10 Jan 2014

Benefits Street: 10 things you may have missed


There has been a lot of angry comment about Benefits Street. Some are signing petitions calling for it to be banned, and arguing that it was “government propaganda”.

I’ve got nothing to do with it. Channel 4 documentaries are run entirely separately and by a separate company to Channel 4 News, nobody has asked me to write this, I’ve no idea of the circumstances of how it was made. I’ve never spoken to or written to the independent production company that made it. In fact I don’t even know who commissioned it. I write, basically, as a viewer, albeit one with interest in covering the subject matter.

After the Twitter storm I suggested that Channel 4 News follow up on some of the anger on Tuesday’s show (Ciaran Jenkins did in a lead story about cuts to council tax benefit). I had been in Birmingham on Monday covering the chancellor’s announcement of further welfare cuts from 2016. On Tuesday I watched it, expecting the worst, and then I watched it again last night.

Pre News refresh player – this is the default player for the C4 news site – please do not delete. Ziad

If you are part of the army of people condemning the programme without watching it, here are 10 things that you missed and four million plus people saw:

1. A couple so poor that they contemplate that prison would be a money-saving necessity
2. The “bedroom tax” and other benefit cuts biting hard, and people resorting to crime
3. Families unable to afford basic groceries
4. The “50 pence man” splitting basic groceries in to smaller quantities so people could afford them (the world’s multinationals are having to do exactly this with e.g. washing powder in austerity-afflicted countries)
5. The realisation that the 50p price point is too high, and “20 or 30p” might be more appropriate.
6. The start of a process of eviction for one woman who has had a benefit cut
7. Benefit recipients admitting to £1,500 a month in claims, some fraudulent
8. Referring to receiving benefits as “being paid”
9. One man happily claiming he has never worked because of illness, but…
10. …sufficiently enterprising to take free magazines from Premier Inn, and sell them as copies of the Big Issue for £3 to people in Birmingham

Does the fact that some idiots on Twitter post alleged death threats condemn the programme? I don’t get this argument at all. Less than 20 tweets out of 4.3 million viewers?

Was it representative of people on benefits generally? Almost certainly not. As we on Channel 4 News have constantly pointed out, the largest growing and fastest growing part of the welfare bill is for older people. Perhaps “a street on benefits” would have been a more scientific title, but documentary titling is art rather than science.

More from Channel 4 News: ‘Demonised’ or ‘humane’? Row breaks out on Benefits Street

When we cover the impact of cuts or low pay on ordinary people on the news, (and we do it all the time) is it ever truly representative? Case studies are always just one data point. It is notoriously difficult to get people to talk about their own benefits.

Willing participants are a self-selecting bunch, perhaps more sympathetic than average, perhaps more connected or chosen by charities and NGOs, perhaps more politicised. Benefits Street might be unrepresentative, but so is all TV, in different directions at different times. My stories on dodgy bankers, for example, were unrepresentative of the vast majority of hardworking bank clerks, but you would never expect me to devote 90 per cent of the time to pointing out that most bankers are boring, rather than focusing on the rip-offs, and the tax avoidance.

Benefits Street

(Pictured: Two of the residents, Mark and Becky, who live on James Turner Street aka Benefits Street)

This was a depiction of one of the toughest streets in Britain. I worked on and off in a similar street in Manchester over six years in the 1990s. Apart from the Liverpool football tops it was eerily similar. There are streets like this in all our major cities.

More from Channel 4 News: Generation rent? See our Broken Ladder special report

For me, the biggest eye opener, which it seems will be expanded on in the next episode, is the interaction of landlords, high rents, housing benefit and welfare cuts. A progressive might argue that there is nothing progressive at all about the housing benefit system. Benefits Street, for example, might even go on to be the clearest illustration that housing benefit has, in fact, been going to the landlords.

Clearly the public is misinformed about the extent of welfare spending. Perceptions are well out of kilter with the reality. But nor are those who think that the welfare system is failing those it is meant to support, motivated by callous indifference to the poor.

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