Proper Gander: Who Benefits From ‘Benefits Street’?

Benefits Street (Channel 4): yet another tawdry docusoap which reveals how some people just leech off others. The real parasites here are, of course, the programme-makers – feeding off the lives of the people they film.

The show follows some of the residents of a terraced street in an area of Birmingham which has the highest unemployment rate in Britain. Their lives are tough enough, struggling on low incomes and with little room for manoeuvre. But on top of that, now they also have to deal with the stigma and furore caused by the negative way they’ve been depicted.

Some of the participants told the press they were given the impression that the show would focus on community spirit, rather than life on benefits. They have also said that the programme-makers bribed them to get the shots wanted, including complaint-magnet footage of people buying drugs and preparing to shoplift.

Benefits Street doesn’t benefit the participants who now feel cheated and humiliated, nor the viewers manipulated into making distorted generalisations about benefit claimants. Instead, it’s the TV companies who have cashed an unusually large giro. The second episode had over a million more viewers than the first, which, with 4.3million voyeurs, was already Channel 4’s most-watched show for over a year. Extra publicity has come with all the controversy. Hundreds of complaints have been made to Channel 4 and Ofcom, and thousands have signed an online petition for the show to be dropped.

Sadly, the row has been a distraction from scenes in the programme which should prompt more debate about capitalism’s failings and how they affect people. For example, a group of Romanians are left destitute (and unable to claim benefits or state assistance) after escaping from their gangster boss.

The producers of Benefits Street have maintained that the programme is ‘fair and balanced’, but in reality it’s as fair and balanced as a broken see-saw. The editing, title and format of the show aim to exploit, rather than express the participants’ struggles. The producers have been taken in by the prevailing mood among the elite to demonise those victimised most by capitalism.

Mike Foster

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