There were some interesting comments in yesterday’s papers on the first episode of Channel 4’s Benefits Street. Here are some selected excerpts:
“Love Productions has gone out of its way to become Kingston Road’s best mate. And to show its residents in a favourable light. Yes, they might be poor, and on benefits, and facing further cuts and sanctions. And it might be a bit loud and a bit boisterous sometimes. But look at the community spirit, you don’t get that in Chipping frigging Norton, do you.”
Sam Wollaston, The Guardian
“At times, it was irritatingly self-absorbed. Lengthy segments were devoted not to the residents of this short, low-rise street on a council estate, but to the journalists who showed up there to report on the furore caused by the programme. All of this was an unnecessary distraction from a series that remains, despite the pejorative title, pretty fair.”
Tom Rowley, The Telegraph
“In their quest for 15 minutes of fame these instant celebs spend the first ten flashing their knickers to attract the cameras and the next five protesting about unwarranted Press intrusion. It’s pathetic.”
Christopher Stevens, Daily Mail
“Benefits Street does make space for much-needed context but it still seems disingenuous of the show to declare itself entirely innocent. Lest we forget, this programme provides the press with the necessary fodder to demonise benefit claimants, then sits back and enjoys the resultant ratings.”
Ellen E Jones, The Independent
“It felt like the moment when Angus Deayton had to leave Have I Got News For You because he had become the story. I wondered if Benefits Street had suffocated its own formula by revisiting it too soon. However, as we know, TV thrives on characters and on conflict, and again both were here.”
Andrew Billen, The Times
Some of our Real Benefits Street Experts got together ahead of the first episode of Channel 4’s Benefits Street to meet each other, and do some media training with Jackie Cox, the Real Benefits Street Co-ordinator.
After an excellent dinner at Luther King House, we all moved to one of the excellent training rooms. On that first evening, we all took part on a storytelling circle as a way of getting to know one another better – only 2 of our real experts had met each other before.
We then looked at some of the films that each of the real experts had made as part of Real Benefits Street. Whilst some of our experts had already done some filming, some of them still had that pleasure to come.
The following morning we held a media workshop. During the workshop we looked at the risks of engaging with the media, the different types of media, what journalists want and then we held some practice interviews covering print, radio and television.
We had invited journalists to join us for lunch but as it was the day after the General Election, we weren’t too surprised to receive a lot of apologies. It just meant we all had more time to get to know one another better.
By the time we left Luther King House on Friday afternoon, all our experts were ready to speak to the media to challenge the stigmatisation of people on benefits.
Jackie is available to come and run a media workshop for organisations that work with people living in poverty or for people living in poverty who want to engage more effectively with the media as a way of challenging negative stereotypes and stigmatisation.
From left to right: Jackie (Real Benefits Street Co-ordinator); Shirley; Rebecca; Rachele;Letitia; Joy; Simon; Lisa; Tanya
Church Action on Poverty staff watched Benefits Street Episode 1 last night, commenting on the programme and sharing our own videos on Twitter.
As expected, the programme was edited in ways that promoted harmful stereotypes of people who receive benefits. Julie Young, a full-time carer for her disabled son, was described as “unemployed”. Every woman on the programme was described repeatedly in terms of how many children she had, feeding into stereotypes of unemployed people having large families. Large amounts of the programme were devoted to scenes of drug taking and other illegal behaviour.
This is not just an inaccurate and unfair portrayal, which does not reflect the reality of life for most people who are supported by benefits. It has a terrible impact on public attitudes to people on low incomes, and builds popular support for damaging cuts to our social safety net. This is shown very clearly by the comments below, which were all shared on Twitter while the programme was being broadcast.
(Warning: many of these tweets contain language which you may find offensive.)
Letitia, one of our real experts, joined Church Action on Poverty’s Director Niall Cooper on BBC Radio Manchester this morning, to talk about Real Benefits Street.
A day ahead of the Real Benefits Street launch, Jackie Cox, the Real Benefits Street project coordinator, was interviewed by BBC Radio 4’s Sunday programme.
Channel 4 announced last week that the new series of Benefits Street, filmed in Stockton-on-Tees, will start being shown on Monday 11 May.
Church Action on Poverty set up Real Benefits Street to counter the stigma and misconceptions which are promoted by the media sensationalism around TV programmes like Benefits Street, and to enable people receiving benefits – the real experts – to tell their own stories.
The new series of Benefits Street has not even started yet, and already, it has prompted news stories and social media discussions that stigmatise and dehumanise the people taking part. Channel 4 have chosen to promote the programme by highlighting scenes of drug-taking and illegal behaviour. The participants have been described in national headlines as “a parade of addicts and scroungers”.
Church Action on Poverty’s Director Niall Cooper will appear on Radio 4’s Sunday programme on 1o May, talking to a representative from the company who produce Benefits Street about the impact their programme has on vulnerable people.
And from Monday 11 May, the real experts will be telling their own stories on Real Benefits Street. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube to see the reality that doesn’t make it onto TV.
Channel 4 and Love Productions, the makers of Benefits Street, regularly claim that their programme “reveals the reality of life on benefits”. But we work alongside people on benefits every day, and they don’t recognise their lives in the stories that are shown on screen.
This is not a criticism of the people who take part in Channel 4’s Benefits Street. Neil Maxwell, Julie Young, Lee Nutley, Dot Taylor and other residents of Kingston Road in Stockton-on-Tees have been brave and honest in telling their stories – just like ‘White Dee’ and other residents of James Turner Street in 2014.
But the way those stories are edited, produced and promoted in Benefits Street is sensational and insensitive, fuelling hatred and prejudice. People who took part in the first Benefits Street received death threats. The residents of Kingston Road are already being described on social media as “addicts and scroungers”.
Real Benefits Street aims to disprove the claims made by Channel 4 and Love Productions. This is the reality of life on benefits – told by people sharing their own experiences, without distortion or sensationalism.
Click here to meet the Real Experts and watch their stories.