Monday
December 22, 2014

A british television show has prompted debate about social benefits

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

‘Poverty porn’ on UK television enrages — and engages?

Benefits Street: as seen on Britain’s Channel 4.
By Archie Whitworth
For The Herald

LONDON — At the very least, it has achieved awareness. The debate about benefits has never been more ubiquitous than it is in today’s Britain. It is impossible for those living in British society not to have an opinion on the topic.

Furthermore, the fact that this has happened without being triggered by a heinous social outrage, or by a misguided political adventure, while still being in the mainstream, is another point in its favour. This is probably the extent of the neutral, passive things that can be said about Channel 4’s documentary series, Benefits Street.

The series focuses on a single street in Birmingham, James Turner Street, whoseinhabitants are colourful, interesting, engaging – and (apparently in the majority) claimants of state benefits. The characters depicted are a selective group of individuals picked from among the 99 households on the street, who choose to spend these benefits on cigarettes, drugs and the National Lottery while spending the day watching TV or participating in shoplifting.

Ostensibly produced to engage in the debate about attitudes toward benefit claimants in the UK, a touchy subject in austerity Britain, Benefits Street has been attacked by sectors of the left-wing press as demonizing poverty and upheld by right-wing media as the accurate presentation of social ills.

One possible argument here is that the series does both. Any TV show needs to garner as many ratings as possible, and the fact that Channel 4 chose to broadcast a series that focuses on such a conflictive issue could be understood slightly cynically as tapping into current affairs and genuine concerns. It is a contribution to a wider debate, well-produced TV content broadcast on free-to-air television.

Surely this is the sort of easy access to burning issues of the day that free TV channels should be presenting, actively participating in modern Britain and allowing the casual onlooker to the same from the safety of their homes. That these issues exist within society is justification enough for the production of such winning, divisive TV.

This is a fair comment, and the 5 million viewers (21.2 percent) that Channel 4 gained for the second week running on January 20 would suggest that the national interest has been piqued. It has already surpassed the ratings of anything produced by the channel in 2014.

However, the series has alsoprovoked outrage from both its subjects and some sectors of the viewing public, who complain about the portrayal of poor as lazy at best and at worst, unwilling to work and happy to accept being propped up by the state.

The angry reaction to Benefits Street did not take long. Even as the first episode was about to be broadcast on January 6, an inhabitant of the street featured heavily in the series took to the press to accuse Channel 4 of having been less than forthcoming about the focus of the show. “They said they wanted to film for a TV show about how great community spirit is in the street and how we all help each other out on a daily basis,” said Dee Roberts in an interview with the Birmingham Mail.

“But this programme has nothing to do with community... It makes people out as complete scum… They lied to us from the very beginning. We opened our doors and hearts to them and they violated us and abused our trust.”

In his defence, Richard McKerrow, head of Love Productions, the company that made the series, refuted the allegations of “poverty porn” levelled at Benefits Street, insisting that it was a “very honest and true portrayal of life in Britain and people are afraid of it” in a January 12 interview with The Guardian. This logic has apparently placated no-one.

An online petition was initiated to garner support from the public to call on Channel 4 to stop broadcasting the show; on January 21, it had been signed by just under 58,000 people. The station has also seen protests outside its premises and a letter signed by representatives of 100 leading charities to stop “reinforcing harmful stereotypes” was published in The Telegraph on January 12.

While celebrities including footballer Joey Barton and former EDL head Tommy Robinson used Twitter to slam the individuals portrayed, commentators took to the newspapers.

An article by Lynsey Hanley published in the Comment is Free section of The Guardian on January 8 described the show as a “visual vomit-fest in which you can binge on things you purport to hate the sight of, and then purge yourself on Twitter,” while Owen Jones in The Independent on the same day decried it as an example of a “media that stands up to the poor and the voiceless” instead of “the wealthy and powerful.”

However, right-wing commentators and politicians have used the infamy of Benefits Street to frame the debate on welfare and benefits. Writing in the Financial Times on January 17, James McDermott described the series as depicting a “reality” of “the failure of the state, broadly defined.”

According to Fraser Nelson, the Spectator editor, “make a documentary about poverty in Uganda and you could win an award. Look at problems in Britain and you’re reported for thought crime.”

The series and the issues it raises have also been discussed by politicians, with Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith stating that it had “shocked” the public and suggesting that a cap on welfare limits could be reduced from the £26,000 where it currently stands. This is known to be an interest of Chancellor George Osborne, and the fact that a television series is setting the agenda is concerning, albeit convenient.

Predominantly, the fears being echoed and amplified thanks to the coverage afforded this documentary series are based on striking misconceptions about the reality of the situation. It is true, as Nelson suggests, that a person who works would have to be earning £35,000 before tax to make the £26,000 received by those on the upper extreme of the benefits scale. However, the British public is apparently simply misinformed.

An Ipsos MORI poll revealed in 2013 that most Brits believe that £24 per £100 is lost through fraudulent claims, while in truth the actual amount is 70p. Likewise, the same poll showed that a third of those surveyed believed capping benefits at lower than £26,000 would save more money than increasing the pension age, but in reality, this would only save £290 million — compared with £5 billion for raising pension age to 66.

Perhaps this is the most useful result of Benefits Street: not the behaviour that it presents, but that which it provokes. The lurch to outrage either for or against the documentary essentially undermines a debate or discussion which should be had about how the country is managing its assistance to those who need it most. The laziness of the series, its supporters and critics should not obscure how important this is.

Channel 4 should be congratulated for being brave enough to show this documentary, forcing people to sit up and pay attention — and condemned for not making it better. Poverty porn is demeaning for all who participate.

@archiewhit

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