'Benefits Street': a misleading, harmful caricature from Channel 4

'Benefits Street': a misleading, harmful caricature from Channel 4

Prior to Channel Four’s ‘Benefits Street’ being aired last night (6 January 2014), the tabloid press had primed its readers, with plenty of articles such as this one from the Daily Express, laden with Iain Duncan Smith-style rhetoric: ‘broken Britain, scroungers, workshy, burden on society’, etcetera.

Sure enough, when the programme went out, apparently coincidentally on the same day that Chancellor George Osborne announced another £12 billion of welfare cuts, a social media storm of hate erupted and in the Daily Mirror newspaper those portrayed so unflatteringly claimed they were tricked into appearing in the documentary by the film-makers.

Channel Four are now being called on to cancel the rest of the series, because residents of the street received death threats. The nature of these threats was appalling, with people calling for ‘scroungers’ to be variously gassed, castrated, or burned to death.

In the end I found that I could not watch the broadcast, as I feared it would be yet another in a long line of programmes exploiting people who are poor and who often have mental health problems. The smaller the audience for such shows the better. I watched the reaction to the programme on social media and was sickened by many of the comments.

I was, however, greatly cheered to come across Police Inspector Michael Brown, who probably has a far deeper understanding of the community portrayed in the programme than the programme’s makers ever will.

On Twitter as @MentalHealthCop, Inspector Brown commented: "There's a furore on Twitter about #BenefitsStreet: that was my 'beat' as a PC for 4yrs - that very street - and it's a great community.

"I actually found myself feeling protective of it - there are plenty of good people there, trust me.

"I worked there for years, it's inner-city Birmingham and amongst the most deprived areas in Europe. See it in perspective.

"There are 99 houses on the street and they've highlighted about 10 people!"

Inspector Brown’s tweets exposed the tactics of such programmes: go to a deprived area, find a few people who are unwary enough to open up their homes and their lives to you, and portray them in as extreme a light as possible.

By contrast, they provide little real information about where the welfare budget actually goes( half to pensioners, for instance) and allow the audience to make generalisations about everybody in receipt of benefits.

This tactic is alarmingly similar to that employed by the Conservative Party, which, in order to justify benefit cuts, cited as examples of abuse circumstances which were later found to apply to vanishingly small numbers of people.

They sought out a small number of families in Central London who were receiving a great deal of money in housing benefit, and used them to justify cuts which have now led to some private landlords evicting all their tenants on benefits. This will surely cause a rise in homelessness.

Similarly, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith talked about people being workshy and said that there were homes where three generations had never worked. When the Joseph Rowntree Foundation looked for these families of ‘intergenerational worklessness’ they simply couldn’t find them. But the impression had been created that people on benefits were workshy, allowing the government to justify a benefit cap, punitive sanctions for people on jobseekers allowance, and a Work Capability Assessment deemed "mechanistic and inhumane" by their own independent adviser.

Meanwhile, we wait in vain for programmes which allow us access to the homes of bankers responsible for the economic crisis and for numerous cases of misselling involving billions of pounds. Or the fly-on-the-wall documentary about landowners who receive millions of pounds of taxpayers money through the Common Agricultural Policy simply for owning land. Or the examination of the business and tax affairs of members of the Royal Family.

In all probability we will never see such programmes, because powerful people have expensive lawyers, and would never consent to media access to their homes, or speak to a reporter.

No, we will continue to get programmes about the poor, the mentally ill, the vulnerable, and we will be invited to condemn them without ever knowing them. We are in danger of becoming a nation of bullies.

In the meantime, it is important to communicate and popularise the message of the Free Churches in their excellent 'Truth and Lies' report, which shows how evidence and statistics have been misused, misrepresented and manipulated to create untruths that stigmatise poor people, welfare recipients and those in receipt of benefits. This has also been co-published and promoted by Ekklesia.

See also:

* Petition calling on C4 to scrap 'Benefits Street' after death threats against participants: http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/channel-4-channel4-stop-broadcasti...

* Benefits Street: a toxic caricature of Britain’s poor (nef, New Economics Foundation): http://www.neweconomics.org/blog/entry/benefits-street-a-toxic-caricatur...

* Truth and lies about poverty, benefits and welfare: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/18086

* More reporting and comment on benefits from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/benefits

* The Story behind 'Benefits Street' (Mirror): http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/benefits-street-channel-4-documenta...

* 2014 is a crucial year for those who believe in a fair society: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/19824

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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