Benefits Britain: The live debate was broadcast this week. Reality television meets explosive talk show as Channel 4 use Question Time producers Mentorn to capture the reaction to their ratings hit Benefit Street. It was perfectly timed, live, at the end of the series. The amount of journalistic noise and publicity that the show has garnered veers from accusations of ‘poverty porn’ and the demonization of the poor from the left, to attacks on benefit claimants as ‘scroungers’ and ‘scumbags’ from the right. As John Ellis has already outlined so well here, the problem with the show itself was the lack of responsibility the programme makers Love Productions and Channel 4 had to the residents of John Turner Street, who gave their time freely and who were mostly ill-prepared for the consequences.
It seems that in Benefits Street: The Last Word, aired just before the live debate programme, the participants were given space at least to speak back to the noise they have generated. We learn that Fungi has had to move out of the street, possibly for his own safety, and after having his benefits stopped because the show revealed that he did odd jobs for meals. Young parents Mark and Becky have struggled to find work because they both have learning difficulties, although because of the show Mark has been offered a ‘real’ paid job as a labourer (not a zero hours contract of the kind he tried on the show). White Dee, the street’s matriarch, puts the record straight on her ambitions for her children, whilst joking that maybe she’ll become an MP. That the show has had real world consequences for individuals begs a serious debate about television’s responsibility, but just in case we are in any doubt about the value of the show itself, when asked by the film makers whether it has done anything good, the participants repeat the mantra: ‘its opened up a very sore subject’. Then after the break we have the live debate to prove the point.
It’s a rather simple point, but the lives of those on benefit as a site of national concern has been raging and sore for a long time, predating David Cameron’s 2007 ‘Broken Britain’ Campaign. A very bright interrogatory spotlight has been shining upon Britain’s poor providing much media fodder for at least the last decade. Channel 4 is claiming a space for Benefits Street as educational expositional documentary, for instance see the Channel 4 news page on ‘5 Things Benefits Street tells us about being human’ . When the programme has been applauded it has been for putting a human face on the ‘benefit debate’, producing a good degree of affection for the characters alongside the judgemental invective. Whilst watching it, I felt that some important compassionate narratives were being told: Dee’s caring for the hapless addict Fungi, the violent exploitation of migrant workers, Mark’s efforts to get help from the food bank with the wrong paperwork, the door-to-door sales of 50p items to those who’s benefits have been stopped, are a few. But those narratives are not the ones that get picked up in the invective. It is the still and repetitive images of the participants that generate the rage: the constant smoking, the sitting (in houses or on sofas in the road), the shouting, the drinking etc. that get distilled and used as evidence to support the rhetoric of the lazy ‘scrounger’. There is of course much to discuss on our television courses, but the point I want to take up here is the diversionary claim by Channel 4 to have ‘opened up the debate’ steering away any interrogation of the socio-political role of their documentary film making.
It is a privileged notion of representational politics and socially-committed documentary that to make a political story ‘human’ is to give another side in order to generate greater levels of understanding. This was also championed by 1990s television talk shows that saw personal stories meet institutional representatives in debates which perhaps briefly gave us a glimpse of a proper ‘public sphere’. On Benefit Street: The Live Debate residents were lined up in the front row on the left, whilst journalists and columnists of different political allegiances were lined up on the right. The positions of authority were given over to the politicians who took the seats on the stage, Mike Penning, Minister of State for Work and Pensions and his shadow opposite Labour MP Chris Bryant. And the host was that seriously qualified social commentator Richard Bacon: who opens with, and constantly repeats that, ‘this will be a rowdy show…expect strong language’ and he is delighted when it comes, ‘I warned you there might be some fruity language’, just in case we missed it. Of course the show was completely and utterly sensational, combative and ‘pimped’ on Twitter[i] and it was a ratings success.
Benefit Britain: The Live Debate might have presented an opportunity for Channel 4 to be more reflexive and accountable for its programming making. Unfortunately it served only to reinforce the problem of participants bearing the full weight of representations that were not of their own making. The show opens with Richard Bacon questioning Dee’s playful comment from the earlier show that she should be an MP. He pointedly asks her how she could be qualified when she hasn’t worked for six years. The irony of Dee’s statement was completely lost as she states ‘who would want to be an MP?’ Then Telegraph columnist Alison Pearson is forced to bring her written criticism of Dee to her face by suggesting that Dee’s competencies as a ‘one woman citizen advice bureau’ mean that she does not look like she is suffering from depression. Bacon takes the point to Dee directly, to which she confidently retorts, ‘it’s not me twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week’. Dee here is being asked to make her personal story speak to the whole question of incapacity benefit and she skilfully responds with reference to the editing process. But then when Spectator columnist Douglas Murray is forced to repeat his feelings on the irresponsibility of having children on the breadline by Bacon asking him if any of ‘these’ people shouldn’t have children, young parents Becky and Mark are rendered completely silent, as they remain throughout the whole of the show.
There are two sides to this. One is that Alison Pearson and Douglas Murray fair really poorly as their abstract ideas are rendered heartless and patronising when facing ‘real’ people and their more complex lives. Indeed Alison Pearson leaves after the first advert break, not to return, which left Owen Jones feeling rather triumphant about the success of the show for the left. But the other side is what it feels like to be the ‘human face’ of ‘the problem’. At one point entrepreneur self-made millionaire Charlie Pimlico applauds Channel 4 for ‘exposing the problem’ to which Dee is outraged: ‘Exposing what? That we look after each other?’ The participants of the programme have come to represent a life on benefits without knowing that was going to be the focus or indeed the title of the programme, and that ought to be the subject of some debate about media responsibility.
As Charlie Brooker has already pointed out, whilst Channel 4 claim the programme is about community spirit, it’s not called Community Spirit, and so whilst the process of selection, of distilling and of condensing stories is blindingly obvious, it must also be denied. In the setting up of the debate between residents and numerous political commentators, only three of the residents actually speak, and the programme makers themselves are mostly invisible. Throughout the one hour debate, positioned in the neutral centre, they make two statements. Ralph Lee of Channel 4 suggests that this is a broader portrait of life on benefits and Richard McKerrow of Love Productions reiterates Channel 4’s public service remit suggesting that they have got young people talking about serious political issues. Hurrah they have ‘opened up the debate’ – case closed.
What is obvious from the title of the debate show, Benefits Britain: The Live Debate, is that Channel 4 wanted a show about the benefit debate but were not reflexive or brave enough to produce a debate about Benefit Street itself. This act removes their agency in the representation and leaves the residents completely exposed, as though the programme was unmediated exposition. By the last half of the show the programme itself was all but lost: Dee’s irony and humour in the show is lost on Bacon, Chris Bryant the Labour shadow minister had not even seen any of the show until that morning, and the editing of Dee’s life is lost on Alison Pearse and many of the pundits. Despite mention of the cutting out of the working couple, the opportunity to get the programme makers to talk about why, was also lost. Twice Dee, infuriated, tries to speak to the gap between the process of the programme-making and her life as representing an abstract bigger picture:
“I don’t know figures do I, but at the end of the day you spent eighteen months up to two years filming people that were working, you filmed old age pensioners, you came to parties, filmed open days, community spirit… and BANG two weeks Benefit Street, five of us.”
And yet the programme makers were allowed to keep their heads down as the ‘benefit debate’ returned to the politicians. The filming, editing and production process were repeatedly side-lined in order not to get in the way of the more ‘fruity’ discussion, which was actually the same old debate about benefits that we hear and read all the time. The programme makers were mostly almost invisible and never called to explain any of their many decisions, whilst the residents must over-represent themselves in relation to the body of people on benefit, simultaneously being taken to task for specific things they said on the show. Any discussion of Benefit Street as television was given short shrift, and despite all the political commentators, as per usual there was no media academic. Given all the talk about television’s increasing self-reflexivity, it seems that remains a technical exercise, not one which can stretch to its duty of social responsibility. ‘Open up the debate’, throw the fireworks elsewhere, and remain invisible: invisibility these days is much more powerful in any case, as we know from the bankers.
Helen Wood is Professor of Media and Communication at the University of Leicester. She has published Talking With Television (2009) University of Illinois Press, with Beverley SkeggsReality Television and Class (2011) BFI Palgrave and Reacting to Reality Television (2012) Routledge. She is editor of European Journal of Cultural Studies and is currently working on the AHRC project ‘A History of Television for Women’.
[i] Thank you Faye Woods.