Exploitation row over reality TV’s ‘Benefits St’

The camera never lies: Has James Turner Street been misrepresented? © Christopher Thomond

The documentary ‘Benefits Street’ aims to show life in areas where most people are on welfare. Is it an accurate portrayal? Or are accusations of exploiting the participants justified?

A hammer-wielding maniac chases the cameraman away. Jobless layabouts lounge around with beer and crisps while watching expensive widescreen TVs. A middle-aged man proudly parades his 15-year-old wife. The show is ‘Benefits Street’, the Channel 4 documentary series that has generated protests and headlines as it follows the goings-on in a real-life Birmingham street where 90% of the residents live on benefits.

The five episodes follow the residents of James Turner Street, each one focusing on a different aspect of their lives. The first episode focused on crime, courting controversy by including a lesson in thieving from a habitual criminal. The second followed a family of Romanian migrants, hungry and in overcrowded accommodation.

As the show gets close to an ad-break, a Twitter hashtag flashes on screen, encouraging the audience to jump online and discuss the show.

Despite the theatricality and deliberate courting of controversy, the show has been seen as real by many local viewers, causing some of the participants to go into hiding. And its portrayal of life on welfare has been useful to some politicians. Ian Duncan Smith, the government’s work and pensions secretary, said people had been ‘shocked’ by the show. He believes it can help him justify the extra cuts to the benefits budget the Conservatives would make if re-elected in 2015.

Yet those on the show feel they have been unfairly portrayed as scroungers and are bewildered at the disapproval for their way of life. The street has reportedly become a new tourist hotspot, with visitors eager for a photo in front of the now infamous terraces. Not one of the 10% of employed residents living on the street has been shown on film, the locals complain.

And even those whose stories are included may not be all they seem. Just how real is life in this corner of Birmingham, or indeed anywhere, once it is viewed through the camera lens?

Too much or too little reality?

Some argue that the show is ‘poverty porn’ and has selectively shown people in a bad light in order to stir up debate. They say it is unfair on those who do need welfare and do not abuse it, and it has exploited and misrepresented the residents of the street.

Others respond that just about any opinion, newspaper article or book is subjective, selecting bits of real life or using some facts to the exclusion of others. Distorting ‘reality’ is inevitable: people who like to ‘tell it like it is’ are simply deluding themselves.

You Decide

  1. Do people behave in a ‘real’ way in front of a camera?
  2. Should documentary television and reality TV strive to be objective?

Activities

  1. In small groups, imagine how you could make a TV show that would turn people you know into characters behaving in a way that proved a theory about modern society.
  2. Write a report on the debate around Benefits Street: a review if you have seen it, and a news story about the controversy if you have not. You only have 300 words.

Some People Say...

“It is not hard at all to understand a person; it’s only hard to listen without bias.’Criss Jami”

What do you think?

Q & A

Who cares, as long as the show is entertaining?
Everyone enjoys fiction, but eventually just fiction alone becomes tiresome. If something claims to be showing real-life, it can mislead people into taking fiction for fact. When the HG Wells novel War of the Worlds was turned into a radio broadcast in the US in 1938, thousands of people ran to the hills believing Martians were invading.
If every TV show, even documentary, is subjective, who do I trust?
Everything you read or watch is going to be slightly opinionated, because when someone writes or films they have to judge what they think is relevant and what is not. That is why it is important to try to read as widely as possible, rather than rely on one source.

Word Watch

Wife
The legal age for marriage in the UK is 16. Child marriage is illegal in Romania, but the tradition of marrying off young girls is still deeply rooted in some Roma communities, reports from the country say.
Benefits
A system of payments made by government offices to those in need of money, paid for out of the income from general taxation. Welfare benefits can be to those who cannot work for health reasons, those who are struggling to make ends meet or to pay their rent, and for those who do not have a job and are looking for work.
Extra cuts
George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer and the second most important Conservative politician in the government after David Cameron, has said that government spending must be cut by a further £25 billion per year after 2015, of which around £12 billion would have to come from the welfare bill.
Subjective
This means that something is viewed from the limited and opinionated perspective of an individual who is not fully in command of the facts or other points of view. Objective is the opposite idea: when a report or an opinion is free from the bias of one person. In reality, however, nothing is ever entirely free of subjectivity.

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