Ahh, Benefits Street. As the name of Channel 4's latest offering popped up on screen, I thought: "Fantastic, this is going to be an insightful look at the realities of those struggling on low wages, or perhaps highlight the extraordinary lengths ordinary people are going to in order to find work".
No, of course, I didn't think that. I knew exactly what was coming. Ordinary people portrayed as scroungers, wasters, drug addicts and thieves. Really it's so predictable as to be almost laughable, but the fact that this is what now passes for "factual" mainstream television is profoundly disturbing. It demonises whole communities, it perpetuates myths, and it uses its power in the most pernicious way: to kick those without a voice.
Episode one of Benefits Street opened with a clip of a young lady walking down her street, stating "Unemployed, unemployed, unemployed" as she pointed out various households. If you still weren't sure whose side you are supposed to be on, a sneering voice-over poked and prodded its unwitting subjects, ensuring we didn't forget Dee was "bringing up two children on benefits" and Fungi's attempt to work for his neighbours was "making a bit of money on the side". All this masked the truth that if we were going to see a real Benefits Street it would actually comprise almost half pensioners, a fifth of people working on a low income, and a measly one fiftieth unemployed.
We're so used to being fed the scrounger story that the realities of welfare spending are brushed under the carpet, who wants those annoying little facts getting in the way of a good story after all? Perhaps those in charge of commissioning such programmes don't know, but more likely they just don't care. I've seen the ways some TV execs look for people to fill a pre-determined story, viewing the working class and the poor as fodder for the nation's entertainment.
As a young documentary-maker at the beginning of my career, I was once excited about the idea of working in television. After all, it's a great privilege to be able to reach television-sized audiences. My youthful exuberance however was cut short by the reality of a vacuous machine, feeding people's lives into a machine - chopping them up, adding a pinch of distortion here, a pinch of misinformation there - and voila! Another stereotype for mass consumption, to throw onto the mountain already served up by the modern media. However, I passionately believe it doesn't have to be this way.
One of the greatest powers of film and TV done well is that it can give us an insight into other lives - it can foster compassion, tell extraordinary stories, present rich, warm compelling characters. And it can give people who don't have one a voice. This is the reason I still make films. Sometimes amongst the drivel, television does bring something genuinely eye-opening to the table: the humanity of Great Ormond Street, the dignity of 7/7: One Day in London. These are rare gems. More often, this void is filled by independently-made documentaries, where filmmakers don't have to pander to commissioning editors: The Act of Killing, Crash Reel and Blackfish just recent examples.
I find it incredibly sad then that in a world where the powerful get ever more so, those without a voice are increasingly denied any real medium to express themselves in mainstream TV. I'm sure the producers are thrilled with the response to Benefits Street. The outpourings of hatred on Twitter, the blog pieces (like this one), the hand-wringing in the press. Whipping up a storm is just what they wanted. After all it's important to "debate", right? The problem is this isn't a debate. It's a witch-hunt. And it closes down the avenues for those who want to express a different view.
I've been to the types of communities derided in Benefits Street, and again and again I meet people burnt by the hollow promises of previous TV encounters. Decent, hard-working people, who are afraid and untrusting to put forward their view. And who would blame them? The upshot is that when the industry treats people with such disregard, it stops these voices from being heard. And when the very industry that's meant to stand up to the powerful, merely simpers alongside it, it can't pretend it's not to blame. Chasing ratings by inciting hatred isn't what television should be about.
The producers of Benefits Street will no doubt console themselves with another comfortable myth, that they're only giving the audience what they want. I'm determined to prove to them that audiences can take better production values and complex, beautiful, warm characters over stereotypes. Perhaps they might even realise we're all human underneath.
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