visited; his stubborn pride, which might have prevented him talking to his family about it; and the asthma that prevented him from taking other jobs. Oh God, that scene with him gasping into his radio – part of his courier package – then heaving on his puffer. No laws or rules were found to have been broken. By the bailiff (so chillingly played by Line of Duty’s Craig Parkinson, it’s going to be hard to hear Every Breath You Take by the Police, which he whistles as he approaches Jerome’s front door, ever again without feeling a bit sick). By his company. By the courier firm. But, in a way, that makes this more shocking and disgraceful; that this can be allowed to happen.
I know this really shouldn’t be about me, but bear with it, the comparison is quite revealing. Two men do exactly the same thing wrong (one of Jerome’s tickets was for going in a bus lane, too). For one – the better-off, middle-aged, middle-class, white (although I don’t actually think that’s relevant) one – it is an annoyance, and he gets called a dick by his girlfriend. For the younger man, struggling in his first job, it is the catalyst for a downwards spiral into a hole that gets harder to get out of the further down he goes, and ends up in needless, senseless, desperate tragedy. Jerome texted his girlfriend to tell her that he loved her and she shouldn’t forget him (not in the film, but in the reports), then he went into the woods and took his own life. Any system that allows that to happen – that leads to that happening – is a rotten system.