There has been much outrage and hyperbole surrounding the Channel 4 show Benefits Street since it first aired a few weeks ago, and much of that outrage and hyperbole has been both predictable, and polarising, playing to the very worst stereotypes peddled by the right wing press and tabloids. Last night, the narrator told us no less than five to six times within the first few minutes that the majority of the residents survive on benefits, whilst the camera zoomed in on a can of lager sat atop a grimy brick wall. The narrative was crystal clear.
The show was composed of carefully edited shots involving listless people drinking, swearing and arguing, grubby children bouncing on broken furniture, watching as adults smoked and drank in doorways. Elsewhere in the street, two young parents, Mark and Becky, struggled to raise their young son as his behaviour veered further out of control, the camera unabashedly leered as social workers tried to assist them.
Watching Benefits Street made me feel voyeuristic. It made me feel depressed. It made me feel angry at the manner in which our actions are defined by the box we allow the mainstream media to dump us in.
Channel 4 has made it alarmingly easy to condemn the residents of James Turner Street, implicitly inviting judgement upon those on the screen in the name of substandard entertainment. Their executives will no doubt be patting themselves on the back, when in reality they should be ashamed. The Victorians did the very same thing, filling carriage after carriage of upper class ghouls, taking them to the sanatoriums to point and laugh at poor souls banished to a squalid underworld by the failing prejudice of a warped society. For example, there seems to be a stark difference in the eyes of media commentators and government ministers alike between a "sense of entitlement" in the poor, and "making claims that are entirely within the rules" on the part of the rich.
This show has highlighted three things. Firstly, people are not judged on the value and intent of their words and deeds, nor are they truly considered equal in any way. We are all judged via formulas consisting of your council tax band, and the bank balance of your parents and grandparents, or the company you own.
If this were not true, it would surely be equally as unacceptable to buy a pedigree horse and romp around the countryside hunting foxes for sport, as it clearly would be if a gang of hooligans, got on rusting bikes and chased a stray dog around a council estate, before tearing it limb from limb under the dubious guise of pest control? Surely the media would be more focused on the hypocrisy of a system that champions the virtues of private enterprise, and of commerce showing the poor how to be self reliant, to not lean on the welfare state to survive, yet tolerates and in some cases endorses some of the biggest businesses in the land having their profits subsidised by way of paying unskilled workers such low wages that the same welfare state has to step in with tax credits for them to be able to survive?
The second thing highlighted for me, has been the vicious circle of governments abandoning the manufacturing heartlands in favour of the confidence trickery of financial services, and then turning their fire on the victims of those decisions. The residents of James Turner Street are not embodiments of the devil. They are the manifestation of what happens when government looks after its bedfellows at the expense of its people.
They are parents who need guidance. They are children roaming the street who need to be given confidence in their ability to achieve more than a place in a gang, through learning, and through the provision of hope and prospects for their locality. They are working age adults who need to be shown that this government constructed scrapheap is not their final destination. That is never going to happen whilst we as a society point and sneer via our TV screens whilst government ministers, MPs of all political persuasions, and big business leech from the public purse on a grander scale than any benefit claimant could ever possibly manage.
The third thing highlighted by this show is that there is indeed a toxic underclass upon which we should be pouring scorn, derision and collective anger. However, if you want to find that underclass, stop blindly watching the unwitting participants of this tabloid TV pantomime. Look behind the camera, and to the ideological axe grinding politicians who thrust Benefits Street at the world as justification for vicious attacks on the poor, vulnerable and disabled. They are the truly poisonous leeches growing fat from mistruths, and the toil of others.