Saturday, 25 January 2014

Benefits Street: who we should really feel disgusted by.

‘Benefits Street’, the latest ‘documentary’ to be aired by Channel 4, claims to give an insight into ‘the reality of life on benefits’ for people in Britain. Unfortunately, the authentic insight the audience is treated to is not into what life is like for those dependent on benefits, but instead, into the exploitative motivations of a production team, whose sole aim is to incite hatred towards the poor. Instead of seizing the opportunity to depict the rarely seen day-to-day struggles of people below the poverty line, the producers of ‘Benefits Street’ chose to create a twisted, one-sided caricature of what it means to be a benefits recipient. And oh, did it go all-out. Through purposeful manipulation and editing, it managed to include every characteristic of the ‘chav’ stereotype; loudmouthed swearing, excessive drinking and smoking, drug dependency and criminal activity to name just a few. What could have been a balanced, genuine portrayal of life on benefits instead became a carefully crafted piece of propaganda.

The response after the first episode was unbelievable. Social media exploded with disgust at the ‘scrounger lifestyle’ those on James Turner Street seemed to be enjoying. Those unlucky enough to have been featured on the show were bombarded with abuse and death threats. People blamed the welfare state for giving too many ‘hand-outs’. Shouts of ‘scum’ and ‘get a job!’ filled Facebook and Twitter. All of this was on the very day that George Osborne announced his plans to cut £10million from the budget for welfare spending. All very convenient; let’s just nicely cover up this horrific news with a poisonous programme that at worst will merely justify the need for cuts.

What ‘Benefits Street’ neglected to show is the thousands upon thousands of people who rely on benefits simply to survive. The single mother who is faced with skipping meals so her child can eat, the man who spends all day, every day pitting his job application forms against hundreds of others, the pensioner who faces choosing between heating or eating, the family wondering how the hell they’re going to afford to pay the Bedroom Tax- for these people, benefits are crucial for them just to make it through another week. This is the reality for so many in Britain. If ‘Benefits Street’ was ever serious about producing a truthful account, the demographics included would have been entirely different. By far the largest proportion of welfare spending in Britain goes on pensions, to people who have paid in to the system for all of their lives. 20% goes on supporting those who are already in work, but earning so little that they are well below the poverty line. Why was this not represented? Because ‘Benefits Street’ would prefer to show a distorted version that riles the general public as opposed to a hard, unpalatable truth.

The most damaging thing about ‘Benefits Street’ and its parody of life in working-class communities is the way it is designed to turn people against the poor. Shortly after the first episode aired, some of those who were filmed spoke out about the lies the production team had fed them. They had agreed to take part in a show about community spirit and togetherness. There are rumours that the cans of beer and cigarettes seen in the hands of those on the show were provided by the production team, which, if true, is a disgusting way to enforce the stereotypes it was seeking to portray. But that’s the whole point; the producers of ‘Benefits Street’ had the opportunity to put across any message they wanted to. When faced with false promises, skilled editors and no voice of their own, the residents of James Turner Street never stood a chance. So many of them have spoken out about how their lives have been ruined by the show, with abuse being hurled at them in the street and family members disowning them. It’s all too easy for people to blame those on the programme for their situation- one tweet I saw said that, as we all receive an education in this country, there’s no excuse for not being able to read or write, and thus get a job. However, if at twelve years old, you’re going to school hungry with an unwashed uniform, worrying about whether your parents will be sober enough to function when you return, doing your homework probably isn’t at the forefront of your mind. Everyone is where they are in life due to a huge range of different circumstances. To judge, or to tar everyone with the same brush is more than unfair, it’s dangerous.

So, when I consider who I’m really disgusted by in the ‘Benefits Street’ controversy, it is the vile, immoral production team who are at the receiving end. To create such a harmful, prejudiced account requires a lack of a conscience and a vindictiveness that turns my stomach. In my opinion, there is no better place to be than in the middle of a working-class community. And it is heartbreaking that one twisted, distorted representation can shape so many opinions of what it means to depend on benefits.


  1. Well said, Jodie. There is a sickeningly large proportion of the population who like nothing better than to look down their noses and judge others while having no idea of what life is really like for them. And the establishment is too often happy to tap into the worst side of human nature in order to stop the working classes from getting together and fighting against the REAL injustices in society.

  2. I haven't seen the show but I have seen comments made on Twitter and Facebook in response. In light of these, it was pretty obvious the show offered a one sided view of the benefit coin. Yes, we are all aware of those individuals on benefit who have the ability to get jobs, who with a better attitude to life could provide for themselves. We would be naïve to think otherwise. But like you say, there are far, far more people who actually need their benefits to survive from week to week. These are the people the producers should have focused on. Without them reality is distorted.

    I actually feel those turning against the poor in response to a TV show should feel ashamed. We have enough awareness these days to recognise when, as viewers, we're being manipulated. And we know enough about the range of issues that force families down the benefit route. We also know that most people, given a real choice, would choose not to be on benefit x

  3. As in any system, any walk of life, there are those who take, those who stay silent, those who suffer, and those who shout. Sadly there is an easy route for journalists, a route that sells papers, and attracts readers (and thus paying punters for their advertisers), and it is the route of 'car crash' reporting and programming.
    It is not just the producers who are to be blamed - albeit I wish some of them would have the plain common or garden gumption to speak out for the ones whose voices are buried in the rhetoric of condemnation, I wish they would stand up to the financial pressure of advertisers and tell a balanced tale - but much blame lies with the advertisers. And with US. Ordinary people, the ones who watch this stuff, who read the papers that spout it, the ones who sent the tweets, who made the threats, who condemned and despised. I am one of them. I did none of the above - like you, Jodie, I have blogged about this sort of thing, I spout anywhere and everywhere I can, I shout, I stamp my feet - but like you I am one lone voice; but despite doing none of the above I too am one of those ordinary people who is allowing this to happen. I just don't know how to not be, how to call a halt.

  4. Jodie this is a marvellous post. I had the same conversation at work just the other day. I haven't seen the show but a lot of my colleagues had and they were pretty disgusted by the people they had been watching. I pointed out that it was a very convenient piece of propaganda that served the government very well at a time when they seem determined to slash the meagre support they offer to the genuinely needy. There are so many people on benefits who desperately need the help and to say they are all scroungers is disgraceful. As you say, people need help for all kinds of reasons, and as someone who has relied on benefits myself in the past I find it an outrage that all recipients are branded in this way. The programme makers should have provided a genuinely balanced picture and made a real documentary, not sensationalist rubbish. The government should provide more jobs, and more jobs with real living wages so that people didn't have to depend so heavily on benefits. Maybe Channel 4 should start making documentaries about all the government fat cats and tax dodgers. Those at the top are creaming off far more than any benefit claimant, that's for sure!