Friday, 17 January 2014

17/01/14 - #BenefitsStreet

There’s been a lot of chatter around Channel 4’s Benefits Street recently. The phrase that critics have been hurling around is ‘poverty porn’ – lasciviously peeping at the lurid details of other people’s unfortunate situations for our own filthy entertainment. It’s the kind of incendiary tabloid-infused reality docu-drama that deliberately aims to rub Twitter grumblers up the wrong way by its inclusion of the word ‘benefits’ in the title. That’s a Daily Mail ear-pricker right there.

On the face of it, as many have pointed out, it’s a fairly horrible premise. A whole street of people who are out of work and scratching a living, placed into a fishbowl for the titillation of middle-class gawpers. The way the producers set the scene as being some kind of latter-day hippie commune initially smacks of the inauthentic, with the de facto mother figure sorting out everyone’s benefits issues while all around leave their front doors unlocked and live in jovial harmony. There’s a reel of rogues on the street – the alcoholic who can’t see his kids, the shoplifter who keeps getting arrested, the guy growing weed in his spare room – who give viewers plenty to be angry about, while their repeated references to receiving benefits as ‘getting paid’ demonstrates a certain lack of respect for the system; it’s not a helping hand for people who are actively trying to get back into work, it’s a supplementary income to pay for fags and lager for a group of people who consider themselves above the law.

This, of course, is unfair and sensationalist. The very fact that the desperate situation of these people has been broadcast along with their exact location opens a path to a sort of macabre poverty tourism, while all manner of hideous threats are being levelled at the ‘stars’ of the show. Imagine what targets they’ve suddenly become. Ask yourself why they’re on TV in the first place – it’s notoriously difficult to get people on the poverty line to discuss their benefit situation, so why do we have a whole street of people willing to open up their lives for the judgement of the public, in the certain knowledge that they’ll be mocked and derided? Is it because they have nothing else to fill their time and will grab at the opportunity for reality TV fame at any cost, or is it that they feel an open forum on their situation might improve their lot? The latter seems far more likely, and press reports that certain ‘characters’ have since received multiple job offers bolsters this. (Further reports that they were all duped into a protracted ridicule showcase on the production company’s word that the show would be a sensitive portrayal of community spirit in harsh economic times is another matter.)

Benefits Street is not representative of everybody on benefits in Britain – it is merely representative of that particular street. And even then, it’s the edited, mangled version that’s fed to us, complete with theme music and hashtags. The 50p man was the star of the first episode – a reformed criminal who makes his living by dividing a variety of household goods (washing liquid, toilet roll, tea bags, you name it) into small quantities and selling them door-to-door for fifty pence apiece. His soothing voice and demeanour of genuinely trying to help others as well as himself was endearing, as was his awareness that even 50p might be a stretch for a community as impoverished as James Turner Street, where families struggle to even afford basic groceries, and where nobody has 50p just lying around. This counterpoint to the street’s unashamed and unapologetic shoplifter offers essential diversity, breaking the cycle of showing a collection of people to be sneered at. It’s these green shoots of humanity that should be focused on, not the relentless naughtiness of other figures. The street is diverse, because the world is. No amount of cynical editing can paper over that.
The second episode had a rather different focus, swinging between one group of migrants and another – the Romanians who moved in, the travellers who set up their caravans at the end of the street, then back to another group of Romanians who replaced the first lot. These Romanians came across as ineffably charming and pleasant, refusing to let a desperate and appalling situation crush their spirit. ‘Hope is the last thing I can lose,’ smiled one (having been chased out of his home on James Turner Street by a dangerous employer and finding himself sleeping rough in a park). And all the while, the cameras focus on local residents yelling racist abuse at the newcomers, casting aspersions over their intentions, moral values and general cleanliness. Is this xenophobia representative of the whole caricaturised sub-class of People On Benefits that the show aims variously to create, sensationalise and propagate? No, it can’t be. Again, it’s probably not even representative of that street. But it makes good telly.

Yes, some of the families have incongruously big tellies, but they’re probably not the pondlife that the #BenefitsStreet hashtag would have you believe. As a manufactured gallery of outcasts, Benefits Street will have you watching open mouthed. But as a snapshot of genuine modern-day hardship with tales of day-to-day human bonding, it’s rather heartwarming. Watch with an open mind, I say. It’s important to remember that while £1.2bn in benefits was lost to fraud last year, £16bn went unclaimed – the showboating of some claimants is not representative of the whole. There is no average profile of a benefits claimant any more than there is one of a 9-5 worker or a millionaire. The show uses existing prejudices against people on benefits to reinforce the stereotypes that they’re workshy, criminals, or both. But if you push past the hate-woven curtain, you’ll find humans behind it. Don’t lose faith in people. Incendiary hashtags are not the boss of you.

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