Residents in Grimsby are rising up against Channel 4’s attempts to cast them as the subjects of its next documentary series on the poor – a television genre that has been dubbed “poverty porn”.
Camera crews from the producers of controversial series Skint have been scouting and “test filming” on Grimsby’s Nunsthorpe estate since before Christmas. The first series of Skint last year caused great upset in nearby Scunthorpe, where drug users and benefits claimants were filmed on the town’s Westcliff estate.
Since then, Channel 4 has caused uproar with its portrayal of Birmingham’s James Turner Street in the series Benefits Street, which has been the subject of hundreds of complaints to the media regulator Ofcom but has been a ratings success for the broadcaster.
More than 500 people have signed a petition calling for the camera crews not to film in Grimsby. “We do not want these shows filmed in the area,” the petition reads. “…especially when the town is working hard to bring jobs to the area.”
Austin Mitchell, MP for Great Grimsby, said he was writing to Channel 4 to complain. “They’re running them out of town and I’m sympathetic to that,” he said of the petitioners. “This is turning the poor into objects of entertainment. I think Channel 4 has gone mad – we have now got Benefits Street and Skint. It used to be an innovative, liberal and human channel and now they are just exploiting the poor.”
After the first four-part series of Skint, Nic Dakin, MP for Scunthorpe, wrote in complaint to Channel 4. “This is not a documentary it is an I’m a Celebrity type programme. It is a particularly poor piece of television and does not represent the area accurately at all,” he told BBC Radio Humberside.
Michelle Lalor, editor of the Grimsby Telegraph, said residents were concerned that film-makers would not be interested in the positive aspects of their lives. “In Nunsthorpe there are a lot of good families who want to do their best,” she said.
Peggy Elliott, mayor of North East Lincolnshire, told the paper: “What we don’t want is bad publicity that is created by a TV company cherry picking one thing and then using it to bring down a whole area.”
Among Grimsby residents contacted by the film crew from production company KEO films was Cath Homewood who runs the Grimsby Food Kitchen. “They came in to our annual buffet and interviewed us, but I told them from the start that I have nothing negative to say,” she said. “I think they were amazed that we had 140 people here and not one of them was drunk or badly behaved, but they probably don’t think that will make good TV.”
The backlash suggests that television companies will encounter greater difficulty in making observational documentaries in deprived areas as audiences become more familiar with such shows.
Other broadcasters, including the BBC, have also faced accusations of making “poverty porn” documentaries in attempting to cover the impact of the economic downturn.
KEO referred press calls to Channel 4. The broadcaster said it had not made a final decision on where the next series of Skint will be made and that it was test filming in at least one other location.
Channel 4 has rejected the accusations of poverty porn. “It’s inaccurate and it’s patronising towards the people that take part in these programmes and open up their lives, and it’s quite offensive to the people who make them,” said Ralph Lee, the broadcaster’s head of factual told BBC Newsnight. “They make them with diligence, professionalism and integrity. It’s a phrase I resent quite heavily.”