Channel Four’s TV documentary Benefits Street has provoked a storm of criticism. The Great Grimsby MP Austin Mitchell says it’s just bad journalism.
Channel Four faces a flood of well-justified complaints about Benefits Street which has turned the poor into an entertainment and an object of contempt.
This is a nasty reversal of the channel’s previously progressive and stimulating role but it makes me particularly angry because the process has now spread to Grimsby as Southern Smart Alecs spend a few hours, or at best days, in our community, ignore all that’s good and turn the consequences of the death of industry in this, and other communities, into entertainment for others.
Journalism has never been as nasty as this. Once a procession of brilliant writers from Mrs Gaskell to JB Priestley and George Orwell came North to paint a sympathetic picture of a lifestyle which has always been different and harder, particularly during recessions, to the South.
Now competition and populism have driven out conscience, sympathy and honesty to replace them with cliché. Today the practitioners are not concerned to give a fair picture of Grimsby or the rest of the proud North. Instead they pander to populist prejudices. Because that’s what sells.
This is the new journalism, better described as Crap Journalism. It reports only on the poor side of communities struggling against the harsh realities of decline, as so many one-industry towns still are.
It designates them as Crap Towns (a category which now includes Grimsby and Hull, city of what one must presume is Crap Culture), far away from the joys and sophistication of the Great Wen and the South East.
No mention of our vigorous efforts at development, the fact that government has robbed us of £200 million a year of income from benefits, jobs and local government grants, that devoted teachers are driving up standards or of the exciting innovations and developments in small businesses.
It looks to me as though Channel Four’s Skint will faithfully portray the consequences, just as it did in Scunthorpe, while conning the naive that they’ll be having their say, “putting their case” and “speaking up” if only for the negative futility helplessness brings.
This is a direct result of the intense competition and increasing desperation in the media. Sensitivity is out. Loud-mouthed prejudice and sneering are the result because they’re the only way to survive. Richard McKerrow, chief executive of Love Productions, pointed out that there are no fixed slots for current affairs and social issues any more. Instead “now you have to find different, innovative ways of making sure that serious issues stay in peak.” That means you get a slot by offering shock entertainment.
That’s easily done by demonising the poor to stir the anger of an audience which sees them enjoying beer, drugs and huge flat-screen tellies, all (they feel) at their expense.
What’s more, there’s money in it. Love Productions made big profits last year. From my experience with them in Tower Block of Commons I can see why and how. When I refused to go around the Orchard Park Estate in tracky bottoms and a t-shirt (a garb I saw no other pensioner wearing) or to live on £100 a week (which I couldn’t) I was lampooned.
The programme ignored the efforts of the schools and the youth club, as well as the problems of a council which hadn’t got the money to either pull the tower blocks down or bring them up to decent standards. My own efforts to bring the residents together with their MP to discuss their problems were turned into a row about living on £100 a week. They also cut out every moment of human sympathy and at the end just went home. There’s money in poverty, but not for the poor. I wonder what the residents of Benefits Street were paid?
There are only two things lacking in crap journalism. Honesty and integrity. You have to live in a community to understand its strengths and weaknesses. No day tripper can paint a true picture, nor can a film crew coming in intermittently to stay in comfortable hotels.
Day tripper journalists live by conning the stupid, the exhibitionist and the pathetic into believing that television is there to help them, when in fact its purpose is to put them on show like animals in a zoo and then head back to well-heeled affluence down South, leaving the concerned, the supportive and the committed majority in the community they’ve maligned fuming impotently at the betrayal of everything they stand and work for.