Feeling the benefit

One local TV programme has caused more controversy than any other topic this week.

Enough words have been written about Benefits Street and, like the programme itself, many of them have been sensationalist.

I’ve not been to James Turner St but I suppose a few of its resident are criminals. Some of them are what used to be called good neighbours and are now known as community activists. And most will be ordinary people, with ordinary lives, getting on with things as best they can. Just like any other street in any other city. Unfortunately, no other street has been chosen to be stigmatised in this way.

You might wonder why it is that the residents of James Turner St chose to appear in front of the cameras when they know that there was a good chance the less than wholesome side of their lives would be highlighted. After all, this is Channel 4, which has forgotten its original remit which included “appeals to the tastes and interests of a culturally diverse society” and was later widened to provide access to material that is intended to inspire people to make changes in their lives.”

Channel 4’s aim now appears to be freak show television, programmes where viewers can point at, laugh at and sometimes be angered by, its subjects. To take one day’s scheduling, their peak schedules for Thursday 9th January includes a programme about eating disorders, Supersize v Superskinny, and The Undateables, in which “extraordinary singletons” (and by that they don’t mean people who are rich, famous, or who lead inspirational lives) are thrown together in a grotesque version of Blind Date. There’s little in these programmes that would inspire either subject or viewer to change their lives.

When Channel 4 began, a programme about a street where many of the residents were on benefits would have focused on why such a situation had been allowed to develop and how they could be helped. Now it’s all about ratings and Twitter outrage. The opening episode of Benefits Street was watched by 4.3 million people, a higher figure than any of the station’s programmes last year. The tweets that included I want to walk down #BenefitsStreet with a baseball bat and brain a few of these scum bags,” and “Set fire to #benefitsstreet,” are being investigated by police, ironically at further cost to the taxpayer.

So why appear in this programme? Because, quite simply, that’s the society we live in. To appear on television is an ambition for many people; celebrity culture made democratic. The cameras roll, you’re a star. You can say that they did it willingly so serve them right. Or you could also say that people who aren’t particularly articulate and who lead lifestyles that others might find objectionable shouldn’t be put in this position. Some of the residents of James Turner St were

clearly so vulnerable that they should never have been allowed in front of the cameras. To put it bluntly, anyone who allows a film crew to show how they openly break the law is quite obviously not of sound mind. Some of the street’s residents will enjoy their fifteen minutes of fame, others will find the stigma lasts well past the time when the programme makers have forgotten they ever existed.

Meanwhile prejudices are reinforced and the lives of anyone who isn’t considered to be part of the silent majority – the unemployed, the old, ethnic minorities, anyone who isn’t ‘respectable’ – are made that bit harder. Thirty years ago, to be unemployed was to gain a great deal of sympathy from those who knew it could happen to them next week or could remember the poverty of previous recessions. Now you’ll be told it’s your own fault you don’t want to work, you’re a scrounger with a 40” plasma TV and the latest PS3. Nobody wants to ask why it is that within two miles of James Turner St people can spend more on a night out than a family in Winson Green have to live on for a week, or why a child born in Birmingham has a 81% higher chance of dying before their first birthday then one born across the border in Solihull. That’s the sort of film of “educational value” (another part of 4’s remit) the channel should be showing, and it’s what the city’s residents should be getting angry about.

I have no statistics to back this up but I wouldn’t be surprised if the residents of James Turner St, or any other inner-city part of Birmingham, pay more per head in direct and indirect taxation as a proportion of their income than the residents of the Four Oaks estate. Maybe Channel 4 should commission a series about Rosemary Hill Road. They could call it Taxdodgers Street.