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Benefits Street shows we are quick to demonise and slow to understand

2014 January 12
by Paul Vallely

The devil has been dropped from the new baptism service being tried out by the Church of England, to make the ceremony more “accessible”. But the powers of darkness will not be too bothered. We are, after all, as a society rather good at creating our own demons.

This week alone we’ve been doing it to the poor, to immigrants, to black people, to the police, to people without jobs, to EU officials, and people who have too many children. Not to mention that bloke with the peculiar sticky-out hair, again just for looking odd.

Demonisation goes beyond criticism. It is more even than scapegoating. It occurs when we begin to conceive of an entire group of people as somehow Other.  It carries a moral subtext. In the old days the Other was more simply characterised. There was God and the Devil and even in this more secular age something of that remains. Those we demonise are represented as diabolical, a group who are somehow antithetical to the interests of right-thinking members of society.

A prime example was thrown up last week by Benefits Street, which was Channel 4’s  most popular programme in over a year, set in a road in Winson Green in Birmingham where filmmakers claimed that 90 per cent of the residents lived off state welfare payments.

For the edification of its 4.3m viewers the programme paraded a cast of petty criminals, irresponsible parents, drunks and drug-takers in a freakshow which placed these chavvy losers, squalid free-loaders and foul-mouthed wastrels in the digital stocks for voyeuristic public condemnation.  So gripping was this poverty porn that tourists have been arriving in the street to shout abuse at its real-life residents or simply to gawp like Victorian worthies visiting the lunatics of Bedlam.

Not everyone has reacted in that way. By Friday almost 1,000 people had complained to the broadcaster or the media regulator Ofcom and 20,000 people had signed a petition calling for the rest of the five-part series to be pulled and asking Channel 4 to make a donation to charity to compensate for “stirring up hatred”.

The programme-makers have defended their work as a study of community spirit in the face of  the increasing austerity of public spending cuts, squeezed benefits and low employment opportunities. And the first film certainly conveyed the human warmth that persists amid the squalor. It also cast interesting light on how individuals entrapped in welfare dependency turn their sense of self-worth away from an urge to take responsibility for themselves and into a braggardly defiance of authority.

But it was classic demonisation because it took the exceptional and invited viewers to see it as normal. Had Benefits Street merely been a dramatisation of how Britain’s benefits budget is really spent it would have included a road of 100 houses: 42 old age pensioners,  20 low-paid workers receiving tax credits, 16 sick or disabled residents, and just two people on job-seeker’s allowance.

As the local MP Shabana Mahmood told Channel 4: “ If you were interested in making a programme about what life is really like for people who are on the bread line then I can promise you two things – it won’t be entertaining and it won’t be funny”. But it might go some way to dispelling, rather than feeding, the myths and fallacies which grip the general imagination on such matters. A recent poll showed that 41 per cent of the UK benefit bill goes to the jobless; the real figure is 2.3 per cent.

The problem goes beyond lazy ratings-chasing journalism. One of the reasons the Liberal Democrat Sarah Teather is quitting politics is because she perceives a wilful strategy to demonise the poorest in our society. Papers she claims to have seen while a government minister suggest that the cap recently placed on benefits will not save money (because emergency accommodation will have to be found for people who are thrown out of their present homes). It is rather, she says,  a deliberate attempt “to stoke up envy and division between people” in an attempt to gain electoral popularity and “that is immoral”. It is not a genuine cost-cutting measure but “a political device to demonstrate whose side you are on”.

Our society thrives on clichés and stereotypes. Some have mythic truth, like this week’s Wolf of Wall Street image of the predatory bankster or the story of the Cumbrian man on benefits who has fathered 22 children or the suggestion by the top EU official Viviane Reding that David Cameron’s concerns about Romanian immigration are only fears at the electoral prospects of UKIP. But most do disservice to the complexity and contradiction of real life.

The verdict of lawful shooting by the Metropolitan Police of Mark Duggan shows that.  Here stereotypes collided. Duggan was a dangerous armed gangster out on the streets with a gun. Duggan was a happy family man only ever convicted for two relatively minor offences. Demonization requires unhelpful shortcuts in thinking as prejudice among the police, and prejudice against the police, this week equally showed. Reality is more nuanced, as the complex verdict of the jury after the Duggan inquest showed. Perhaps we should not be surprised that, after four months and 100 witnesses, they came to a subtler verdict than those relying on news soundbites and well-set prejudices desired.

The outcry over the police shooting a black man found by a jury to have been unarmed came the same day as the inquest on the policeman who was shot by the white gunman Raoul Moat about which there was hardly a ripple. The respective reactions were instructive. When Duggan’s aunt made a black power salute and shouted “No Justice, No peace” outside the court did it mean the same thing as when it was shouted by one of the low-life characters in Benefits Street the next day?

A demonised figure from the past spoke out this week. Christopher Jefferies, the man vilified by the media with unsubstantiated innuendo that he was guilty of the murder of the architect Jo Yeates in 2001, revealed that these baseless suggestions plunged his life into a limbo in which he became uncertain of the difference between fantasy and reality. Fact and fiction, truth and falsehood, nightmare and familiarity are blurred by the process of demonisation. “It feels as though we are living in a parallel universe from mainstream society,” wrote one of the Duggan family’s supporters the same day.

In Benefits Street on Friday the local newspaper found a businessman in a suit leaving one house bright and early. At another a woman was polishing her front-door knocker. Smartly dressed children were on their way to a local primary school which has just been reopened as an academy by the Oasis Trust which runs successful schools across the country.  A local trader was complaining that his insurance company were threatening to withdraw cover on his vehicles as a result of the documentary.  A takeaway owner said that his children were being teased about their address at school. The public pillory has private consequences. Good journalism should challenge the stereotypes of demonisation, not reinforce them.


Paul Vallely is visiting professor of public ethics at the University of Chester


an edited version of this appeared in The Independent on Sunday

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