No laughing matter: Mark Thomas and Becky Howe (pictured with their children, Callum and Casey) criticised the way the series presents their lives
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What have we learned from the emotional circus of Benefits Street?

Channel 4’s outrage-inducing look into the lives of benefit claimants has been much discussed – meanwhile a more honest portrayal of life on benefits is over on BBC Four.

Fran Moss lives on a run-down council estate in Leeds. She doesn’t work because she suffers from epilepsy, and most of the furniture in her draughty house has been salvaged from skips. Life is a struggle financially; without help from the state, she would not survive. But still, she has hope for the future in the form of her 12-year-old daughter, Niamh.

For a long time, Niamh used to say that she wanted to go to the local grammar school, a fee-paying establishment she had seen from the top of the bus, and liked the look of. It was a kind of joke between them, for how could Niamh ever finance such an ambition, even if she were somehow able to talk her way in? Without telling her mother, Niamh applied for a place at the school and was awarded a full bursary. Fran would have to pay only for her uniform and bus pass. Swooning with pride and determined to make her daughter’s dreams come true, Fran sprang into action, raising the necessary £2,000 – lab coats and gym skirts do not come cheap in the better suburbs of Leeds – by taking her scant jewellery to the pawnshop and borrowing from a loan shark (a stupid thing to do, as she is the first to concede). At some point soon, she will have to flog the only thing of any value she has left: a Liverpool strip signed by, among others, Ian Rush.

Meanwhile, Fran has been to the market to buy fabric remnants, the better to make a suit to wear the next time she has to visit the school. Bad enough that her daughter has to borrow another girl’s computer (a loan she pays for in chocolate); she would rather not let her down further by looking a fright on parents’ evening.

I know about Fran and Niamh because they appeared in These Four Walls, a documentary financed with help from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and directed by Peter Gordon, which went out on BBC4 on 2 February. Needless to say, this programme was screened with rather less fuss and fanfare than Channel 4’s Benefits Street, and no wonder. For one thing, this was a film that required patience on the part of the audience, each story spooling out through a long monologue to camera rather than in some shouty, snappily edited clip designed to grab viewers’ attention by making us instantly furious (for whatever reason).

For another, Fran and Niamh and their confounding aspirations – though the story does not end entirely happily, Niamh having struggled to fit in at her smart new school – hardly fit the fashionable narrative when it comes to what we are miserably learning to call “benefit culture”.

They seem, in this respect, almost to belong to another time; when Niamh spoke of Oxford, the university she would love to attend, I couldn’t help but think of Hardy’s Jude the Obscure.

How did we get here? Yearning and self-improvement: almost without our noticing it, these have become taboo words when it comes to the poorest in our society. The right refuses to believe that such instincts can coexist with the claiming of disability allowance and all the rest, and the left fears these ideas might sound patronising. And yet, they have not gone away.

What Peter Gordon’s film showed, over and over again, was something that Benefits Street has not much bothered to trouble itself with: simply that most people who claim benefits hope to have to do so for a limited time only; that optimism and ambition will stubbornly live on, even in the direst circumstances.

I did not review Benefits Street the week the series began in January; the mere thought of it induced in me a terrible weariness (its Ronseal name told you everything you needed to know about what was inside this particular tin). But now that it’s coming to an end – the final part will be screened on 10 February, after which Channel 4 will stage an excruciating-sounding “debate”, hosted by Richard Bacon, in which the residents of James Turner Street in Birmingham may or may not take part – I feel I must have my say, not least because These Four Walls has cast its faults into such sharp relief.

One of the more ghastly aspects of the feeding frenzy that has surrounded the series has been the disingenuous, cynical way columnists have fallen into line according to their politics, those on the right pretending to feel sorry for people “betrayed” by benefits culture and those on the left complaining of “exploitation” by the producers. I don’t fall into either camp. You don’t have to be right-wing (I am not) to see the claims of exploitation as patronising. You don’t have to be a crazed fan of the bedroom tax to see White Dee, the matriarch and biggest “star” of the show, as a monster of selfishness. This is a woman who can’t be bothered to leave the house to watch her daughter compete in an athletics competition.

Benefits Street, it seems to me, has been cast as carefully as any soap. The producers wanted performers, and that was what they got. Those inhabitants of James Turner Street who agreed to appear on the show (we still don’t know how many turned down the chance on the grounds they had a job to go to, or their dignity to maintain) knew what they were doing; they are no more exploited than anyone else who agrees to let a camera into their front room. They watch a lot of television and know perfectly well the reality tropes, from Big Brother on.

You can sometimes see this on screen, White Dee looking slyly at the camera to gauge the effect she is having, Fungi addressing the man behind it even though it is his neighbour who has asked the question. There is relish in Dee’s play-acting, whether she is laughing too explosively at Fungi’s antics or raging at a neighbour whose child has attacked those of SB, the series’ resident wannabe model. (If she does agree to appear in the Channel 4 “debate”, you can bet your bottom dollar her anger will feel every bit as synthetic as anything you might see on The Jeremy Kyle Show.)

Sympathy – I mean on the part of the producers – isn’t the issue here (Dominic Sandbrook, writing in the Daily Mail, insisted the makers were sympathetic to their subjects, while Owen Jones, in the Independent, accused the series of being the televisual equivalent of a set of stocks). Doubtless the people who made Benefits Street liked Dee and Fungi when they were gobby and worried when they were not; and what you see on screen is a natural human response to this. It has next to nothing to do with making us think harder about the plight of the poor, or how best the average taxpayer’s money might be used to improve their lives. I don’t think the producers take a position at all. They just hope for a few laughs, and maybe the odd flood of tears.

Much of the outrage from the left has centred on the idea that misery and bad luck should not be used for our amusement; they ineptly describe the phenomenon as “poverty porn”. To which all I can say is: if only. Benefits Street might not be instructional, but nor is it particularly entertaining. While I was watching These Four Walls, I didn’t think about anything else. The stories it told were so absorbing, kaleidoscopes of conflicting human emotions.

I couldn’t tear my eyes from Charlotte, a single mother who longed only to have enough cash to be able to buy “a joint of lamb with all the trimmings”; her honesty was costing her something and you felt that, and respected it. But Benefits Street is mostly tedious: a babyish, one-note circus of repetition, cliché, showing off and desperate editing. It has been made without care and without context: it’s the newspaper feature writers who’ve had to do the job of explaining the social history that has brought us to this time and place.

So, in this sense, the series is, above all, yet another symptom of Channel 4’s painful decline. Once, it would have been Channel 4 that would have made These Four Walls. It would have disdained a show like Benefits Street for the tinny, ratings-chasing festival of shouting and exhibitionism that it is.

Rachel Cooke is the NS’s television critic

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron the captive

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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