Friday, 24 January 2014

Channel 4's Benefits Street - What is it trying to say?

Is there a more controversial tv show on at the moment than Channel 4's Benefits Street?

Since the first episode was shown two weeks ago there's been countless media coverage looking at the benefits culture in the UK and the portrayal of poverty by the media.

If you haven't seen the show, the documentary follows the lives of a number of residents living on James Turner Street, in the Winson Green area of Birmingham. Apparently 95% of the residents of James Turner Street rely on state benefits to survive.

The series has a special interest to me being a born and bred Brummie, although I grew up on the other side of the city from where the show is set.




Having a show like Benefits Street is a good thing. It's important to look at and highlight some of the issues faced by those living on low income or surviving almost exclusively on state benefits - the key though is how you tell these stories.

There's a narrative that exists, rightly or wrongly that says most people who claim benefits or who are long term unemployed do so because they have no interest in work, they expect the state to look after them, and they don't deserve any sympathy as they're lazy and feckless.

Programmes like Benefits Street form part of this narrative and are popular, partly because they allow us to look at the poverty of other people's lives and be glad it's not us.

We can also shake our heads, sneer at and generally feel a sense of superiority over those people who are seen as the lowest of the low.

There's even a term for it. It's called 'poverty porn'. It's not a new phenomenon look at the success of the Jeremy Kyle show, which is the king of 'poverty porn' shows.

The first episode of Benefits Street seemed to fit into this description, which probably explains why on social media sites like Twitter there was so much hatred and abuse written about some of the residents featured.

After the first episode, I read in the Birmingham Mail that some residents complained about how they were portrayed. They claimed they were misled by the programme makers who said the show would focus on the community spirit of the street rather than a culture of benefits.

As with all reality tv shows, the programme makers have chosen to feature the most interesting, engaging and outrageous characters available on the street. The people who are going to make the most interesting television.

After the first episode, I wondered whether the aim of the show was to highlight the lives and struggles of others or to entertain the prejudices and preconceptions of some of the viewers?

The programme makers have been working with the residents for over a year and in that time you're only going to get a snapshot of people's lives in four hours of television.

There are 99 houses on the street, different people, from different backgrounds. Many of them do have jobs but they're not necessarily people who have interesting stories to tell.

The first episode had more sensationalist elements to it; such as shoplifter Danny Smith showing viewers how to steal clothes without getting caught, but I think episodes 2 and 3 have had a different tone and feel to them.

In the second show, they featured a Romanian family who were evicted from a house on the street because they couldn't keep up with their rent and bills. There was also a group of Romanian men living in one house who had come to Britain looking for work.

I found this interesting as I don't personally know any Romanians. We hear stories about how thousands of them are coming to the UK to claim benefits, but the lives being shown seemed to suggest that coming to the UK was not the dream they were hoping for.

This week's episode featured the young couple Mark Thomas and Becky Howe both 23, out of work and struggling to bring up their 2 young children.

It showed the difficulties Mark had in trying to find a full time job, something made more difficult when you have little or no qualifications and practically no experience of ever working.

Programmes like Benefits Street raise loads of interesting talking points and issues to debate; but there's a huge amount of responsibility on the producers in terms of how they want to look at and explore these issues.

There is a growing attitude in this country that wants to see and think the worst of those struggling at the bottom of our society.

Programme makers have to be aware of this when they make documentaries like Benefits Street.

There's a delicate balancing act in terms of accurately reporting and documenting people's lives and aspects of our society, but without exploiting people by feeding into the prejudices some people may have about the poor.




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