What is The Benefit of Benefits Street?

Channel 4’s controversial new show, deemed ‘poverty porn’ by social commentators, TV reviewers and critics, is an uncomfortable, uncompromising experience. Having watched two episodes now and having felt a little bit grubby afterwards, I have questioned not only the motivations of Channel 4 in airing something that has solicited such negative attention, but my own motivation and inability to turn it off. What is it about the show that makes it compelling?

Critics have slated the show as being a vehicle of ridicule for the residents of James Turner Street, citing their lack of awareness of how they were going to be portrayed on the show. 4.3 millions viewers have tuned in, commenting loudly on social media using the hashtag #benefitsstreet. Certainly, a problematic aspect of the show is the level of aftercare for the residents, considering the negativity the show has attracted. It also glosses over some of the reasons why the families living on James Turner Street live the way they do, allowing the public to make their own assumptions – a dangerous gambit. Owen Jones has been particularly critical. I have engaged in several debates about whether it is ethical to watch the show at all – after all, what is the benefit of Benefits Street?

Watching the show this evening, possibly against my better judgement at the end of a long day, I experienced the gamut of emotions I have come to associate with my Benefits Street viewing experience – a heady mix of disgust, of concern, of anger, of shame (yes, shame for watching!) and of horror as I followed the Twitter hashtag. Perhaps my argument today is a result of an inability to reconcile the desire to watch with the fear that I am part of something hideous – a baying crowd for what is reassuringly ‘Other’. I have to find a reason for the show, to understand it in some way, or I am just part of the circus that accompanies the whole thing.

So, with that in mind, it occurs to me that that the show provides something we do not often experience. For many, the recession is something other people have suffered. Financial hardship is at an arm’s length and we care about it in the same way we care about starving children in third world countries – with a condescending pity. We watch because it is comforting. We are not like those people. I am not like those people.

Yet it courts the worst elements in society. Follow #benefitsstreet and you will see the dregs of humanity, spewing the vilest comments. The inadvertent (or entirely intentional?) result of the show is the turning up of the rock. The show exposes not only the residents of the street, but the rampant prejudices of its viewers. And the viewers have reacted exactly as they must: a middle class, seemingly moderate crowd who bemoan the show’s exploitation of its ‘stars’, whilst keeping a respectful distance. But you see, I’ve had that thought. And I watch with everyone else, with my central heating on and food on a plate because I am not those people on TV. I have something to be grateful for. And I can watch them and follow the viciousness on Twitter because it reaffirms everything I subconsciously believe. I am not those people, on screen or off screen.

Maybe those who have complained about the show are uncomfortable with the truth that it accidentally exposes. We don’t live in a Working Title movie. While we might have believed that the recession meant that some people had to ‘tighten their belts’ and that government cuts meant that some people might be a little less well off, the show shatters any rose-tinted illusions about inequality and the income gap. There are some very poor people and as much as social media and the press may want to point fingers at those individuals to blame them for their own predicaments, it is also clear that the poverty depicted on the show is ingrained – not a conscious choice, but the result of decades of neglect and failures of the state to break the cycle of that poverty.

My worry is that the show is actually too subtle for some watching it. Look closely and you might see the crippling addictions of one its characters, the strange anger of a serial criminal and the self destruction that goes with his behaviour. Look closely and you will see the contrasts presented between different groups of residents in the street. But the reactionary world of Twitter and Facebook, where armchair commentary means you can swing your fist no matter who you punch in the face, is rife with those who have not stopped to consider the smaller points. It is altogether easier for some to utter the immortal words about Romanian immigrants: “Go back to where you came from if you don’t like it here!” Probably whilst making several grammatical errors.

It is easy to level the accusation that Channel 4 are behaving irresponsibly by airing the show because they are providing fodder for the racists and misogynists online and elsewhere. Is it better to play it safe and sugar-coat our national identity so we don’t have to what it can be like on ‘the other side’? Or should Channel 4 show us that we are capable of turning into a baying crowd when faced with an aspect of our society we cannot assimilate into our consciousness?

The vitriol on the hashtag that accompanies the show should be a stark warning to our government. What causes such anger against people less fortunate than others? Have we always been a nation so lacking in empathy that we would suggest ‘bombing’ James Turner Street? When did we become these people?

In many ways, Channel 4 has accomplished something that very rarely happens in the mainstream media. It has managed to create a three way dynamic that forces us to question ourselves. It has asked us to watch ourselves watching the residents of Benefits Street. Now that I can see that, I’m not sure I like what I see.

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