It happened when Channel 4 screened my Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. It happened again late last year when the same channel screened My Crazy New Jamaican Life. Now it’s happened again after Channel 4 screened the first episode of new five part series Benefit Street.
James Turner Street, in the Winson Green area of Birmingham, is the location for the programme.
In publicity material the channel described the series thus: ‘‘This documentary series reveals the reality of life on benefits, as the residents of one of Britain’s most benefit-dependent streets invite cameras into their tight-knit community.’’
The website adds: “According to some politicians and media coverage, benefits are an easy route to a life of luxury, foreign holidays and lavish homes furnished with wide screen TVs – all at the expense of hard-working taxpayers.
“The series follows residents of ‘Benefits Street’ as they navigate their way through life on the bottom rung of Britain’s economic ladder.
“Despite the challenges the residents face, the street also has a strong sense of community. This is a place where people look out for each other and where small acts of kindness can go a long way.’’
But others have seen the series as yet another example of demonising and stereotyping minorities – in this case the poorest in society. It is particularly pertinent at this time when the coalition government is exercising its policy of austerity which seems to be hitting the most vulnerable in society the hardest.
The unfortunate ‘stars’ of Benefits Street have also objected to the way they have been portrayed, claiming they were tricked into appearing on the show by the film-makers.
They claim they took part after being assured the series would be about neighbourly togetherness and community spirit in James Turner Street, Winson Green .
But they say the show paints a rather different picture, making residents out to be anti-social benefit scroungers, irresponsible parents, drug takers and foul-mouthed wasters.
Several of the show’s subjects, who have seen previews of the first three episodes as well as attention-grabbing TV adverts, claim they were lied to and betrayed by the programme makers Love Productions.
James Turner Street resident Dee Roberts, a qualified mentor and support worker, appears heavily in the series.
“They said they wanted to film for a TV show about how great community spirit is in the street and how we all help each other out on a daily basis” she told the Birmingham Mail.
‘‘They said that ‘Britain was broken’ but that I lived in an area where the community was very close. I participated in the show on that belief.
“But this programme has nothing to do with community, which you can tell from the title. It’s all about people in the street living off benefits, taking drugs and dossing around all day. It makes people out as complete scum.
“They lied to us from the very beginning. We opened our doors and hearts to them and they violated us and abused our trust.”
In the opening sequence to the first episode Dee, 32, is seen walking along the street identifying houses where she believed the occupants were out of work and on benefits.
She said: “They have shown me pointing at houses shouting ‘unemployed, on benefits’, but they haven’t shown me pointing at the houses where I knew people were working and in jobs.
“I’m really worried about how my neighbours will react if they see it.
“They have edited everything to suit their own needs – taken a positive and turned it into a negative.”
Dee, who is unemployed and on benefits, was approached to appear on the show at a jobseeker event in Birmingham.
She said around a dozen people were involved in the making of the show, filmed over a period of 12 months starting in early 2012.
Mum-of-three Charlene Wilson, 29, a fellow James Turner Street resident, also claimed she had been duped.
She said: “They told me it was about living as a community and how we all got along. But the actual programme doesn’t show any of that.
“If they had said it was about benefits and making the street look bad I would not have taken part. They tricked us.’’
A Channel 4 spokesman said: “This is a fair and balanced observational documentary series. It is a fair reflection of the reality of life on a street where the majority of households receive benefits.
“The contributors were briefed extensively before any filming took place. If any residents requested not to be filmed they were not.
“The main contributors have been offered the opportunity to view the programmes they feature in before transmission to make any comments about their contributions.
“As far as we are aware we have appropriate consent for any private phone calls that appear in the series.”
Meanwhile media regulator Ofcom is understood to have received more than 100 complaints about the documentary series relating to unfair, misleading and offensive portrayals of benefits claimants, alleged criminal activity and excessive bad language.
Some of the James Turner Street residents have also allegedly received abusive messages via twitter.
However, despite the controversy, or probably because of it, the show has become Channel 4’s most-watched show since it aired The Snowman and The Snowdog in December 2012, peaking at 4.7 million viewers (19.3%).
According to trade magazine Broadcast, Benefits Street smashed C4’s slot average of 2m (8.4%) but remained the third-most watched show on TV at the time.
The paradox is that with all this negative publicity the ratings for subsequent episodes of the series will probably shoot up even further. And with a rating success like that, its unlikely that Channel 4 will change its approach any time soon.
Channel 4 was set up in the 1980’s to give a voice to under-represented groups, but of late it seems that the under-represented groups they have featured, such as the traveller community, Jamaicans and now benefits claimants, are not enjoying this media exposure as much as they might have hoped! Far from championing under-representing minorities it seems that Channel 4 have developed a knack of offending them.