We are amid the greatest revolution human life has ever known - the liberation of communication - in the hands of the many as well as that dangerous few. Yes of course the danger is there - the danger that what we call news maybe hijacked, distorted, lied about, propogandised. But today I argue that we stand at the dawn of the golden age of what we have come to describe as journalism. The mediation of information by individuals, collectives, groups, whom WE have the very individual powers to choose.
"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.
Not only does Benefits Street propagate the myth of the work-shy, morally reprehensible benefits scrounger, it also neglects the majority of benefits claimants. Contrary to popular belief, most are not on unemployment benefits. In fact, the largest part of the welfare bill is spent on state pensions, with disability benefits and family benefits also coming in costing substantially more than unemployment.
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.
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.