I live less than two miles away from James Turner Street in Winson Green which was the setting for Channel 4’s controversial series, Benefits Street. After a couple of months where not much has prompted me to blog, this series has been provocative to say the least. Some of my colleagues have refused to watch it on principle. We have mentioned it in a few lectures – there were some interesting parallels with the ‘Eyes of a child’ BBC documentary from 1999 which we showed to a first year group yesterday. I tried to watch Benefits Street with a critical eye, wary of demonisation of people in poverty and on benefits and knowing how film-makers will edit and present footage in ways to maximise viewing figures and sometimes to further other agendas. This was not academic research, where participants give full informed consent and where the researchers commit to reporting their findings in an ethical and representative way. They wanted to make a television show which people would watch and talk about, and in this they succeeded.
After watching the first episode, which featured a small number of residents involved in crime and drugs I decided to reserve judgement, even though I could sympathise with the more left-leaning commenters who condemned the programme makers and reports of complaints from the residents that they had been deceived and misrepresented. I considered how the programme makers could have deliberately chosen the most extreme examples for the start of the series, to make an impact before gradually widening the picture and challenging the prejudices of the jeering audience they had captured. I hoped that later episodes would feature pensioners and people struggling on disability benefits and that the overall impression would be more sympathetic to the residents and challenging to the Government discourse demanding cuts to benefits.
I was disappointed. Although the picture did broaden a little, featuring shocking treatment of people trafficked from Romania and some people who would definitely fit the ‘striving’ stereotype, the programme was far from representative of the range of people living on James Turner Street let alone people on benefits across Britain. Presumably the extensive footage taken of people in more regular employment was judged not to make good television or to fit with the overall false assumptions that people claiming benefits or living in poverty are not working. Owen Jones (author of Chavs) and Mehdi Hasan from the Huffington Post made some of these points during the closing live debate yesterday, but generally the debate was also disappointing, appallingly chaired by a former Blue Peter presenter and which invited participation by Twitter but then failed to engage with any of the tweets (presumably because most of them were insulting Richard Bacon but possibly because they didn’t spend the money to incorporate something so hi-tech as scrolling text or a researcher to monitor it).
The absence of researchers, proper researchers who would try to be impartial and actually give more of an overview of the street and issues as a whole meant that the programme failed to meet its potential as an enlightening, prejudice-challenging exposé of life on benefits or in a poor area where people generally showed some community spirit and tried to support each other. If I were a resident on the street I would be angry about how I had been misrepresented and offered up as a target for other low-paid and unsophisticated viewers to blame as being the source of Britain’s problems. Some of the reaction on Twitter and elsewhere has been appallingly aggressive and ignorant. You do wonder how much the programme makers were participating in the current Government’s attempts to provoke division and animosity between the supposedly ‘workless’ poor and the working (and not on benefits) poor as a distraction from the more middle and upper class injustices of tax evasion, exorbitant bankers’ salaries, unscrupulous private landlords and privatisation to make money for your rich chums.
There were some glimmers of hope – the local church who host a job club and another church hosted foodbank came off fairly well, as did the Britain in Bloom enthusiast Sue (although I wonder if her and Ewan’s conversation only made the cut because of her innocent word choice calling cigarette butts ‘nob ends’). Most of the frequently featured residents were likeable enough if you kept in mind the manipulative editing and challenging circumstances they were facing. Smoggy and Tich showed great spirit and enterprise and ‘Mum of the street’ Dee Kelly clearly cares about her children and neighbours, helping some of them to successfully navigate the bureaucracy of the welfare services which didn’t come across well in the programme. Unlike other commentators I don’t doubt that she suffers from depression. I wonder if being part of the programme has had any positive impact or made it worse. If one of the classic characteristics of depression is Weltschmerz or despairing at the state of the world then on balance, watching Benefits Street and the reaction of so many judgemental and unfeeling commentators has been a pretty depressing experience.