Skint Britain – entrenching the stereotypes

Stigma and public attitudes towards people trapped in poverty are fuelled by popular culture – TV programme makers can and should do better, says Abigail Scott Paul 

It’s five years since the notorious hit TV documentary Benefits Street aired on Channel 4.  Its impact on attitudes towards people on benefits is still felt today.  In new research for JRF by Britain Thinks, members of the public continue to cite the show as evidence of a widespread culture of welfare dependency in the UK. Wilfully or not, it fuelled resentment towards those on benefits, and endorsed support for a tightening of the system, because it triggered a deep-seated belief that some people try and some people don’t. It made this the only possible explanation of poverty.

Benefits Street gave cover to the politicians of the day who enacted the biggest programme of welfare reform in decades, in order to clamp down on perceived ‘abuses’.  The then Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, quoted the public’s response to the show as evidence of support for his welfare reform package that saw cuts of £18bn and led to the birth of Universal Credit. And while UC’s original intention to simplify the system was welcome, its design and delivery have been severely hampered by these cuts, pushing groups of people to the brink.

Fast forward to 2019 and Channel 4 is again airing a Benefits Street-esque documentary: Skint Britain: Friends without Benefits, which concluded this week. Set in Hartlepool, stylistically there are clear nods to the original: filmed in back to back streets; close-up fly-on-the-wall scenes with vulnerable people at very difficult times in their life; all accompanied by a ‘laddy’ narration and suggestive music. And yet, the show’s executive producer David Hodgkinson claims that the purpose of the show is to juxtapose ‘Westminster rhetoric with the reality of poverty’.

But if, like me, you looked at the #skintbritain hashtag on Twitter, you would have seen a plethora of toxic and hateful views about the people in the show.  For many viewers, they defaulted to blaming and shaming those they saw on the screen for their decision and choices. Rather than build a better understanding of the flaws in the system that are pushing people under, it has only served to entrench a stereotyped view of benefit claimants, a perception generated by Benefits Street five years earlier. Rather than juxtapose the ‘Westminster rhetoric’, they have simply stoked it up and, ironically, endorsed it in the minds of the public. 

But forget about the viewer, what about the show’s impact on the people in it and the wider Hartlepool Community? Like Benefits Street, the print media has now targeted people featured in the programme and locals are condemning the damaging picture it paints of the town. What responsibility does the broadcaster and production company have towards those who participate in these programmes? Stigma sticks. People struggling to keep afloat require our compassion and justice, and yet they are left with shame and humiliation.  

Media representation and the way we tell stories really matters.  It’s not just enough for programme makers to raise awareness of social problems. We need to think carefully about how we can open up minds, beyond those who are already ‘on side’, to the possibility of change.  That is why we are working with filmmakers who themselves are sick of the way communities are represented in the media and its knock-on impact on public attitudes and political rhetoric.

BBC2’s The Mighty Redcar and Sean McAllister’s A Northern Soul demonstrate that there is a way to tell stories about the social problems facing Britons today that are authentic and appeal to audiences.  They don’t shy away from exposing the injustices faced by people trapped in poverty, but they frame the issue effectively. They paint a picture of strength, resilience and hope. Stories that demonstrate change is possible.  

Skint Britain felt like an anachronistic treatment and a missed opportunity to build public support for redesigning Universal Credit, so that it keeps people afloat rather than push them under.  Programme makers and public service broadcasters need to take responsibility for the way they depict people on screen because its impact is damaging, long lasting and hampers progress.  

 

Abigail Scott Paul

Deputy Director Advocacy and Public Engagement

Joseph Rowntree Foundation

23.02.19

-       For a different story on poverty watch Guardian Films/True Vision Yorkshire’s Fighting Shame – a film made by women in Leeds working hard to unlock opportunities in their community against the difficult back drop of Universal Credit.

-       JRF is working with Guardian Films again in 2019 to find filmmakers to tell a new story about poverty in the UK with a live pitch at Sheffield DocFest. Find out more here.

 

Compelled to Tell

By Natasha Carthew

Natasha Carthew is a working-class country writer from Cornwall, UK, where she lives with her girlfriend. She has written two books of poetry, as well as three novels for young adults, Winter Damage, The Light That Gets Lost and Only the Ocean, all for Bloomsbury. Her first novel for adults, All Rivers Run Free, is published by Riverrun/ Quercus. Natasha has written for many publications, including the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook, Eco-fiction, TripFiction, the Guardian, the Big Issue and the Dark Mountain Project. Shes currently writing her second literary novel for adults and a new collection of rural poetry.

She is also the organiser and Artistic Director for The Working Class Writers Festival which will tour the UK in 2020.

Buy Natasha’s LATEST BOOK    here!

Buy Natasha’s LATEST BOOK here!

Natasha Carthew answers questions for Project Twist-It

Tell us a bit about your work and writing. How would you summarise it? 

I consider myself a Country Writer. In my work I’m interested in rural issues, from poverty to social isolation, especially in Cornwall which shamelessly, is the second-poorest region in northern Europe and where a quarter of people live in poverty. It is these people’s stories that I am compelled to tell, the stories that may at first seem bleak, but are ultimately uplifting as the characters push for better.

What are you working on currently? 

I’m currently writing my second literary novel for adults and a new collection of rural poetry. I’m also touring the UK with my new Adult book ALL RIVERS RUN FREE (published by Riverrun/Quercus). My new work of fiction for Young Adults ONLY THE OCEAN is due for publication November 2018. Both books explore poverty and disadvantage. 

Which themes appear most often in your work and why? 

Rural isolation, poverty, low wages, abuse, disadvantage and poverty. But mostly hope!

I think it’s really important to discuss working class themes in fiction – both positive and negative. Without erasing the struggles of economic hardship or limited options, working-class literature should remind us of the strengths of the working-class culture; humour, integrity, hard work and loyalty among other things.

What inspires you most?

Social justice. The simple fact that everyone deserves equal economic, political and social rights and opportunities.

Why does telling stories about lived experience of issues like poverty – whatever the medium – matter? 

Literature should challenge the under-representation, negative stereotyping and discrimination in society. We can trigger a different way of thinking about poverty and increase support for better policies by talking about the issues and telling our own stories. I like to talk about my own background; raised by a single parent in a council house, no money, no transport, no visible prospects in order to inspire others to believe we can change our own narrative. It’s important to tap into the positives in our lives no matter how small to make a difference to the way we perceive ourselves. If it wasn’t for my working class background and dogged tenacity I definitely wouldn’t have become such a successful writer. 

We as writers and creators need to work together to change the story people hear, so they can think in a new way about poverty.

Describe your ambitions for your work going forward. 

I didn't see working class identity in books when I was growing up and I still find it hard to find many working class writers that are published in the UK and I want to change that. I want to give readers a sense of belonging, so it’s always been my ambition to write stories that empower instead of isolate and this I will continue with my work.

Why are writers central to aiding our understanding of poverty and hardship?

We tell the truth. Source material isn’t beyond reach; it’s within every working class writer.

Why is it important to write about poverty and to tell stories that relate to it? 

Literature that addresses poverty fosters both knowledge and understanding of others outside our own sphere of experience. It is only through knowledge and empathy of how others live that we can attempt to communicate and connect with each other. It is important on a personal and political level. People feel respected and validated and their self-esteem is enhanced when they see themselves and their wider communities and hear their dialect reflected in books.

How can stories in fiction and non-fiction inform our understanding of poverty and the people who experience it? 

Literature illuminates the complexity and human dimensions of poverty, it’s important because it’s often concerned with the basic subject matter of development. Storytelling is one of humanity’s oldest methods of possessing information and representing reality and is incredibly important in telling stories of poverty, especially from a working class perspective in order to reflect and celebrate this forgotten corner of diversity.

In ALL RIVERS RUN FREE for example, Ia Pendilly is a voice that comes from the margins of society, socially isolated and literally through her rural location – she is uneducated, is in an abusive relationship and survives hand to mouth, nobody cares about her or offers her help and she has learnt not to ask for it. But she’s a fighter and she’s tenacious, that determination is what motivates her and drives her forward. These kinds of voices are rarely heard, and when they are, we hear them written by people who might not have experienced any kind of marginalisation themselves.

Without authenticity, readers are not getting a true account of what it’s like to be poor or socially isolated, especially from a rural perspective.

What do you think are the biggest myths in our culture surrounding poverty? 

The biggest myth is that people are lazy and don’t want to work when in reality people who experience poverty can be the hardest working people. It can literally be a matter of life and death. Growing up, if my mother didn’t juggle several different cleaning jobs for minimum wage, we would have starved, simple as that.

Which issues are most overlooked in discussion about poverty?

Transport! As a writer I talk about this a lot, the expectation to travel for meetings, appearances or whatever for free and also from a rural perspective it comes back to isolation. It can be embarrassing when you have to enquire about travel costs again and again.

An Antidote to Stigma

Picture by Shaun Bloodworth

Painting a Different Picture

By Pete McKee

The Sheffield-based artist Pete McKee is the second in an incredible group of artists and writers contributing to Project Twist-It EVERY MONTH on our blog page with reflections on their work and how, collectively, we can transform the way we talk about poverty. Check out Pete’s work and share the blog!


pete mckee ANSWERS QUESTIONS FOR PROJECT-TWIST IT

Tell us a bit about your work/art. How would you summarise it?

My work tries to explore the everyday life of the people I grew up with and those I see in present day. I enjoy focusing on the minutiae of life.

I try to tell my stories with heart and passion, with humour and also a sprinkling of pathos, which I suppose is how we live our lives from day to day.

What are you working on currently?

I have just finished a major new show called, 'This Class Works', which is an exploration of the working class and it's positive aspects. It was created as an antidote to the constant degrading the working class gets from the government and right wing press. I'm the product of the working class and I'm proud of my upbringing and the values my parents instilled in me.

Which themes appear most often in your work and why?

Love, music, fashion culture movements and football fandom. All things I have a passion for. It's the reason I can be proud of my work being honest and not replicating what i think people want to see. 

What inspires you most?

To be brutally honest, it's the fear of not being able to provide for my family if I don't keep creating. The cathartic thing is I utterly enjoy creating new work, coming up with new themes and working on large scale exhibitions. But, music and other people’s greatness is a fantastic inspiration, when it comes to filling my heart and mojo create.

 Why does telling stories – whatever the medium – matter?

An artist’s job is to connect with their audience, to stir their emotions, be that on a spiritual level, or merely making them smile. The best way to do that is to communicate with themby telling them a story they can relate to, invite them into your world and make them a part of it.

Describe your ambitions for your work going forward.

The exciting thing for me is that I don't really stick to a plan, An opportunity will present itself and I make a decision whether it feels right go with the project or pass it by. I want to do so manydifferent things that it can become overwhelming. But, I always have my big exhibition plans three years in advance to keep my eye on.

Why are artists central to aiding our understanding of poverty and hardship?

Well, I can pretty well guarantee that if you are an artist, you will have experienced poverty in your quest to make a living out of what you love doing.

I was pretty much skint for 45 of my 52 years, facing serious debt. 

How can the visual arts influence the stories we absorb to do with poverty?

I guess it's all to do with the ability to strike a chord simply, without reams of text.

Recommendation of the Month


This month the Project Twist-It team recommend (if you can get it on TV or online) watching the BBC’s The Mighty Redcar. Here again is a wonderful antidote to the negative bombardment we’ve become used to from TV ‘reality’ depictions of people on low incomes or who need government assistance. It is the opposite of ‘poverty porn’ and worth every minute of your time.

Learning Curve

By Billie J D Porter

Why is Project Twist-It a crucial initiative? Because too often, poverty is a subject that people shy away from talking about, or even thinking about. It’s a word that means different things to different people, which is exactly why we need to be hearing from a number of different voices on the issue. 

Finding Our Voice

By Mary O’Hara

For a lot of people experiencing poverty, including children, there is a profound discomfort about their perceived status in society. Frequently, living in poverty means being judged. Sometimes, it means being blamed for the tough circumstances you find yourself in, as if the whole world is handing out opportunities like candy and you’re just not reaching out and grabbing them.