Distorted reality on Benefits Street

Distorted reality on Benefits Street

It’s a measure of how high feelings run on the subject of social security that a Channel 4 documentary about people in Birmingham, living on benefits has generated hours of media coverage‪. But Baroness ‪Tanni Grey-Thompson thinks that the snap judgements it encourages damages people beyond the programme’s participants.

I am not a massive fan of real life documentaries and just the title Benefits Street didn’t give me any cause to change my mind. Programmes like this are a snap shot in time, edited to provide entertainment to fit a standardised programme length, and perhaps some form of narrative. The important word here is edited, because if they showed reality, it would be awfully boring.

The title is sharp and snappy, and it leads straight in to what you expect – stories of scroungers and skivers, with perhaps the odd plucky story thrown in. I was just waiting for the words ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor.

I found it incredibly uncomfortable watching but what I felt was an overwhelming sense of sadness. Mostly sadness for the children. I look back to the opportunities I have been given and see so few in this programme. Something is failing, whether it is society or the people themselves it is hard to tell from the snapshot that we have seen, but I bet we all have an opinion on it. My feeling is that it is a combination of both. Education and experience gives you some of the choices and skills to find other ways to live. I am not sure many of the people realise they have a choice. I wanted to take them all somewhere else and show them another life and other options.

I have read more on this programme than any other trying to find a balanced view. I have read about journalistic integrity, as well as what reality TV is meant to be. With every scene I wondered whether the residents self awareness of how they thought they would be portrayed matches up to what they now see.

Within minutes we have decided what we think about the residents, but whether the programme has the power for long term influence is up for debate. For many it will be a reconfirmation of held views. Don’t get me wrong, I get as annoyed as anyone with people who wrongly claim benefits. I understand why we need to save money, but remain unconvinced that we are doing it the right way. I worry that we will spend more and won’t help the people who need it.

With TV it is truly hard to forget that the cameras are there and to a greater or lesser extent it invites people to share, show off, or retreat in a way that you wouldn’t do with a real person.

I have been in situations where the interviewer didn’t like the responses I gave (probably too bland) so after trying to push a few buttons, came back for several more attempts to get a ‘better’ answer. You have to know what you are doing, and be really confident to not be tempted to join the game. There is a small part of me that hopes that some were playing for the camera, because life otherwise looks pretty grim with ‘Welfare’, I believe that while we have a system that is based on what you can’t do then I am not sure that it is ever going to be better. However a system based on what you can do with support wouldn’t fit neatly in to the boxes required for the decision making process, so we are back to square one.

What I find frustrating is that I don’t think programmes like this help change anything. It is a TV programme. We all get het up, and moan in various ways, but what next? Universal Credit is meant to be more simplistic, but you still need a degree in DWP to weave your way through it. The question I want to know the answer to is if we are so uncomfortable with what we see then what are we going to do about it? Are we prepared to invest to change these people’s lives? Do we care beyond the end of the series? Or do we want to sit in our nice comfy living rooms and say thank goodness that isn’t our life.

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