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Benefits Street: Channel 4 boss denies show's residents were duped

Commissioning editor said residents knew the nature and title of the show

A Channel 4 boss has defended documentary Benefits Street after thousands signed a petition urging for the show to be dropped.

Responding to reports that residents of James Turner Street were not told by producers that the show would focus on benefits claimants, Ralph Lee, head of factual commissioning for Channel 4, said producers had been in “consultation” with residents.

He told BBC Newsnight: “The producers have been working with the residents of James Turner Street for nearly two years now. It’s been a consultation with them.

"Long before we started filming - we were there filming for a year - and they were very clear and transparent with everyone on the street about what the nature of the programme was, why we were there, and what the end product was.”

Lee said the Channel took its responsibility towards the contributors of the show, who have since been subject to death threats on social media, “very seriously”.

He added that producers were still on James Turner Street and in communication with the show’s residents.

“We take our responsibility to contributors very seriously. That’s why our producers are still on Turner Street,” he said.

But when asked whether the residents knew if the programme, which has been labelled ‘poverty porn’, would be called Benefits Street, Lee gave a conflicting answer.

“They weren’t told [the programme was going to be called Benefits Street] but they weren’t told something else either,” he told presenter Kirsty Wark.

Asked later about when the programme’s title has been decided, Lee said the decision had been made two weeks before transmission, and that the residents had been told.

“[We decided to call it Benefits Street] at the point where we go to press, a couple of weeks before transmission. And we were also transparent with the contributors [about the title].”The controversial programme, which follows the lives of residents at a time when the welfare budget was slashed, has received criticism for its negative stereotypes of people on benefits.

Independent columnist Owen Jones, who appeared on Newsnight alongside Lee and Spectator editor Fraser Nelson, said Channel 4 had a responsibility to portray the benefits situation in the UK more accurately.

He said the majority of the welfare budget was spent on pensioners, not the unemployed, but that was not the view portrayed on “sensationalist” programmes like Benefits Street.

He said: “What these programmes do is hunt down these most unrepresentative samples, then portray them in the most negative way, and then you get on social networks people asking for them to be gassed and hanged.”

Fraser Nelson added it was the welfare “system” that should be blamed, not the residents in the programme.

“The question is, shouldn’t we be changing the system. This show wasn’t a freak show, I warmed to a number of the characters. The villain of the piece is not the people, it’s the system,” he said.