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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder