Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Benefit Street

Not for the first time, I was woken up by a researcher for the Nick Ferrari show on LBC this morning.

The last time, I was in hospital and had to lock myself in a bathroom so that the 10 minute radio ding-dong that followed wouldn't be interrupted by loaded syringes or well intentioned enemas. This morning, woolly and tea-less, I waited on the line for 10 minutes while Nick gently led a caller on disability benefit to "admit" that 2 of his 5 children were born after the accident that disabled him. No ding-dongs needed there. Just a gentle and seemingly friendly set-up.

Benefit Street, the new Channel 4 documentary about a street in Birmingham where many of the residents "live on benefits" has been causing tsunamis of horror on my twitter timeline and beyond. Yesterday, I thought I'd better see for myself and watched it on catch up.

I waited for the familiar rage and frustration to surge through me, but as the show developed, I found myself fascinated.

Firstly, I ought to say that I grew up on a council estate. I've seen many complaints that those against the show are "champagne socialists" with no mandate to speak, so before we go any further, I thought I'd make it clear that I at least speak from a position of some experience.

Has anything really changed today? Are the people living on "James Turner St" in Birmingham really so
different to the neighbours I grew up with? Are we living in the middle of a benefit free-for-all, unprecendented in modern times, or is human life simply as varied and colourful as it always was?

There are 99 houses on "Benefit Street". The first episode of the series touched on the residents of perhaps 5 or 6. How many of the other residents are pensioners? Pensioners "live on benefits" but I imagine few viewers would question their receipt. Surely, in nearly 100 houses, someone is hidden away behind those closed curtains Osborne so detests, bedridden and afraid, wondering how on earth they will pay the bedroom tax? It's all selective.

The resident that caused the real outrage was a shoplifter, (Danny) in and out of jail on an almost weekly basis, unrepentant and drinking tinnies at lunchtime in the weak Birmingham sunshine. Mr Ferrari I assume, wanted me to defend him - who would? He was an utter scally with no redeeming features or mitigating circumstances. But there were other characters. "White Dee" the Mummy figure, patiently trying to steer the less fortunate through a new landscape of fear and uncertainty. "Smoggy" went door to door selling 50p "shots" of basic necessities to those unable to afford a whole box of washing powder or sugar or coffee. An impressively entrepreneurial idea showing the determination and resilience of many faced with a life lacking the advantages of, say, a government minister.

So was the road I grew up on so very different to James Turner St? I doubt it. We all knew the scally selling knock-off trainers or dodgy TVs. We all knew the "dealer" and steered well clear. We all knew about the scary guy with a boot full of weapons or the family so unable to cope with the basics of life that their home needed fumigating every few years.

But most worked. Back in the 70s and 80s social housing was there for all. I lived in a community, all human life was there, not just the pretty airbrushed bits. There were a few who didn't work who had no reason not to and they were shunned by the many who did. Lower even than the scallies. (Though not the dealer)

The sad bit about the programme was the lack of balance. I could have made an identical programme in the 80s (well, apart from the fact I was in primary school) if I'd chosen to. I could have igonred the pensioners and those with serious illnesses or disabilities. I could have ignored the single parent only plunged into tough times by the death of a partner. I could have ignored the asylum seeker working all the hours God sends to try to find a job and leave the horrors of massacre and torture far behind them.

But Channel 4 did just that. At least in the first episode - maybe the next four will do better. They chose the scally and the drug addict and the benefit cheats. However, I think the reason I didn't feel the rage many others did was that they also showed the "White Dees" and the "Smoggys".

I wonder whether some of the outrage over the programme actually belied prejudice from those who no doubt, believe they only want to defend and support those less fortunate than themselves? Weren't some of the leftie screamers as guilty of selective viewing as the right wing frothers and spitters? Wasn't it rather easy to say "Ah, you only portrayed the scum" when firstly, that wasn't true and secondly, that very attitude reinforces the idea of "scum" or a "deserving" and undeserving" poor? Would it not have been more valuable to wonder and ponder? How did the shoplifter Danny become who he was? What pushed the young couple with small children into benefit fraud in the first place? Was "Fungi" a useless waste of air or a vulnerable fool easily led by what he saw as a "glamorous" crook? Why did the shoplifter believe prison was only slightly less desirable than "home"?

By screaming in horror, did some not just play straight into the hands of bigots? Were the residents of James Turner St really any different to any poor area throughout history? Were there no professional beggars in Roman times? No thieves in Tudor times? Was Fagin just a product of Dicken's febrile imagination?

Surely the real issue is that streets like the one I grew up in are gone forever? We sold the nicest homes and herded the unfortunate or undesirable into ever smaller ghettoes of misery and failure. No role models to support and guide (which makes White Dee even more remarkable) no-one to live up to, only others as unfortunate as the next to look down upon and judge?

For me, the most revealing part of Benefit Street was watching the reactions of some viewers trying to pretend that all people are equal, living in their own near-perfect image. They're not and they never have been. Who was "helping" the shoplifter to break his destructive cycle? Who was guiding Fungi to get well other than the saintly Dee? Where was all this support promised by successive governments to break destructive cycles?

If you take a group of people with nothing - and I don't just mean materially. I mean people with no hope, little education, broken homes and no opportunities and simply take away the money they rely on to live, has our country really become so stupid thast they don't realise that some of those people will commit crimes rather than watch their children starve? Even less palatable, that some will commit crimes just for the fun and ease of it? It's happened all through history, why would today be any different?

For me, the lasting thought that echoed through my mind long after the programme finished was the impression that making people starve was no more likely to breed "moral fibre" and "bootstrap striving" than it ever was. The "help and support" we're promised - as ever - is still a million miles from James Turner Street. I expect more howls of outrage as crime soars and homelessness explodes, but none of the underlying causes will be addressed any more than they ever were. The Smoggys will claw their way to better times, just as they always have and the Dannys will rob their way in and out of jail, just as they always have.

The only difference now is that it's their turn to be front and centre in the "Freak Show" of history that well meaning lefties and bigoted righties would rather pretend never existed.


  1. Good assessment of a deliberately provocative programme.

  2. What a fantastic response to this programme. I have always said everyone deserves a chance, but some just dont want to be helped.

  3. Good write up Sue. I guess we shouldn't look beyond Channel 4's need for viewers as a reason for a programme about various benefit claimants who (surprise, surprise) happen to live in a close proximity to eachother. Much better than Eastenders, which is NOT real life! Lol.

  4. People will say that Danny & Fungi should get a job but who is going to give them a chance knowing that they will probably fail at the first hurdles. Fungi admitted he can't read or write & since he can't seem to manage his life very well needs lots of support. Danny hides from life in jail IMO, does he have any hope of a job - not likely considering his record.
    The show was very unbalanced but I see chancers like those 2 every day in my own scheme.

  5. I see your point Sue and I do agree so far. However what most people were objecting to is the fact that this is sanctioned government propaganda made by a production company headed by two people with links to the conservatives. Also this is not the only example of this type of programming, what about "On Benefits and Proud"? And there have been others which dont come to mind at the moment

    The other thing people were objecting to is the backlash and threats made by trolls on twitter. Whether this is what ch4 wanted it is what they achieved and shows just how much hostility there is today to scroungers.

    I never lived on a council estate so cannot speak from experience. However as others pointed out, where are the documentaries on tax dodgers or mps fiddling the country out of millions. Whether there have aleays been characters like these, would you class this as balanced and unbiased programme making?

    1. Well, Saints and sinners made me furious, but this didn't. I thought it was fairly unbiased in lots of ways. Of course I realise these programmes wouldn't be made at all if they didn't suit the political status quo - I've spent most of the last 4 years saying exactly that and I lament the lack of balance in this very article.

      But if you say you didn't ever live on streets like James Turner St, how do you know if it was balanced or biased? The trolls jumped on the shoplifter, but as I point out, what aboiut White Dee? Smoggy? They were great characters doing their best.
      I think Danny was just too unpalatable for some which led to howls of outrage, but there are Dannys everywhere.
      It didn't enrage me as other programmes have and left me thinking.

  6. Oh "Saints and Scroungers" was one of the other ones!

    1. There is a rich man, sitting alone in a big house, somewhere in a remote location in deepest darkest England, listening to Beethoven, ( No offence Ludwig), who will not be happy when he takes his last breath in this life, because he has lived his life in the same world as other people who he believes deserve less air than he has breathed. He has no justified reason for his feelings, that's just the kind of person he has always been, but he is satisfied that the government has done all it can to appease him and the government is satisfied too............................

  7. Lets forget about the politics, the politicians and the welfare reform for a moment and look at what programmes such as this really do. What do they do for me, what is the good, effective and educational outcome for me and how is it going to make my life any better... its not.. this programme has done nothing to make my life as a *benefit scrounger* any better. Infact, all its done is riled and strengthened the opinions of those who think everyone on benefits is a scrounger. I am tarred with the same brush because that is all people see. Why cant media portray what its like for bonafide claimants. Why not ask us how we feel and how it affects our lives to be portrayed like this. All it does is turn people more against people and divides society. I never dreamed that I would be sacked by email because suddenly my body let me down and my whole life would change, but it did.. and it can happen to anyone, no one is immune.. I am just sick and tired of worrying about being seen laughing and being happy for the fear of ridicule that nothing is wrong with me because I dont look ill ... surely enough is enough.. ban those type of docu soaps.. it does not represent the majority and those who are quick to judge are just too short sighted to see that..

  8. Best review of 'Benefit Street' I have seen so far. Very balanced and sober.

  9. I know many people like those featured on Benefits Street, so I wasn't in the least outraged by most of the programme. What did flabber my gast was Danny's antics and his brazenness. He was delighted to share his tips on circumventing shop alarms and completely unashamed about selling on stolen goods. He displayed no furtiveness or embarrassment about any of it. In front of a film crew! Those I know who do the odd bit of lifting are very discrete about it and certainly don't shout about it from the rooftops. I hope Danny gets more time at HMP - not that it will bother him.

    1. The Danny character came across as an angry, somewhat mad loser who obviously wanted to be caught. Who in their right mind goes on TV to show off their criminal skills? And to what extent do you think the programme makers are complicit acessories to his crimes?

      What really gives this show away as propaganda, I think, are the almost subliminal bits that you might not even notice until someone points them out - like the repeated shots of fly-infested rubbish piled up in the streets and kids playing on abandoned, scummy looking matresses.

  10. I'm really glad you wrote this, Sue, because neither was I outraged about the programme as many others were. In fact, I was impressed by the community spirit and that it what shone through to me (even though I abhor the fact that this is what the programme was supposed to be about and they sensationalised it by the title). It may, as you say, focus on others' situations in the next few episodes. But 'White Dee' was helping her neighbours navigate the benefits system and she was trying to prevent Fungi from drinking too much by looking after his money. Smoggy was helping them all as you say and cared about them as human beings. Fungi said in passing that he was 'fiddled with as a kid'. Having worked in the addictions field I'm all too aware how people having had such experiences go onto abuse drugs or alcohol to avoid painful memories of abuse. The Twitter-venom brigade would no doubt come out with the same bile for their abusers so where does their empathy go when these abused children grow up into alcoholics or drug addicts? They're just incapable of thinking things through. They've been brainwashed and whipped up into hating all drug addicts because they are incapable of thinking for themselves. This is exactly what the government wants and is the successful result of years of propaganda.

    By the way, who were the benefits cheats? I don't remember seeing any.

  11. Really brilliant blog post. One of the most far and balanced I've seen re this particular programme in contrast to Twitter and recent interviews on the news where people are taking a very extreme view.

    Do you have an email address you can be contacted on? I'd really like to ask you something about guest posting on your blog if that's something you'd consider?

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