Originally published as a news feature in Qmunicate Magazine, January 2014.
A recent onslaught of petitions, think-pieces and angry tweets inspired by Channel 4’s latest creation, Benefit Street, has raised questions regarding the scrutiny and presentation of the working class in the media. The provoc-umentary series – which a Channel 4 spokesperson described as a “sympathetic, human and objective portrayal of how people are coping with continuing austerity and cuts in benefits” – portrays the residents of Birmingham’s underprivileged James Turner Street as they navigate the welfare system, fall repeatedly into criminal habits and endure altercations between their neighbours. While the second episode in the series fetched Channel 4’s highest viewer ratings in a year with nearly 5 million people tuning in, it also garnered almost 400 complaints to Ofcom from viewers concerned by the further demonisation of portions of the population who are struggling in the current economic climate and others outraged by the less-than-subtle depiction of criminal activity such as drug dealing and shoplifting.
The residents, too, were unhappy with their portrayal in the programme, claiming to have been duped into appearing on the show and misled regarding its premise. Dee Roberts, a support worker who features regularly on Benefit Street, said: “They lied to us from the very beginning. We opened our doors and hearts to them and they violated us and abused our trust.” When asked about the impression given to residents by the show’s producers, she reported: “They said they wanted to film for a TV show about how great community spirit is in the street and how we all help each other out on a daily basis. I participated in the show on that belief, but this programme has nothing to do with community, which you can tell from the title. It makes people out as complete scum.” Claiming that footage was edited so as to alter the true nature of events, Roberts complained that a sequence showing her walking along the street while pointing out which residents were and weren’t employed was manipulated to completely remove any mention of residents who were, in fact, in work. Many have spoken up about their belief that productions like Benefit Street serve only to further vilify the working class (and encourage xenophobia thanks to its portrayal of Eastern Europeans searching for work) in times of growing poverty and a widening gap between the highest and lowest earners.
In the midst of this controversy, Labour leader Ed Miliband has spoken publicly about a crisis being faced by middle class families. Miliband wrote in The Telegraph that Labour would “rebuild our middle class”, and that “our country cannot succeed and become collectively better off unless Britain has a strong and vibrant middle class. Indeed, the greatest challenge for our generation is how to tackle a crisis in living standards that has now become a crisis of confidence for middle-class families.” This has been met with some confusion and anger as belief that the struggles of the working class are being snubbed continues to intensify – the number of people requiring the help of Trussell Trust food banks tripled in just a year with over 350,000 – including children and some facing difficulty following cuts or delays in benefits – attending food banks between April-September 2013.
Even food banks have been under attack in the media recently with former Conservative MP Edwina Currie questioning the necessity of food banks in the UK during a recent BBC Radio Stoke appearance. She stated that much of the poorer population see their money go to tattoos and caring for their pets rather than providing for themselves. She then took her views to Twitter, where she said: “Some councils are diverting money from services into food banks. I think this is crazy – a real abrogation of responsibility,” And “how do we solve people’s problems? Not by giving them a can of soup and saying there, there.”
Echoing a sentiment shared by many in the face of a wealthy minority growing ever more out of touch with the reality of families living on the poverty line, Labour MP Chris Bryant, the Shadow Minister for Welfare Reform, tweeted in response: “Edwina Currie hasn’t the foggiest idea how ordinary people live their lives but resorts to crude judgementalism. Sad.”