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Thursday, 9 January 2014

Benefit Street: who are the real victims of this Poverty Porn?

A lot has been said about Channel 4’s latest ratings success, ‘Benefits St’. It achieved 4.5 million viewers when it aired on Monday night (6 Jan). I understand this is higher than any other show broadcast by the channel during 2013.
Judging by the way the programme was trailed pre-broadcast, those 4.5 million people knew what they were going to get.
This kind of ‘Poverty Porn’, as Abigail Scott-Paul of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation describes it, isn’t new. Perhaps we should not be surprised at the reaction of some people (see #benefitsstreet) who not only ‘get off’ on this type of stuff, but burst into fits of verbal orgasm about it. It’s a problematic metaphor, but the people of James Turner St could perfectly well feel cognitively violated by the broadcast and the casual violence it incited on social media.
I also have to say that I’ve been surprised at some of the apologetics written about the show. This by, Diary of a Benefit Scrounger, is a case in point.
The two so-called scallys featured in the programme 'Danny' and 'Fungi', who are central to the programme's plot, are not blameless in helping to build the production company - OXYMORON KLAXON – 'Love Productions' caricature of what it is *like* to live in a disadvantaged community.
But who were the victims in this show?
The high street shops from whence the two, allegedly, collaborated in the theft and distribution of stolen goods? The skunk cultivator/s from whom one of them, allegedly, stole drugs? What about the protagonists themselves?
It appears likely that Danny and Fungi struggle with drink and hard drugs and, ultimately, it is this struggle, transmogrified into a failing, that is the source of the ethical outrage whipped up by the programme. It's the type of struggle (I will not call it a failing) that accompanies some, but by no means all, instances of deprivation.
But is it right that such a ‘failing’ be exploited by a ratings-chasing TV company in this way? I could be imagining it but, in the past, I'm sure Channel 4 would have done a grittier documentary than this, perhaps looking into the relationship between substance abuse and low-level crime. The access that the production company had was impressive. Why not use it to produce a socially responsible and affecting piece of work? 
And, by the way, what the hell has this got to do with benefits?

PS - Any journalists or production companies looking to cover issues relating to poverty would do well to check the Joseph Rowntree Foundation's website on 'Reporting Poverty'. The site has a wealth of info and research on perceptions about poverty, its portrayal in the media and good practice for journos looking to report this kind of thing.

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