So, I watched a lot of television last night. We started off with University Challenge (I only got one question right; Mad Tam got four; David smashed it – fair play to the lad), then on to Celebrity Big Brother (half of them are sex-crazed; the rest are dull; Lee Ryan is in a criminally daft class of his own, and you know it’s bad when Liz Jones is coming across as one of calmer members of the group), and I finished up with Kerry Katona’s Channel 5 documentary, My Secret Past, about dealing with her bipolar disorder – very moving and well worth a watch.
However, the programme that really grabbed my attention was Channel 4’s Benefits Street, billed as a look at the reality of life on benefits, which focused on James Turner Street, a road in the Winson Green area of Birmingham where 90% of its inhabitants are on benefits.
I was appalled, frankly, by the whole thing – I haven’t watched such a manipulative piece of television in a long, long time. It was exploitative too – needless to say, the people featured on the programme have spoken of their anger at being misled about the objective of the series, and their concern about online death threats they’ve received. I half expected David Cameron’s name to be featured as an executive producer in the closing credits, such was the overwhelming stench of Tory propaganda around it. At a time when such scrutiny is on the welfare system, this hugely biased series quite clearly intends to portray it in a totally negative way, and, looking with dismay at the outrage about “doleite scum” on Twitter, it’s done its job.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not naïve enough to think that there aren’t people who scrounge, who play the system, who supplement their income on benefits through criminal means, who have no intention of ever gaining employment. But to solely focus on benefit claimants like that and attempt to pass it off as the “reality” of life on benefits is so very wrong.
I’ve been on benefits before too. Benefits Street did not portray what the reality was like for me, or for other people I know who have had to claim. I was only out of work for a relatively short period of time (five months) but it was without doubt the most soul-destroying process I’ve ever had to endure and one which I hope never to have to repeat. Thankfully, I was lucky in that I had semi-decent qualifications, so found work fairly quickly, and also my family ensured that I would never go hungry or go without a roof over my head. However, I’m still, years later, suffering from the financial repercussions of being on benefits for only five months. And I’m one of the lucky ones – I’ve found work, and my family would never see me go without. What about those residing in Winson Green, which has had the highest rate of unemployment in the country for the last eight years? They’re trapped in a vicious circle and the current system is going to do nothing to change things for them.
I eagerly anticipate a series featuring people struggling to cope with the bedroom tax, or those who are sanctioned for up to three months and have to live on hardship rates due to miscommunication between Work Programmes and Job Centres, or how about long-term Incapacity Benefit claimants, who have been deemed fit for work by the infamous ATOS medicals and have to claim Job Seeker’s Allowance even though they’re clearly not capable of doing so? Sadly, I think we’ll be waiting a long time to see the other side of this particular coin represented in the media.