Channel 4’s controversial reality show Benefits Street has garnered record viewing figures but has also been criticised by charity heads for demonising the poor.
Oasis founder Rev Steve Chalke called the programme ‘an appalling misuse of the documentary genre’ and said he was ‘deeply saddened’ that Channel 4 had chosen to broadcast it. Chalke told The Daily Mirror that Benefits Street was ‘intentionally designed to misrepresent, denigrate and distort the image of the local neighbourhood’ in Birmingham, where Oasis runs an academy school.
‘The storm of abuse the series has whipped up,’ director of Church Action on Poverty, Niall Cooper told the Ekklesia website last month, ‘is based on prejudice, on the part of both TV commissioners and the general public.’ Several charity heads, including Chalke and the heads of MIND and the Children’s Society, have written to The Telegraph, urging Channel 4 to reconsider their broadcasting of a show they called ‘grossly unbalanced’
Big Issue founder John Bird, however, was among several voices who welcomed the show for ‘shining a bright spotlight on the destructive welfare culture’ in Britain. Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith even referenced the show in a speech.
But many have criticised the programme on grounds of accuracy as well. Paul Morrison, policy adviser to the Joint Public Issues Team of the URC, Methodist and Baptist churches in Britain, commented in an article that he found it ‘appalling’ that such a television programme might be cited in Parliament as a justification for the government’s welfare reform agenda. ‘People inaccurately believe that a large proportion of benefits goes to people who get huge payments,’ he said. ‘This belief is encouraged by press and politicians…and is widely known to be false.’
The other major criticism levelled at the programme has centred around fairness. The vast majority of people receiving benefits on James Turner Street (where Benefits Street is filmed) are pensioners. The next largest group is made up of disabled people. Unemployed people make up a relatively small proportion. A website called parasite-street.co.uk set up in response to the show, points out that while benefit fraud costs the taxpayer £1.2bn a year, ‘profiteering by buy-to-let landlords, subsidies to too-big-to-fail banks, poverty pay by rich corporations and tax-dodging by the super-rich’ costs Britain £65bn. The site also names and shames individuals it believes responsible for economic injustice.
At time of going to press, Ofcom had received 945 complaints about Benefits Street, but Chalke told Christianity: ‘Ofcom is a toothless body. They can’t take poverty porn off the air.’ Channel 4 has no plans to cancel the programme.