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Toxic Fame Living on Benefits Street

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In Monday's Guardian, Richard McKerrow, whose Love Productions made liberal media-baiting shock-doc Benefits Street, defended himself from the ire of the chattering classes.

The show has been accused of demonising welfare claimants and - perhaps more seriously - of deliberately misleading participants by telling them they would be featuring in a show about community spirit. McKerrow denied both charges, and undoubtedly he is telling the truth - he seems like a tough and passionate filmmaker, and I don't believe he or his company would deliberately set out to misrepresent anyone.

However, the case is illustrative of what happens when the great gods and goddesses of the London media leave their echo chamber and come into contact with ordinary people.

McKerrow's response was multi-faceted, but within it two points stood out to me. First, he made use of a classic TV argument: the participants knew what they were doing. "You can't put a camera in someone's face for very long if they don't want to be filmed," he said. Second, he unleashed a defence of shock value that will be familiar to many a PR type: "I started off in the days when you could do serious programmes and they were in peak time," he says. "Now you have to find different, innovative ways of making sure that serious issues stay in peak."

The first I have trouble with, on the second, he perhaps has some grounding. To the former, then. You can intellectualise television any way you like.

You can talk about how complex a notion 'truth' is. You can talk about the responsibility to entertain the viewers. You can talk about the benefit to the subject. It doesn't matter: fundamentally, the average person does not understand the filming process. They do not understand that the perfectly reasonable shields we all put up to hide our darker sides from the world can quickly be brushed aside by a competent TV crew - unless, that is, you can afford to pay for expensive media training.

A journalist I know once went to an event half-filled with former stars of Big Brother. He spoke to a few and apparently found them very disturbed. Their voices shook, their eyes dropped to the floor. At one stage, he overheard an early series winner ask a late series winner how they were coping. "Oh, you know," came the response. "It's hard."

There is a reason the famous have traditionally surrounded themselves with vast entourages: fame is shattering, and unsettling. It's not something that should be foisted suddenly on an unprepared mind. When it stays, it often proves overwhelming. When it leaves, they are left shaken.

The hard psychological evidence in this area is limited, perhaps because it's hard to find a large sample of famous people when, almost by definition, there aren't very many of them compared to the rest of the population.

However, standout case studies abound. Dr J D Polk, Nasa's current chief of medical operations, spoke to Time magazine a few years ago about the devastating impact of sudden fame followed by obscurity on the minds of astronauts. A 2009 paper published in the Journal of Research in Personality found evidence to support the old wives' wisdom that, although achieving deeply-held "intrinsic" goals is psychologically beneficial, when goals are superficial attaining them has a negative effect.

It is undoubtedly true that to make someone famous at speed is a potentially destructive act, as McKerrow himself acknowledges in his Guardian interview. "If I had [to point to] one particular weakness of what we do, I think there isn't enough funded aftercare for people who have been brave enough to be on television, whether [the funding is] from broadcasters or the government," he says. On his second point, however, he may be on to something, in that it is true that filmmakers now must have a preconceived 'angle' before making their work. I'm not a rose-tinted idealist, and I know that television and film have always mixed its intellectual high points with utter dross.

However, there was a time when there was room for documentaries to explore interesting ideas without a pre-ordained idea of what would emerge. The film writer Bill Nichols related observational documentary to Cinema Verite. At its best, that genre allowed us to watch humanity shorn of pretence or preconception, and in so doing allowed us to observe something of what it was that makes us human. The genre produced classics like Pierre Perrault's Pour la Suite du Monde (1963), in which the filmmaker encourages a remote island to community to revive its traditional practice of whale fishing, and presents the reactions which follow.

Modern observational documentary maintains the 'fly on the wall,' responsive nature of these roots, but it differs in one key aspect: it knows the results it wants before it achieves them. As such, instead of observing the truth of human behaviour, you observe something that looks almost exactly like truth but was, in fact, conceived in a boardroom. This is not the fault of any individual or organisation - it is a symptom of the ratings culture that has swept our entire media over the past two decades.

I'm no opponent of fantasy, or of shock value. I also don't believe McKerrow or his company set out to deceive or mislead anyone. I do, however, know first-hand the disconnect between us media folk, who are comfortable living our lives as a dance of smoke and mirrors, and ordinary people, who assume that when they say things they will usually be taken as meant. The problem here isn't any kind of sinister right-wing agenda (as critics of Benefits Street allege). Rather, the media's fluid reality has clashed against the more unyielding reality known to most people, with uncomfortable results.

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