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
- 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.