‘Benefits Street’ documentary sparks controversy

The television broadcaster Channel 4 has begun showing a five-part documentary series about people living in a deprived street in Birmingham. The series – called 'Benefits Street' – was filmed in James Turner Street in the Winson Green area of Birmingham: the area has a very high rate of unemployment and the street has many residents who rely on benefits for their income.
 
Channel 4 says the series is aimed at following residents of 'Benefits Street' as they navigate their way through life on the bottom rung of Britain's economic ladder, revealing the reality of life on benefits. It says that despite the challenges the residents face during a period of austerity, with jobs remaining hard to come by and benefits being squeezed, the street also has a strong sense of community.
 
But a number of commentators have expressed unease about the series. One called it a 'toxic caricature of Britain’s poor', and added: 'Deliberately or not, Channel 4 yesterday reinforced the fiction that all those on benefits are feckless scroungers. It’s all part of a wider austerity story, frequently repeated by the government and media, which tells us that there are two sorts of people: strivers and skivers'. The heads of some of Britain’s biggest charities reportedly accused Channel 4 of heaping 'shame and distress' on millions of sick, disabled and low-paid people.
 
Dame Anne Begg, chair of the House of Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee, said: 'What struck me is that it was called Benefits Street and then three-quarters or more of the programme actually followed one storyline which was about a petty criminal and shoplifter and how he lived on the proceeds of his crime, rather than the reality of what people face when they live on benefits... There wasn't anybody who was a typical benefit claimant featured on the programme at all. There was a huge imbalance... It said that three-quarters of the street are on benefits, and then in the next breath talked about unemployment, but of course half of people who are on benefits are actually in work. Benefits and social security payments don't just go to people who are out of work'.
 
Source: Channel 4 Episode Guide
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Publication date: 
Jan 6 2014