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:
Absolute scumbags on 'Benefits Street', They are acting hard done by cause their benefits are being cut, GO OUT & GET A JOB @Channel4
— She's electric (@shannonpowell43) January 6, 2014
All these folk on benefits street should be lined up and shot one by one #scum
— Gregg Cheyne (@greggcheyne) January 6, 2014
Watching benefits street.... This is literally horrific. Level the street. Cut them all off. Let's just start again with that lot...
— Ryan Davies (@trev_93) January 6, 2014
— rob pickard (@wakeyrob71) January 6, 2014
Would it make me a bad person if I drove down benefit street an posted a turd through every letter box ? #benefitsstreet
— luke (@lukegroves86) January 6, 2014
Ok... So they grow weed in their spare room... Who are they saying occupies it?? #benefitsstreet
— Scarlett (@MissScar7) January 6, 2014
Benefits Street is just a bunch of chavs.
— Sattia (@Floetictia) January 6, 2014
'Benefits Street' is what I imagine a Northerners episode of 'Planet Earth' would be like
— Matthew Downes (@MDowneey) January 6, 2014
How can we eradicate this scum? Anyone that says all humans are equal needs to watch this programme #benefitsstreet
— Lois From Stoke (@MrsS3TOK) January 6, 2014
Would love to take an Apache helicopter down benefits street............ a few hellfire missiles would vastly inprove it
— Paul (@Bigyam33) January 6, 2014
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.