Claire Black: Benefits Street a ratings-chaser

WHITE Dee. Black Dee. Danny with the Asbo for shoplifting. Fungi who, with a penchant for super strength lager for breakfast, doesn’t have much fun. These are some of the residents of Birmingham’s James Turner Street, or, as it’s now known, ­Benefits Street.
White Dee from Channel 4's Benefits Street documentary. Picture: ContributedWhite Dee from Channel 4's Benefits Street documentary. Picture: Contributed
White Dee from Channel 4's Benefits Street documentary. Picture: Contributed

According to a Channel 4 spokesperson, Benefits Street is a “sympathetic, humane and objective portrayal of how people are coping with continuing austerity and cuts in benefits”. It’s just that the quirky music, the Twitter hashtag popping up on screen whenever something controversial crops up and the way in which participants have claimed they have been misrepresented, their lives and community distorted, hint that there’s something else going on. After all, there’s not much humanity in Twitter timelines filling up with calls for those appearing on the programme to be shot, hanged or gassed, is there?

You could argue that by provoking such vitriol, Benefits Street is revealing how loathed people who are living in poverty have become and in doing so is providing a necessary wake-up call. But if you did you’d be crediting the people behind the show (it’s not a documentary) for insight and concern I don’t for one second believe they have.

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Programme-makers chase ratings. More than four million of us watched Benefits Street. That’s what it’s about, not elucidating the complexity of poverty in contemporary Britain. If that was the aim, then the fact that people think more than a quarter of social security payments are lost to fraud when it is less than 1 per cent would’ve been mentioned.

And don’t be fooled that Benefits Street is a shining example of investigative journalism either. It’s not hard getting people like White Dee or Fungi to tell their stories; it doesn’t take nuanced arguments or complex negotiations. Often it’s harder to stop folk than start them. If your life is made up of being skint, being ignored, being off your face, then chances to tell your story to someone who seems interested don’t come along very often. The sense you’ll have from living the way you do is that no one gives a toss – that’s why you’ve got £50 a week and there’s mould growing up the walls of your kid’s bedroom. So when someone asks, you’ll answer.

Does that sound patronising? If so, let me further shock you by revealing that not only are the residents far from representative of everyone on benefits, the way they were presented was far from neutral. Programme-makers – and journalists – make decisions about how to represent people all day every day – it’s what we do. That the residents of James Turner Street came off as badly as they did tells you more about how poor people are viewed than anything the programme purported to reveal.

THERE are so many reasons to celebrate Sistema Scotland, with new projects in Govanhill and Aberdeen as well as the original, Big Noise Raploch, which continues to go from strength to strength. It’s a brilliant, creative initiative that, since it began in 2008, has given 450 kids and 50 adults in the Raploch community the gift of learning to read and play music. More than that, it has delivered plenty of other less tangible but no less important lessons about self-confidence and working together and being dedicated and disciplined. So how wonderful to discover that seven children from the scheme have successfully auditioned for the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland junior orchestra and five more have been accepted for strings training. Bravo.

‘I FEEL like I’m an example now in my dotage of the fact that you just can’t put those old gals out to pasture. We’ve got a lot of stuff still to say.” That’s what Meryl Streep said as she picked up a recent award. And she proved she meant it, too, at the National Board of Review dinner when this time she was the presenter, handing over a gong to Emma Thompson, whom she described as “practically a saint... a living, acting ­conscience”. She even wrote a poem for her and called her “a rabid, man-eating feminist, like I am”. But that wasn’t the best bit, nope. The best bit was Streep’s nine-minute demolition of Walt ­Disney who was, she said, exploding Hollywood myths like a sharp pin to a helium ­balloon, an anti-semite and a “gender bigot”. Go Meryl, go. «

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