Benefits Street Backlash – New Guidelines for Journalists

NUJ Guide to reporting povertyThe National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has developed a set of guidelines for reporting poverty. The guidelines have been produced in response to media reporting that stigmatises people living in poverty, in particular those in receipt of benefits, by using misleading information and negative stereotypes. The NUJ guidelines on reporting poverty are the latest in its series of guidelines which include reporting on race, age and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues, as part of its commitment to ethical journalism.

The NUJ have worked in partnership with Church Action on Poverty to produce the guide for journalists, which is uniquely based on the words and experiences of people relying on benefits and living in poverty.

Jackie Cox, the Poverty Media Coordinator for Church Action on Poverty says: “producing a guide for journalists with the NUJ has been a great way to follow-on from our Real Benefits Street project which challenged the negative stereotypes portrayed by Channel 4’s Benefits Street and some other sections of the media. We wanted the people who are experiencing poverty, and being stigmatised because of it, to be able to put their point of view to journalists.”

Rachel Broady, a freelance journalist and Equality Officer for the NUJ Manchester and Salford branch says: “Profits are made by media companies, newspapers, websites, and television channels on the backs of these stereotypes, demonising and alienating those receiving benefits to which they are entitled. It is the duty of journalists to report fairly and accurately. The guide is intended to help journalists achieve that when reporting on poverty”.

Shirley has had to rely on benefits and has even used a food bank, despite the fact that she has always worked. She says: “Recognise that people living in poverty are human beings. People living in poverty have dignity. That humanity and dignity is taken away because of how the media portrays them.”

Letitia, a university graduate and a single parent, who has claimed benefits, says: “Don’t contribute to the idea that there are deserving and undeserving poor people – no one wants or deserves to live in poverty”.

Niall Cooper, Director of Church Action on Poverty says: “It is hoped that individual journalists, newspapers, broadcasters and online media companies will adopt the guidelines and use them to report on poverty and related issues in a responsible and accurate way”.

Week 4

Monday: Caz had to wait 8 weeks until her benefits claim was processed – she says she felt like a second class citizen

Monday: Kalhan has been assessed as ‘unemployabe’ sine she developed a neurological illness but she lives in fear of being reassessed

Monday: Hawa fled from a forced marriage and found herself having to live on food vouchers of £35 per week

Monday: Damon says people are really struggling and the only way out is proper full time jobs

Monday: Kimberley says that it’s harder to find a job when you’re unemployed and is now thinking of starting her own benefits.

Tuesday: Joy loves her Textile course and she is very inventive – she hopes it will lead to work

Tuesday: Simon says that he had to claim benefits after suffering a mental illness which left him unable to work

Wednesday: Darren says he had to wait 14 weeks to get any benefits and had to rely on loans and charitable handouts.

Thursday: Rebecca goes to the Job Centre to sign on

Friday: Simon is worried that yet another form he has to fill in will cause long delays in his benefits – again.

Real Benefits Street – the reality that doesn’t make it onto TV – you can help more people to tell their stories

Real Benefits Street finishes next week – and it’s had a real impact, challenging stereotypes and making many more people aware of the reality that doesn’t make it onto TV. Thousands of people have watched the video stories made by our real experts, and they’ve been shared widely on social media. We’ve received many, many messages expressing solidarity with the experts – and support for this project and its aims.

“Aside from giving practical support to very vulnerable people, you are doing something so important – you’re giving them a voice, and giving a little balance to the awful lazy stereotypes that are served up as universal truth by almost all our media. I was once unemployed for a year – it was terrifying; I was lucky enough to have the support of my family, but otherwise I’d have gone under.  I’m not optimistic we will see any closure of the gap between rich and poor under the new government, and that makes organisations like yours so important.  Please, please keep going.”

As we prepare to close Real Benefits Street  with some powerful final messages from the real experts, you can still help more people see the reality that doesn’t make it onto TV. Keep sharing our videos – make sure you’re following us on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. And watch this space for news of ways you can speak out about the injustices that people face daily when they’re supported by benefits.

And Real Benefits Street won’t be the end. We’ll carry on working with these experts – and with other people who are struggling to make ends meet – to make their voices heard, and campaign against the injustices that trap them in poverty. If you’re able to make a donation to Church Action on Poverty, you can help make sure those voices carry on being heard. Just fill in your details below to give now.

BBC to do ‘Benefits Street’ – why are TV producers so obsessed with the myth of the undeserving poor?

Church Action on Poverty’s Communications Manager Liam Purcell sees something ahead that’s even worse than Benefits Street: 

It seems clear that the producers of Benefits Street had a clear narrative in mind for this second series: the old lie of the ‘deserving and undeserving poor’. The two focal points for every episode have been Neil Maxwell – who appears to deal drugs and was arrested in this week’s episode for assault – and Julie Young – who cares full-time for her disabled son.

Never mind that Maxwell is an extreme example, whose life bears no relation to those lived by the vast majority of people who are supported by benefits. Never mind that a civilised benefits system should provide a safety net for everyone. Never mind that it’s completely inappropriate to make moral judgements on other people’s lives based on the content of a TV programme that has been edited to produce maximum emotional impact and publicity. The audience is encouraged to see everything in black and white: some people are deserving of our generous support, while others deserve nothing. The effect of this was very clear in the reactions on Twitter, where many people described Julie as a saint while writing off everybody else on the programme as “scum”.

The narrative of the undeserving poor has been with us since Elizabethan workhouses used shame and stigma to punish some poor people and threaten others. It has always been divisive and harmful. It has never been an accurate reflection of reality. It shifts the blame for social evils onto the people who suffer their effects.

So it was depressing to read today about the next piece of poverty porn being planned by TV producers. The headline “BBC to pit low-paid against each other in Hunger Games-style show to find Britain’s Hardest Grafter” should have come from a satirical website, but unfortunately it’s reality.

The show will make people on low incomes compete against each other in different “blue collar” jobs. The whole concept is rooted in the most ignorant and destructive myths of the deserving and undeserving poor. The publicity materials talk about making the participants “prove themselves” and “show their worth”.

In a time of economic crisis, austerity and high unemployment, it is frankly abhorrent to claim that young unemployed people – those suffering the worst effects of cuts and recession – somehow have something to prove. Isn’t it time that our society showed its worth by offering support, solidarity and compassion to vulnerable people, rather than exploiting them for entertainment?

Video Schedule – Week 3

Monday: Letitia was left relying on benefits when her partner left her and their 3 year old daughter

Monday: Gary says the benefits system doesn’t understand mental health issues and discriminates against people with them

Monday: Joy is so afraid of being sanctioned or evicted she can’t face opening her mail

Tuesday: Lisa found herself sanctioned when she found a job – because it was for 14 hours per week and not 16.

Tuesday: Tanya has to pay the bedroom tax for her third bedroom – but moving would mean her leaving her essential support network

Wednesday: Kimberley

Wednesday: Caz

Thursday: Hawa

Thursday: Simon



Video Schedule – Week 2

Monday: Letitia is keeping her fingers crossed she’ll get the job

Monday: Gary was sanctioned – the Job Centre admitted it had made a mistake but he was still left with no money

Monday: Joy ended up in hospital and on benefits when she lost her job because of her mental health problems

Monday: Tanya has to budget carefully to make sure she and her son have enough to live on

Monday: Frank and Martin says the welfare system discriminates against single Dads

Tuesday: Karen is a full time carer for her daughter but they have to share a bed and can’t get rehoused

Tuesday: Sean had a high paid job and never expected to end up on benefits

Wednesday: Col is now living in a hostel since his release from prison. Desperate to rebuild his life, he thinks no one will employ him.

Wednesday: Darren talks about being made to go to driving job interviews – even though he’s registered partially sighted.

Thursday: Damon thinks sanctions are a ‘kick in the teeth.

Thursday: David would love a job but in the meantime he says he has to do the best he can with what he’s got

Friday: Karen – hear more of Karen’s plight to get a 2 bed house as she cares full-time for her 24 year old daughter

Friday: Paul has been threatened with sanctions despite applying for 150 – 200 jobs per week



How to listen to the real experts

Church Action on Poverty’s Communications Manager Liam Purcell has been working to promote Real Benefits Street over the past week. He calls on all of us to show more empathy and less judgement:

Through Church Action on Poverty’s work to make true stories of poverty heard more widely, I’ve become familiar with some of the typical ways people respond to hearing those stories. I think it reveals some worrying things.

I’m not talking here about the terrible myths and stereotypes which stigmatise people on low incomes – the kind of things we set up Real Benefits Street to counter. (See here for some examples of the kind of hateful reaction that would fall into this category.)

My concern here is more for the instinctive reactions I see from people who are otherwise very sympathetic – even amongst Church Action on Poverty’s own supporters. People may be fully committed to tackling poverty in principle, but when faced with a story honestly shared by somebody who is experiencing poverty, their immediate reaction is still too often to judge rather than just to listen and learn.

“I’m not earning much more than that, and I get by OK.”

“Why does she need a car?” (Or a computer, or a mobile phone, or a TV, or a pet…)

“When I was young, we went without all kinds of things and didn’t say we were poor.”

“He shouldn’t be smoking or drinking.”

There are simple answers to the vast majority of these criticisms (and you can find most of them here if you want) – but I can’t help feeling that it’s a waste of time and energy for us to be answering them and busting the same myths all the time. In many cases, the answers are actually quite obvious, as soon as you take a moment to empathise and put yourself in somebody else’s shoes.

So why do people so often react in this way? I think that often, it’s a defence mechanism. It’s very uncomfortable to see another human being exposing themselves by honestly talking about difficult experiences they’ve had. It’s also uncomfortable to be faced with the reality that we live in an unfair society – and that perhaps, we ourselves are doing well at the expense of those who are less well off than we are. Our instinctive reaction is often to find an explanation that’s less personally uncomfortable for us – a story that distracts us from the problems, and doesn’t pin any blame on us, or challenge us to do something about an unjust situation.

So, as our Real Benefits Street experts continue to share their stories every day, I have some challenges for all of us who are watching and listening:

  • Be aware that these people are doing something brave and difficult. It’s not easy, in an unequal society, to stand up in public and talk about being poor.
  • Try to put yourself in their shoes. You can’t fully judge an experience, or know how you would react to it, unless you’ve been through it yourself.
  • Do you have the right to pass judgement on somebody’s lifestyle? For example, if they didn’t happen to be on a low income, would you ever feel you had the right to tell a stranger whether to smoke or drink?
  • Before you pass judgement on any aspect of their story, ask yourself: by reacting like this, am I letting myself off the hook? Am I focusing on one detail while ignoring other aspects of the story? Is it a way of avoiding my own responsibility for tackling injustice and poverty?
  • Take time to reflect. In particular, remember that thousands or millions more people may be having similar experiences to the one you’ve just heard about. Does that change your reaction?

If we’re to build a Good Society with a narrower gap between rich and poor, we must always start from a place of solidarity and empathy – not judgement.

‘Benefits Street’ will never truly represent those on benefits

Our friends at the Who Benefits? campaign have given their response to the first episode of the second series of Benefits Street, which aired on Monday evening,. Here’s the statement from Tom Pollard at Who Benefits?:

We are pleased this series has more focus on the reasons behind why people rely on support from benefits, for example because they are living with an illness or disability, or caring for loved ones.

But by using the title Benefits Street, Channel 4 continues to create the misleading impression that this is a series that presents a realistic portrayal of the lives of people supported by benefits or issues that affect only those on benefits. This is not the case.

By focusing on a small number of provocative and extreme stories, Benefits Street ignores reality for the vast majority of people supported by benefits, who like many of us at some point in our lives; just need a little extra help to make ends meet.

The reality is that hundreds of thousands of people face discrimination and even verbal and physical abuse simply because they are supported by benefits and by reviving the controversial Benefits Street format, Channel 4 is contributing to this discrimination.”

Read positive stories of support and share your story of benefits

(You can also see our analysis of the reaction to the episode, and some press reviews.)