You can imagine the braying laughter as the makers of Channel 4’s Benefits Street egged on people with drink problems to perform in front of the camera, even allegedly supplying them with alcohol to make sure they were shown in the worst possible light. With clever editing, and in one participant’s case at least, genuinely vulnerable people, it isn’t hard to create the desired freak show. People perform for the camera. Fill them full of booze first and film the resulting carnage and watch the ratings soar – particularly if the group you are stigmatising are already a target of tabloid fuelled hate.
The resulting and all too predictable reaction on twitter, where some people called for benefit claimants to be killed – yes killed – must have been a huge source of amusement to the programme makers. Boss of documentaries at Channel 4, Nick Mursky, even claims this justified the show, saying to The Guardian that: “the furore surrounding it reinforces my view that we should absolutely be making programmes in this territory.”
It is hardly surprising that those whose lives were documented in the programme are outraged about how they were portrayed. Thankfully they are not the only ones angry, thousands have signed a petition calling for the programme to be scrapped. This is hardly the first time that Channel 4 have propped up their ratings with exploitative and dishonest so-called documentaries about life on benefits. Just a few months ago Benefits Britain 1949 reduced claimants to tears whilst providing a completely distorted view of the benefits system not just today, but also in 1949.
Sue Marsh is right that some of the reaction to Benefits Street, from both the left and the right, has been influenced by snobbery. But that’s probably because the programme was made by latte-slurping snobs. Laughing – usually from a safe distance – at the funny ways poor people speak and behave has long been a sport for the chattering classes. Selecting a few isolated and troubled individuals and ignoring most of the rest means that people’s prejudices are easily confirmed. Not looking deeper ensures that no-one ever asks why someone like Fungi is slowly committing suicide with alcohol, or whether anyone realistically would give him a job if his benefits were taken away.
The next time a bunch of grinning fucking idiots with a camera crew and clip boards turn up in working class areas they should be told, or made, to fuck off. If this is the best that Channel 4 can come up with at a time when people are being driven to suicide by welfare reforms, then they are less than worthless. In fact they are part of the problem. Do not fucking trust them.
Join the protest outside Love Productions, the company behind this programme this Monday 13th Jan at 3pm, 43 Eagle St WC1R 4AT. More info on facebook. Please spread the word. Love Productions are on twitter @LoveProdHouse
Follow me on twitter @johnnyvoid