Nearly 24 hours after inflammatory documentary Benefits Street aired on Channel 4 last night, the programme is still trending worldwide on Twitter. That’s a lot in Twitter time. The programme was Channel 4’s most popular show in over a year, attracting more than 4 million viewers. I expect it will also trump Dogging Tales as the channel’s most tweeted about programme in the last 12 months.
It’s not hard to see why. The observational documentary follows hard-up residents of Birmingham’s James Turner Street, where 90% of those living in the street’s 137 houses are reportedly claiming one or more benefits. The first episode of the five-part series follows 6 or so individuals, many of whom have never worked, moaning about their benefits being cut as they hang about smoking endless fags, using their iPhones and drinking beer. Two of the episode’s “stars” are featured shop-lifting, scoring drugs and scamming the public as fake Big Issue vendors.
Deservedly, the programme has provoked a huge backlash of viewers complaining that this programme has represented all benefit claimants through the actions of a minority – a group of scroungers, drug addicts and petty criminals. Ofcom has already received more than 100 complaints about the unfair, misleading and offensive depiction of those on benefits.
Amongst those who took to Twitter to vent their feelings on the doc, some tweeters expressed their disgust at this hugely pejorative stereotyping from Channel 4:
While others pointed to the endless freak show that many TV schedules have become (that’s not to say that tabloid newspapers are any better).
But horrifyingly (although perhaps not surprisingly), a huge number of those who Tweeted about the programme did so aggressively, vilifying the participants as “scum” and even making vicious death threats.
Blogger Tom Pride collected some of the worst examples:
There were likely countless more. While the individuals who made these comments should be held responsible for inciting violence and hatred, in the same way as those tweeting racist or homophobic comments, what can be said for Channel 4?
Channels know how popular this formula of superiority-inducing freak-show is, and yes, TV should provoke strong reactions.
But surely programming that incites this level of hatred, deepens the already cavernous divide between society and creates a scapegoat of scroungers in place of those who are genuinely in need should be tempered with a dose of moderation. Yes, the cameras merely showed what was said, but the title of the programme and the failure to quantify any of the representations made with a balanced and realistic picture of all benefit claimants undeniably created a hugely negative stereotype of those at the bottom of the economic pile. Polls have already shown the extent of people’s misconceptions about how much money those on benefits actually receive. Factor in the impact of programmes like this on politics and upcoming elections and the effect on society’s most vulnerable worsens. Channel 4’s 2013 documentary Skint is another example of a highly negative snapshot of the social welfare issue. On the other hand, the channel’s Benefits Britain 1949 and BBC Three’s Growing Up Poor show that a constructive, balanced take on the subject is possible. By comparing today’s benefits system to that of post-war Britain, Benefits Britain 1949 threw up some genuinely probing and helpful questions about the role of the state, communities and individuals themselves in tackling socio-economic deprivation.
A Channel 4 spokesman told the Birmingham Mail that Benefits Street “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.” Love Productions, the makers of the documentary, highlight on their website that as well as problems, James Turner Street “also has a strong sense of community, where people look out for each other and where small acts of kindness can go a long way.”
But sadly, the programme’s contributors feel they have been duped. They told the Birmingham Mail they had been assured the film was about their tight-knit community in the face of ‘Broken Britain’. Instead they feel they have been made out as scum. “They lied to us from the very beginning. We opened our doors and hearts to them and they violated us and abused our trust,” said Dee Roberts.
The production company claim they fully briefed participants and gave them the opportunity to watch and make comments on the cut before it aired. But from my experience working in TV, I doubt that their contracts included the right to make changes to the cut and I also suspect that they didn’t know what the programme’s title was until it aired. If a different concept was sold to them, what’s to say some of the contributors’ most damning comments weren’t made to act up to the cameras? You’d be surprised at how many people will blindly say what the Producers want to hear. The programme’s participants also complained that only their negative statements were included in the show, their more balanced comments failing to make the final cut.
I deplore the something-for-nothing culture exhibited by the programme’s characters. But it also makes me very cross that this show has fuelled the fire that’s ravaging the reputation of those who genuinely rely on benefits to survive.
With four more parts of this controversial series still to come, I dread to see what will happen next on James Turner street. Not only have the fuming residents already been subject to death threats, but thanks to Channel 4, those who are making them know exactly where they live.