Scanning through the television listings, hardly a day goes by where there isn’t a reality TV programme that shows celebrities locked up in a house, a jungle, in a kitchen or about to launch themselves off a diving board. Similarly, viewing the lives of the great British public has seen a collection of hoarders, OCD cleaners, travellers attempting to “out bling” the late, great Liberace and now we have the residents of James Turner Street in Birmingham or “Benefit Street”.
In what is clearly a disadvantaged area of the UK, we have been introduced to a number of “key characters” as I heard the producer say on Radio 4 this week, who live on a number of benefits. The backlash from this programme has ignited some very vitriolic feedback via social media, calling those on benefits, “scroungers”, “scum” and much more. The outcry has snowballed with politicians up in arms and a 31,000 strong petition of protest, which is quite incredible since the programme only aired on January 7th.
Mixed messages from production team sparks residents’ concernsThe programme states that most of the 99 residents on the street are claiming some form of benefit, and have featured 14 Romanians living in the one house working for a pittance, people who grow marijuana to keep the money coming in, but interestingly, the filming they did with a working couple was not fully featured. This week, a number of residents of James Turner Street spoke to radio reporters and voiced their concerns about how the idea of the programme was first sold to them.
Initially the production people said they wanted to make a documentary about the multicultural mix of residents in the street, one woman specifically asked if it was going to be about the benefits and unemployment and was told no. A working couple were filmed and told they would be featured in the programme, but this was cut drastically when it came to the final airing. The producer in response, said it was because one of the couple worked for the Benefit Agency and wanted to protect their privacy. Either that or it wouldn’t make for great television?
Programme taxes consumers patience to the limitIt is easy to sit back after a hard day’s work, or night shift work, or juggling 2 or sometimes 3 jobs to pay the bills and watch and condemn the people shown on Benefit Street. The taxes we pay go towards the Social Security payments and it is galling when we are faced with what seems to be a flaunting of the system. On the flip side, there are people who genuinely need the help of the benefit payments to keep themselves and their families off the streets, but this does not make for sensational viewing.
People have to take responsibility for their own lives, and having to work for a living is a fact of life. I have met with people who are physically handicapped yet still can hold down a job, others with incredible obstacles in their way yet who still contribute to the society we live in. Benefit Street presents us with a snap shot of life for some people, but how much of this is edited for the benefit of the camera and what is the reality? There has to be a Benefit Street in most cities and urban areas, so what is the right move forward in these financially constrained times?
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