"It's our money," said one clipped voice in the back row, "so we should have the right to scrutinise what they do with it." He may have been a single audience member in Sunday's episode of The Big Questions, but this rattled taxpayer summed up everything that is wrong with Benefits Street - the urban zoo that has slammed Channel 4's ratings into high gear.
Certainly at surface level, the programme seems almost altruistic on the part of Channel 4. They are opening a peephole into the lives of people that have frequently been brandished as scavengers and spongers on the welfare state and its lax immigration controls. We can see the suffering they face on a daily basis - the feeling of cultural isolation, the depression, the struggle to feed countless kids and, at the same time, we encounter a heartwarming sense of community that these marginalised citizens have forged for themselves and a close family unit that marks a stark contrast to the typical working family who grapples with maintaining a healthy work-life balance. There are pros and cons to this life and in this sense, a viewer could be fooled into thinking that they were watching an eye-opening documentary and were, in fact, educating themselves.
But if the average viewer really thinks about why they switched onto this programme in the first place, the reality becomes all too clear. They tuned in for the same reason that they watched The Undateables, Embarrassing Bodies or Educating Essex. Documentaries like these have a clever way of departmentalising the society we live in so that we can draw definitive and immutable lines between 'us' and 'them'. We can satisfy ourselves that although we're not quite the pheasant-hunting, martini-sipping elite that is apparently native to the streets of Chelsea, at least we're not feeding our naked infant stale Cheerios at one o'clock in the morning and fending off social services.
We are presented with one Romani gentleman who has a 15-year-old wife and justifies this life choice on the basis that it's part of his culture. The viewer has no choice but to be shocked. And after all, we want to be shocked. Before Channel 4 has time to shed light on this opaque Romanian 'culture' and offer an explanation for the teenage wives, we've skipped to a scene where children are playing among bin bags in the street. These are not images that the viewer can relate to, but rather they serve to expand the gulf between taxpayers and the poor. From our comfortable sofas and on flat screen TVs, we watch a desperate group of people shovel garbage into their road and classify this as entertainment.
What's more, we are not even able to argue that these citizens are representative of welfare claimants in Britain. Channel 4 filmed a single street, a single community, and put them under the collective heading of 'Benefits Street.' It's reassuring to the viewer that benefits claimants are safely packed away in terraced houses on a street that is miles away from our own home. We can sympathise with them, laugh at them or simply stare at them without the fear that we'll leave our house and find a bedraggled gentleman rummaging through our recycling bin. We don't have to help to alleviate the problem, we can just watch it. And more importantly, we can feel that our own lives are not at risk of falling into such squalor because this is 'Benefits Street.' This street right here, not ours. We'll be perfectly safe in our detached home in Surrey.
But the Truman-show-esque nature of the programme draws us into a false sense of security. In a volatile economy where jobs are scarce, we can no longer count on perennial employment and may just need to seek help from the state until we find our feet. Does this turn us into the dehumanised rubbish-shovellers we watched on Channel 4 whose identities have become synonymous with the desperation associated with poverty? No it does not. Poverty is not necessarily something that we internalise - it is possible to be a regular, non-entertaining human being who is strapped for cash. Benefits Street draws a false dichotomy between those who claim benefits and those who supply the money - a dichotomy that will marginalise Britain's poor even more.
However, the disgruntled gentleman on the BBC's topical debate show insists that we have a right to scrutinise what we pay for. Would he demand to scrutinise the lives of the disabled or the elderly, to whom the greater portion of his money is invariably sent? Probably not. The grotesque glimpses of the Dickensonian characters on James Turner street are far more coherent with the images of benefits claimants that already occupy our heads.