Last week C4 aired a programme called Benefit Street.
It looked at the lives of the people living on a street in Birmingham. The street and indeed the people featured, were chosen because they are living, or trying to live, on benefits.
It’s an easy subject for people to get upset about – the welfare state, the support it offers people and the way people use and abuse the system is a subject not far from many people’s minds in austere Britain. It’s undoubtedly a canny piece of commissioning and development and a decision I’d imagine the editor will have made with the front pages in mind.
In many ways it is a classic example of modern Channel 4 programming – it all too carefully treads the line of the sensational (in the most Daily Mail sense of the word) and the unflinchingly honest and authentic. It is in the same family of programmes as Big Fat Gypsy Weddings, Dogging Tales, 15 Stone Babies and Secrets of the Living Dolls, which was broadcast immediately afterward.
As a documentary it presented the subjects to us with a straight bat – that is to say that it showed us what people’s lives are like when relying heavily on benefits – people spoke for themselves, telling the camera the story directly. Many people have claimed that this programme is offensive and demonises the poor. These reactions interest me.
Most of the debate has been held in the liberal press – of which C4 would perhaps consider itself a part – Newsnight on BBC2, The Huffington Post, The Guardian and The Independent. Why? Would we not expect it to be The Daily Mail calling for the head of each and every contributor to this diabolic mess…. surprisingly, they’ve been remarkably supportive .
It occurred to me that the content of the programme is only part of the puzzle. I think the issue is that this programme makes the liberal, affluent, intelligent middle classes of this country feel sick. Sick that people are forced to live like this, sick that not everyone worries about whether or not asparagus is in season this week, sick that outside of the m25 bubble things are shit. It makes people feel uncomfortable and they dont like it. Confronted with the problem they can quite easily ignore normally, the natural reaction is outrage. Sitting in their properties which are increasing in value all the time it’s easy to discuss the state of the country over a bottle of argentinian red with friends of a weekend – lamenting the best way to invest money, or the lack of a payrise this year – but when presented with the problem itself – in whatever form, it becomes a very different matter.
Ultimately though, talk is cheap and it’s easy to criticise the channel who broadcast it. If the same energy was dedicated to trying to solve the real issue – or even lobbying the government – that would probably be a more satisfactory way to not only address the issue, but to resolve any tension experienced as a result of the programme.
Disclosure: I’m a former employee of Channel 4, like argentinian red wine and live inside the m25.