Benefits Street: More than a mere documentary?

Channel 4’s fly on the wall documentary Benefit Street aired on 6 January 2014 to reveal the reality of life on benefits.

Channel 4’s fly on the wall documentary Benefit Street aired on 6 January 2014 to reveal the reality of life on benefits. Many spectators would say that Channel 4 achieved this aim but in a way that was unjust, with many saying that the picture painted of Benefits claimants demonised the poor and unemployed.

Whilst the programme was controversial, it was also very popular with one episode accumulating 6.5 million views, the highest ratings since the London Paralympics in 2012.

However, the immense popularity of the show does not deter from the fact that Benefit Street generated over 1700 complaints. A massive 960 went to broadcasting watchdog Ofcom whilst the other 800 or so went directly to Channel 4. The nature and number of complaints has led to Ofcom launching an investigation into the series.

The complaints covered a wide range of issues including claims that it exposed crimes being committed and showed viewers exactly how to shoplift. Finally, and perhaps most worryingly of all, the show is being scrutinised because it simply didn’t do enough to protect the children living on James Turner Street.

A voice for society, or a show gone too far?

The show will be analysed over the unfair picture painted of the residents of James Turner Street in Birmingham, where over half of dwellers claimed some kind of benefits. The series focuses on an unrepresentative minority, where the most extreme characters are presented as the norm, generalizable to all benefits claimants.

This is by no means generalizable to those who are claiming disability benefits, for example, who are physically unable to work.

Although some of the content in the documentary was extreme and offensive to people, particularly the working class, some people argue that Channel 4 has broadcasting Benefits Street highlights the need for radical reform, primarily of our welfare system.

It has given a voice to a section of society of which many outsiders were ignorant.  Even if the show depicts a minority, the show shows illustrates that extreme examples of benefits claimants do exist. Like Fungi, a drug-taking alcoholic father of three, all of whom he has lost.  

The extreme nature of this programme will give viewers, particularly those unlawfully claiming benefits, the kick up the backside to see that the lifestyle of those on James Turner Street is not desirable. And with it comes a life of negative stereotypes, like the documentary advocates. The programme has also been praised for drawing attention to the problems of poverty, depression and drugs. It also brings to light the negative aspects of some of the government’s recent benefit changes and how it all impacts on real people’s lives.

A call to action?

Ofcom’s investigation into Benefits street will be the watchdog’s most high profile investigation into a TV programme since it gave Channel 4 the all clear of prejudiced racial stereotyping in another of the TV broadcaster’s popular documentaries, ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.’

Some of the characters from the documentary have been celebrated as celebrities since the airing of the show. White Dee, real name Deirdre Kelly, is the most famous example. Unemployed mother and self-titled mum of the street, Dee has been in the spotlight recently after rumours that she will be ditching the hand-outs to star as a housemate in this summer’s series of Celebrity Big Brother. In James Turner Street, the community is connected by the fact almost all of the neighbours are unemployed.

Although this may be an unidealistic bond, it provides them with a similar set of attitudes and values which help them bond as a community. This is shown, once again through White Dee, mother of the street, who can be found helping her neighbours with all kinds of situations, even some as basic as reading.

This makes James Turner Street the exception to the common claim that nobody knows their neighbours anymore.

Benefits Street was created to reveal the reality of life on benefits, a reality, according the documentary of alcohol, crime, drugs and depression. Though in non-televised reality, Channel 4 revealed the need for help—help in the British welfare system and help to educate the ill-informed.

What did you think of Benefits Street? Was Channel 4 right to air the programme? Have your say in the comments section below.