Benefits Street, a Channel 4 show looking at the lives of benefits claimants in Birmingham, triggers police investigations, a flood of complaints and a row over whether the participants were tricked.
The programme, featuring residents of James Turner Street in Birmingham, aired on Channel 4 on Monday night, attracting an audience of 4.3 million people.
The documentary series produced by the film company Love Productions sets out to “reveal the reality of life on benefits, as the residents of one of Britain’s most benefit-dependent streets invite cameras into their tight-knit community”.
But the first episode of Benefits Street has sparked an angry debate on Twitter and around the web, as well as complaints to the broadcasting watchdog and the channel, and enquiries by West Midlands Police.
The police force said that it had been “inundated” with calls about the programme alleging that it was showing “criminal activity”.
I want to walk down #BenefitsStreet with a baseball bat and brain a few of these scum bags. Twitter comment
“We are currently assessing whether the content of the programme can assist us as part of any ongoing investigations or indeed whether any new enquiries should be launched in light of the material that has been broadcast,” Superintendent Danny Long, from Birmingham Police, said.
Read Econimics Editor Faisal Islam's blog: If you are part of the army of people condemning Benefits Street without watching it, here are 10 things that you missed and four million people saw
The police are also investigating allegations viewers watching the show tweeted death threats towards the street’s residents.
As the show aired, people took to Twitter to post comments such as: “I want to walk down #BenefitsStreet with a baseball bat and brain a few of these scum bags,”, or “Set fire to #benefitsstreet” and “Should just terminate all the scroungers, gas them in their sleep #benefitsstreet”.
Pictured: ‘Fungi’ and his dog on the sofa (Channel 4)
It is understood that Ofcom has received around 100 complaints about the programme. About half of these are believed to relate to the Twitter comments.
Channel 4 has said that it also received 100 complaints from viewers.
The programme focused on six people living on James Turner Street in Birmingham. One of the residents, Dee Roberts, claimed that she had been “tricked” into appearing on the show.
“They said they wanted to film for a TV show about how great community spirit is in the street and how we all help each other out on a daily basis,” said Ms Roberts, 32.
This programme has nothing to do with community. Dee Roberts, resident
“They said that ‘Britain was broken’ but that I lived in an area where the community was very close. I participated in the show on that belief,” she told the Birmingham Mail.
She added: “But this programme has nothing to do with community, which you can tell from the title. It’s all about people in the street living off benefits, taking drugs and dossing around all day. It makes people out as complete scum.”
Pictured: Gerrard, one of the young residents of James Turner Street (Channel 4)
Channel 4 said that the documentary produced was “fair and balanced … [and] a fair reflection of the reality of life on a street where the majority of households receive benefits – and in an area of Birmingham that has had the highest rate of unemployment in the country for the last eight years. It is a sympathetic, humane and objective portrayal of how people are coping with continuing austerity and cuts in benefits.”
A spokeswoman said that the contributors had been “briefed extensively” before any filming took place, adding that those who had asked not to be filmed were not filmed.
It is a sympathetic, humane and objective portrayal of how people are coping with austerity. Channel 4
Asked about the police investigation, the spokeswoman added: “The production crew were filming in a purely observational capacity – at no stage was criminal behaviour encouraged or condoned. All contributors were briefed that if they carried out criminal activity on camera this could result in criminal investigations after broadcast.”
It is understood that the channel would not be prepared to hand over any unaired footage to co-operate with the police without a court order.
Over claims that the residents were “demonised” and “tricked”, the spokeswoman added: “The welfare of people appearing in the series is of paramount importance to us. …The main contributors have been offered the opportunity to view the programmes they feature in before transmission. We took on board their comments and in some cases made changes to the programmes.”
Pictured: Becky and Casey, residents of James Turner Street (Channel 4)