Benefits Street – which side of the fence are you on?

As yet another program airs to show the ‘truth’ about the easy life of scrounging benefits claimants and the masses of Twitter in the UK rage about #benefitstreet I thought I’d take a look.

A road of 137 houses with 90% receiving benefits. Well that’s a crowd drawer on it’s own, surely. Front page news even. It’s interesting but I don’t recall seeing a definition of ‘benefits’ in relation to the show. For instance, if a resident of James Turner Street is working but receiving child benefits are they included in this 90%? Details like that change everything.

If you look on the twitter account for the company that made the series (@loveprodhouse) you’ll see they don’t actually interact with anyone, just pretty much spam messages looking for people for their next show. More telling is the description they give for themselves:

LOVE PRODUCTIONS is a UK-based independent production company set up in October 2004. We specialise in thought-provoking, entertaining television.

i.e. Their self-admitted mandate is to be contentious.

This was just going to be another footnote but clearly a lot of people on both sides of the fence have strong feeling about the matter so I’ll throw in my thoughts. Personally I see both sides, or all the sides really, depending where you are standing.

The television company is filling a slot, they will spin it any way they think it will get viewers, ideally without too many complaints being upheld against them. For then it’s just another job, it’s about the money they make selling the documentary to the networks, who care about the money they pull in from advertisers. A high-rated show is good for business. Especially if it suits a political agenda and/or personal bias along the way.

Then there are the people on benefits which fall into at least six groups:

Those that really want to works and genuinely can’t find it.

Those that want to work but can’t for other reasons, whether health or family or another reason.

Those whose combined benefits are so high and the wages for work they can do (if they can even find a job) are so low they literally can’t afford to escape the welfare system. It’s not right but is something the governments created.
(Random example to make the point. They find a job, £6 an hour – about £225 a week. It costs then £60 a week in buses and trains to get to there, travelling 3 hours a day. So already they are down to £165 – less tax and N.I, and they need to pay a baby-sitter or nursery a few hours a week. Out of what’s left they can’t afford the rent because they can’t claim that now – and that’s before they think about minor details like eating, let alone luxuries like iPhones on a monthly tariff, TV licences, so forth. Which is, of course why people working and barely scraping by feel so angry about people on the dole with money for cigs, booze, big tv’s, the latest smartphone – appearing on television saying how bad off they are).

Those that have frankly given up all hope and go from day-to-day in a haze of depression.

The ne’er-do-wells happy to manage on welfare, getting up when they want, dossing round the house playing on their (latest) console before going our boozing with their mates until all hours.

… and the tiny minority that media and politicians especially like to lavish attention on, those actively, often fraudulently milking the system for all they can (and working on the side as well).

You can equally and in my opinion fairly point a large finger at the politicians, banks, media and big businesses responsible for the entire mess. Besides the fact decades of successive governments have fiddled the system to suit themselves while blaming everything on the last party in, there’s this observation:

If you or I cheat1 the benefit system out of £100 it’s a criminal offense.
1 (cheat used here means defraud, naturally)

If an MP cheats2 the expenses system out of £1,000, it’s ‘allowed because we all do it’ and they’ll pay if back if they must, but don’t see what all the fuss is about – then they get it back another way. (As many point out, try doing that with your works expenses account…)
2 (The figure may be 10x greater but it’s only really fiddling expenses, that’s not really a crime. (Whereby cheat is reduced to a matter of semantics))

Then there’s the corporations like Google, Amazon, and so forth in a long, long list that, if, totalled, they cheat3 the tax system out of £100,000,000,000 – a year – or more, that’s not fraud, it’s accounting.
3 (If you are going to accuse our client of cheating, of theft, you’d better have the evidence to back it up. It is our duty to shareholders to creatively assign costs and losses to write-off profits via off-shore accounts in such a manner as to maximise dividends and profits. Our lawyers will be in touch in due course. You have been served noticed. (When laws are bought it’s not cheating.))

I don’t have a clue about the true figures and frankly I doubt the government does, but I’ll wager the sum Google alone avoids paying via loop holes and creative accounting is more that all the annual benefit fraud each year. One of the graphs I glance at say business tax evasion is over a £100 billion a year, but as their £500 an hour accountants will point out, they aren’t breaking any law. To my mind, if the government knows there is a loop that allows (their buddies) to evade a staggering hundred billion a year in taxes – and year after year after year does not close the exploit, then the government has to be guilty of defrauding the population as a whole. Thoughts?

Getting back to the point of this particular series.

When you are filming for a year and choose exactly what to cut, it will say the message intended. Of these below the Mail is the most balanced opinion. With 137 houses to pick and choose from it’s not so hard to find a few that will revel in being a ‘star’ and wear the notoriety as a badge. Equally, as has been claimed, there will be others that have said one thing and found a crucial part of the interview left out, changing the meaning.

How Love Productions, the company behind ‘Benefits Street’ describe their documentary series

This observational documentary series reveals the reality of life on benefits, as the residents of one of Britain’s most benefit-dependent streets invite cameras into their tight-knit community. It’s a place where residents face challenges such as bringing up children in poverty, low levels of education and training, drug and alcohol dependency, and crime. But it also has a strong sense of community, where people look out for each other and where small acts of kindness can go a long way.

What Channel 4 says : C4: Benefits Street

This documentary series reveals the reality of life on benefits, as the residents of one of Britain’s most benefit-dependent streets invite cameras into their tight-knit community.

How reviews it : TV Guide – Benefits Street, Season 1 Episode 1 of 5

New series. According to some, welfare payments are an easy route to a life of luxury and foreign holidays at the expense of hard-working taxpayers. However, as austerity continues to bite, this documentary visits the residents of one of Britain’s most benefit-dependent streets to reveal the daily challenges they face, such as poverty, illiteracy, and drug and alcohol problems. Yet there’s also a strong sense of community, and small acts of kindness between neighbours can go a long way

Daily Mirror report : Benefits Street stars hit out at Channel 4 documentary : "They’ve ruined people’s lives"

They claim they took part after being assured the series would be about neighbourly togetherness and community spirit in James Turner Street, Winson Green, Birmingham.

But they say the show paints a rather different picture, making residents out to be anti-social benefit scroungers, irresponsible parents, drug-takers and foul-mouthed wasters.

And the Daily Mail : They wanted to make our street look like a slum : Jobless stars of Benefits Street documentary accuse Channel 4 of ‘manipulative’ stitch-up.

Benefits Street features the lives of several jobless living in Birmingham
90% of those in the 137-house street claim one or more benefit
However, some complain series has ‘made them look like slums’
Others say producers ‘manipulated vulnerable people’

Given one resident was quite happy to be filmed shoplifting and telling the film crew* how to avoid the security systems it’s no surprise to me to see headlines like the following appear in the tabloids the news day:
Police to watch controversial Channel 4 documentary Benefits Street to investigate crime

* Naturally the ‘responsible’ filming crew let him do this, after all they are just they to record, nothing more and it is so great for ratings and viral promotion.

On a more positive note, ‘Smoggy’ the 50p man came across as a great guy and was rewarded with several job offers. Here’s his story in the Birmingham Mail:
Benefits Street star ‘Smoggy’ gets three job offers and daughter’s respect after TV turn

Here’s a selection of quotes from Twitter in the past day to so :

“I suppose it’s just a coincidence that #c4 is airing #benefitstreet on the same day Osborne announces more cuts to welfare benefits.”

“We’ve had a load of programmes on so-called benefits cheats. I’d love to see a programme on millionaire tax dodgers/bankers. #benefitstreet”

“Why am I even winding myself up watching this #benefitstreet Smashing how their all “skint” yet have iPhones, decent Tv’s, fags etc”

“They can’t get a job but they manage to have a wide screen tv, iPhone, alcohol and cigarettes. Priorities much? #BenefitStreet”

“DWP has 3000+ staff after benefit fraud of £1.2bn; HMRC has 300 staff after tax evasion of £70bn+ #benefitsstreet !! ”

“As for well-off TV producers trying to further their career by turning the poor against the poor: You. Are. The. Pits”

“Where’s the TV show about low-paid workers struggling on in-work benefits or unemployed people desperate for work? ”

And a sane voice of reason:

“’Stop demonising people on benefits, demonise bankers, the tax avoiders.’ How about we demonise no one?! ”

It should also be noted that of the 137 households in the street they focused on just a dozen for the 5 episodes, individuals and families that would produce… thought-provoking, entertaining television. Something to bear in mind if you feel your anger and frustration rising. You are being manipulated by the media, hmmm.

Comments are of course welcome below.

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