16 Jan 2014

‘Benefits Street’ speaks: ‘We’re fed up of being filmed’

Communities Editor

Residents of “Benefits Street” tell Channel 4 News why they are so angry at how they were portrayed, as Channel 4 announces a live debate will be broadcast after the final episode of Benefits Street.

“No cameras please. We’re fed up of being filmed.” The organiser of Wednesday night’s public meeting welcomed journalists in – but told us we would not be allowed to film.

The meeting was organised by the local primary school, whose principal said it was a chance for residents of James Turner Street to respond to the controversial documentary series. It was attended by around 100 people including residents and local organisations.

“I have lived on the street for 27 years and have never known residents come together like this,” one man said.

Many people complained about the negative impact that the programme had had on those who live on the street. “This is not a community of scroungers. We are a good community. Channel 4 need to take take this programme off the air,” said one lady.

Interestingly, none of the actual people featured in the series were at the meeting. There was no sign of White Dee, Black Dee or Fungi. It was claimed during the meeting that Becky and Mark, a young couple with three children who featured in the first episode, were now too afraid to take their children to school.

Negative portrayal?

A number of people complained about the production company and Channel 4, claiming they had been misled about the show. “They lied to us, it’s a disgrace”, said one lady.

But others said they felt that a good thing had come out of it all. One resident got a round of applause when she said “At least now people can see what it’s actually like. I’m glad Channel 4 have highlighted the poverty.”

We feel like we were cut out because they didn’t want to show a working couple who both earn a wage – ‘Benefits Street’ couple

I interviewed some of residents after the meeting. One couple told me they had been filmed extensively for the programme but were then dropped because they weren’t on benefits. “We were filmed for weeks and weeks. We thought we were going to be a major part of episode six. But we were then told the series had been cut from six parts to five.” They told me: “We feel like we were cut out because they didn’t want to show a working couple who both earn a wage.”

The couple didn’t want to give their full names, but told me they both were public sector workers.

Their allegations were put to Kieran Smith of Love Productions, the company that made Benefits Street, on the radio this morning. Mr Smith said the couple themselves were uncomfortable about being featured because one of them worked as a benefits assessor. “Not everyone filmed for documentaries makes the final cut.”

‘People do face great difficulties’

Others I spoke to said they were glad people could see the truth about the hardships some people face. “The community here has its problems, people do face great difficulties,” Steve Chalke told me. He is head of Oasis Community Learning, an academy chain which sponsors the school on James Turner Street. His foundation runs 34 schools, often taking over those judged to be failing. He said the meeting was a chance to empower the local community and make them feel they can have a voice.

How can communities make that voice heard? One complaint at the meeting was that the programme had already been broadcast and that it was too late to change perceptions. Residents discussed various ways they could address this and were asked to write down their thoughts on post-it notes (right).

One idea was to write an open letter to the Times, following an article by its columnist. Daniel Finkelstein, who wrote: “Benefits Street is an extraordinary piece of journalism.”

A draft letter to the Times was read out at the meeting. But in the end, the letter was vetoed because residents couldn’t agree on its wording.

“We all have different opinions and it doesn’t represent everyone’s views,” said one man.

‘If we don’t speak up for ourselves, nobody else will’

And in many ways, that illustrates the whole debate around a programme like Benefits Street. The programme makers have never claimed to be representing everybody on benefits – and by the same token, those who called the public meeting had to admit they couldn’t speak for all residents, because not everybody agreed.

At least now people can see what it’s actually like. I’m glad Channel 4 have highlighted the poverty – ‘Benefits Street’ resident

Earlier this month Channel 4 said that the documentary was “fair and balanced … [and] a fair reflection of the reality of life on a street where the majority of households receive benefits”.

Channel 4 says it does recognise that people want to make their views heard. It has announced it will broadcast a live debate after the final episode is shown, on 10 February. Channel 4’s head of factual, Ralph Lee, said: “We feel it is timely to provide a forum in which these issues can be raised and discussed.”

The programme will be live and interactive, allowing viewers to submit questions. The channel has stated that the panellists will represent views across the political spectrum – and crucially those who claim benefits.

At last night’s meeting, residents were urged to participate and get involved with the debate. “If we don’t speak up for ourselves, nobody else will,” said Mr Chalke, as he brought the meeting to a close.