Controversial “Benefits Street”

Published: 21 January 2013

Country: UK


More than 56.000 people have signed the online petition calling Channel 4 to stop broadcasting TV documentary Benefits Street about the life in a street in Birmingham where most of the residents rely on benefits.

The TV programme has provoked a fierce criticism because of the negative depiction of the people living on benefits and launched a whole debate about media responsibility regarding fair portrayal and diversity.

“Benefits Street” presents the life of a community in James Turner Street in Birmingham and its critics argue that it features mostly people who live on benefits, as well as the shoplifters, former alcoholics and drug users. A working couple, who asked to be anonymous, said they had been filmed for a year but were not included in the final cut of “Benefits Street”, reports BBC News. The makers of the show said one reason for the couple’s exclusion was because one of them was a benefits officer.

After the broadcasting of the first episode, there has been a wave of hate speech and threats. The show has been accused of misrepresenting the reality of the people, picking to show only negative characters, and thus reproduces stereotypes and myths.

The protagonists of the series claimed that have been misled as they were informed that they would participate in a series about community spirit instead of taking a part in the show mainly portraying people on benefits. The residents of the street that have been involved in the show demand now a written apology from the broadcaster, before they take part in a scheduled debate with the producers after final episode.

Chanel 4 representatives, refusing the accusations, officially stated that the programme is “fair and balanced observational documentary and that “the main contributors have been offered the opportunity to view the programme before it has been broadcast and to make any comments about their contributions“.

Main argument against the programme is that it has demonized benefit claimants, inciting hate and violence, and reinforced the already distorted opinion of society about the distribution of benefits. A survey shows that there is “widespread ignorance about spending on welfare” as according to the polls, people on average think that 41% of the entire welfare budget goes on benefits to the unemployed people, while the true figure is about 3%.

On the other hand, there are voices claiming that the programme has just highlighted the truth and the real problems of the welfare system, but also underlined positive characteristics of the close-knit community, like solidarity and strength. The show has indeed stressed the family spirit of the neighborhood and in some cases tried to explain why members of the community are not able to work or why they have chosen a specific way to earn money. Despite these examples though, the overall picture remains negative.

“The subtext is clear: this is Britain — we don’t talk about poverty. Or if we do, we never show its full, sickening extent”, writes Fraser Nelson of The Spectator.

The programme has been aired at the time when the conversation about welfare policy is on the top of the political agenda in the UK and there are concerns that “Benefits Street” will promote the stigmatization of benefit claimants in total.

Owen Jones wonders in his column in The Independent “where are the shows about the wealthy tax-dodgers who deprive the Exchequer of £25bn each year, bankers who plunged the world into economic catastrophe and continue to thrive as others suffer the consequences?”

In response and in order to reverse the effect of “Benefits Street”, Stephen Reid, a technology consultant working with social change organisations, set up the website “Parasite Street”, a web-platform showing the subsidies gone to the rich people of the country.