Yesterday night saw the first episode of ‘Benefits Street’ air on Channel 4. The series tracks the day to day lives of some of the residents of ‘James Turner Street’ a street in Birmingham apparently well known for it’s bad reputation and benefit dependent inhabitants. If you didn’t see it, the chances are that you are aware of some of the controversy it sparked on social networking platforms, on the news and with the law.
The show has been accused of tactlessly and unfairly representing the residents, many of which have received death threats as a result of being part of the ‘documentary’. But this isn’t the first, and certainly wont be the last, Channel 4 documentary to elicit criticism for its crass and biased representations of sensitive issues; ‘Benefits Street’ is part of a much wider problem with Channel 4 programming, a phenomenon known as hate-watching is taking over the schedule and instead of being intellectually stimulated viewers are fobbed off and fooled into watching modern day freak shows and witch hunts masqueraded under the title of ‘Documentaries’ to the detriment of the vulnerable and underrepresented in society.
Channel 4 was set up in 1982 and from that time has been known to cater for the needs of minority religions, cultures and communities. In fact, as a public service provider Channel 4 is required, amongst other things, to:
- Make a broad range of relevant media content of high quality that, taken as a whole, appeals to the tastes and interests of a culturally diverse society;
- promote measures intended to secure that people are well informed and motivated to participate in society in a variety of ways;
- support and stimulate well-informed debate on a wide range of issues, including by providing access to information and views from around the world and by challenging established views;
- promote alternative views and new perspectives, and
- provide access to material that is intended to inspire people to make changes in their lives.
However programmes such as ‘Benefits Street’ fail to meet these standards. Yesterday’s documentary promised to track the lives of those living on the infamous ‘James Turner Street’ but instead of providing viewers with a well informed analysis, Channel 4 chased footage of shoplifting and evictions and was more concerned with providing drama than unbiased and informative material. The hour-long programme was filled with large chunks of fly-on-the-wall style footage with limited analysis made by either the narrator or interviewer. Comments such as “there’ll be riots if they don’t pay people [their benefits]” were left hanging to be interpreted by viewers in a manner not likely to be in accordance with Channel 4’s remit. The documentary gave the residents of the street little scope to explain their opinions, lifestyles and positions rendering them vulnerable and unfairly despised by a large proportion of the viewing public. Of course, this programme is not the first of its kind, the BBC often plays host to programmes dedicated to searching out benefit thieves and fraudsters during mid-morning, the difference is that viewers of shows such as ‘Saints and Scroungers’ are aware of what they are watching and are not seeking out what is supposed to be a well-informed documentary. By veiling itself as compassionate, ‘Benefits Street’ misleads its audience and risks perpetuating negative stereotypes in favour of cheap laughs and increased viewing figures, in total opposition to the channels stated purpose.
But ‘Benefits Street’ is not the only culprit. Most recently, as in directly after ‘Benfits Street’, ‘Living Dolls’ was shown, whilst in April ‘Dogging Tales’ was aired. Both shows were concerned with exploring minority fetish culture. ‘Dogging Tales’ followed some relatively inexperienced ‘Doggers’ dabbling in their fantasies in shady woodlands, but far from exploring the minority sexual fetish in a well-rounded manner, the show exploited what seemed to be vulnerable people, not quite aware of what they were undertaking. Under the guise of a documentary exploring the lives of minority sexual fetishists, Channel 4 was able to create a show that ensured cheap laughs, funny hashtags and heightened viewing figures. The channels stated purpose again seems to have been forgotten, a minimum of analysis and insight was given or even suggested, in favour of painting an eerie image of sexual deviance. The ‘Doggers’ wore creepy animal masks and interviews were spliced with images of full moons and ceremonies reminiscent of pagan rituals; the whole thing was more akin to what you would imagine a Victorian Freak Show to contain not a progressive and apparently liberal minded TV channel to produce. Making the public aware of a minority does not suffice if to do so they must to be ridiculed. Finally, ‘Psychopath Night’ was recently shown, a programme I confess to eagerly anticipating, as I believed it to be related to Jon Ronson’s popular book ‘The Psychopath Test’ and for some reason expected a reasoned and unbiased documentary, this time on a scientific subject. I was shocked then, when the show provided me with a Top 10 of movie Psychopaths, advised me on ‘How to spot a Psychopath at work’ and frequently used images of barbed-wire and chains set to supernatural horror film soundtracks to cut to advert breaks and different segments. What I expected to be an informative and scientific programme seemed like a witch-hunt, demonising ‘psychopaths’ whilst explaining them as mentally ill. Channel 4 is consistently producing inferior shows and documentaries that use controversy rather than quality to draw in their audience but by doing so are failing to meet the standards set out in their remit and, more seriously, jeopardising the peace and safety of the people they represent.
And what it all reminds me of? Recently I stumbled across ‘Honey Boo Boo’ an American television programme centred on a 6-year-old girl and her family. I was appalled at a programme that poked fun at a fully-grown woman and mother who was not fully literate raising 4 children and a grandchild. I distinctly remember being appalled that producers could make such a programme, and more so that it could be watched as light entertainment when it exposed the dire social problems at play in the country. Although it may seem a light hearted endeavour, hate-watching is an abhorrent thing, for whatever reason we may be inclined to do it, be it to make ourselves feel better about our finances, intellect, religion or sexual preferences. Producing programmes that encourage viewers to laugh or disvalue the problems that society faces, risks discouraging people trying to alleviate or eliminate them, whilst demonising people and communities places us at risk and encourages bigotry and misunderstanding. To achieve positive change we need positive representation and hate watching, as its name suggests does not provide this.