CHANNEL Five featured Hull last Monday in the latest edition of its Benefits Britain series. More to the point, they depicted a narrow and selective segment of Hull life.
Hull’s recent locally-won progress in becoming 2017 City of Culture merited only a passing five-second mention. Our Siemens breakthrough was ignored.
This misrepresentation of Hull threw more light on the lazy stereotypes dominating the thinking of certain London-based programme makers than on the subject matter.
It indicates an underlying political agenda. There are people living on benefits in Surbiton. Why didn’t Channel Five film there?
This Benefits Britain series is not exactly original. Over the past five years we’ve seen a proliferation of “documentaries” about benefits, or slight variations on that basic theme. It fascinates certain programme makers and some in the shadows behind them.
Channel Four’s Benefit Busters featured Hull in 2009. We saw Hull North’s Orchard Park in Channel Four’s 2010 Tower Block of Commons. The first series of Channel Four’s Skint in 2013 was widely seen as damaging for Scunthorpe. Grimsby residents recently organised a petition against a second series of Skint being made in Grimsby.
Last year, Channel Five produced On Benefits and Proud. This was part of a trilogy that also included Shoplifters and Proud and Pickpockets and Proud. Could they make the dog whistle much louder?
As much as widespread poverty isn’t healthy for crime levels, it would be refreshing if programme-makers took as much interest in white collar criminality among City bankers.
Birmingham MPs told me about the selective and distorted way their area was portrayed in Channel Four’s Benefits Street early this year. Against this backdrop, we had some idea of what Hull could expect from Benefits Britain. It lived down to our low expectations.
I have clear memories of watching ITV’s World in Action as I grew up. This programme would explore issues such as welfare, but in depth, asking challenging questions. They would seek answers and insights that inform the policy agenda. To be fair, these high editorial standards can still be seen in the BBC’s Panorama and Channel Four’s Dispatches.
There was little of this in Skint, Benefits Street and now Benefits Britain. Indeed, on Monday, we heard disgraceful voice-over comments about “benefits babies”. It was filmed and edited to show almost exclusively negative aspects of Hull.
We saw none of the work of those building a stronger local economy. This must have gone on the cutting room floor.
It is economic regeneration producing high-quality jobs that is the main hope for reducing both benefits dependency and the growing dependency on food banks that we’ve seen under the coalition.
The benefits issues was covered in a simplistic, shallow and exploitative way, designed to provoke a predictable reaction from the audience, sneering at people and whole communities who, whatever faults some have, aren’t the most fortunate.
Some Hull people who appeared have since said that their comments were edited and distorted. There is some debate about the best way to respond to these productions. They will always get what they want, even if most people boycott them.
I’ve concluded that we need an alternative fair, honest and balanced TV portrayal of Hull.
An experienced journalist with a deep understanding of Hull could work with a reputable broadcaster, to produce a high quality response.
It would show the positives as well as the negatives
On the negatives, it would not just show people sitting at home or standing outside the Job Centre. It would cover Hull’s challenges in a serious, in-depth way that seeks out the often complex causes of social and economic problems.
It may also ask why so many in work struggle with the cost of living and whether Hull has been getting a fair deal from policy-makers in Whitehall. There would be awkward questions for all those taking part – not just the benefits claimants.
It would also show the progress Hull has made. It would feature the inspirational work of local people in business, the Council, the voluntary sector and many others. It would give a flavour of a pioneering city ambitiously building future prosperity.
We would see local engineering apprentices, Hull University, The Deep, and the growing digital economy.
Only such fair, balanced and intelligent reporting would treat Hull and TV viewers with the appropriate respect.
In a free society, Channel Five have the right to make their shows. Hull people have a right to criticise shoddy “journalism” – and to answer back.
Diana Johnson is the Labour MP for Hull North.