People of Benefits Street feel they were tricked into looking like 'scroungers'

The documentary series shows residents of a Birmingham street in what they consider an unfair light - and now the internet wants them punished.

Channel 4 aired welfare documentary Benefits Street last night. According to the blurb:

[A]s austerity continues to bite, jobs remain hard to come by and benefits are squeezed, this observational documentary series reveals the reality of life on benefits, as the residents of one of Britain's most benefit-dependent streets invite cameras into their tight-knit community.

That community consists of the people living in the 99 houses on James Turner Street in Winson Green Birmingham, of which some are unemployed, and some are in work. “This is a place where people look out for each other and where small acts of kindness can go a long way,” Channel 4’s blurb says, which makes it sound like the show was sympathetic to the reality of life under austerity.

Instead, here’s the Mirror today:

In the show, residents of James Turner Street struggle to cope with cuts to their benefits. There's a man who goes around, door-to-door, selling small quantities of essentials like sugar and washing powder for 50p, and many residents can't even afford that. While looking for jobs many of the residents have nothing to do with their time other than smoke, drink, or (in a couple of cases) take drugs. There's a lot of focus on one man, who gets out of jail and heads off into the city centre to shoplift some designer jeans on the very same day. James Turner Street comes across as bleak.

However, several of the participants are furious at how their lives were depicted. Here’s Dee Roberts:

She said: “They have shown me pointing at houses shouting ‘unemployed, on benefits’, but they haven’t shown me pointing at the houses where I knew people were working and in jobs.

"I’m really worried about how my neighbours will react if they see it.

“They have edited everything to suit their own needs – taken a positive and turned it into a negative.”

Dee, who is unemployed and on benefits, was approached to appear on the show at a jobseeker event in Birmingham.

Another particpant, Becky Howe, has said “half of my family and friends have already disowned” her because of how the show was edited to make their home look like “slums”.

Judging from Twitter, people responded angrily to the show's decision to focus on benefits fraud, petty crime, and financial insecurity. Mark McGowan, an artist who tweets under the name @chunkymark, gathered dozens upon dozens of tweets from those watching the show:

That’s just a sample. You can understand why the participants might feel they have to protect themselves from this hatred.

Several of those featured in the show - a five-part series, the next part airing next Monday - now have jobs. Here's Channel 4's response to the complaints from the participants:

“This is a fair and balanced observational documentary series.

“It is a fair reflection of the reality of life on a street where the majority of households receive benefits.

“The contributors were briefed extensively before any filming took place. If any residents requested not to be filmed they were not.

“The main contributors have been offered the opportunity to view the programmes they feature in before transmission to make any comments about their contributions.

“As far as we are aware we have appropriate consent for any private phone calls that appear in the series.”

We hope that further episodes of the series improve in depicting the lives of the poor in a way that doesn't confirm the worst prejudices of the right's ridiculous 'scrounger vs striver' rhetoric. Judging from the comments underneath the Mirror's article, there's a long way to go in correcting those misbeliefs.

One of the families featured in the show. (Photo: Channel 4)

I'm a mole, innit.

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In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred