As 'Benefits Street' shows, we are quick to demonise and slow to understand

In its attempt to chase ratings, the Channel 4 programme merely reinforces stereotypes about people who rely on the state

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The devil may have been dropped from the Church of England's latest baptism service but the powers of darkness will not be too bothered. We are, as a society, rather good at creating our own demons. Last week alone we were doing it to the poor, to immigrants, to black people, to the police, to the unemployed, to EU officials, and people who have too many children. Not to mention that bloke with the peculiar sticky-out hair, again, of whom more later.

Demonisation goes beyond criticism, or even scapegoating. It occurs when we brand an entire group of people as Other. In the old days, the Other meant the devil; even in this more secular age something of that remains. Those we demonise are represented as diabolical and somehow antithetical to the interests of society. And it still carries a moral subtext.

A prime example was thrown up last week by Benefits Street, Channel 4's most popular programme in more than a year. It was set in a road in Birmingham where film-makers claimed that 90 per cent of the residents received state welfare payments.

For the edification of its 4.3 million viewers, the programme paraded a cast of petty criminals, drunks and drug-takers in a freak show which placed these chavvy losers, irresponsible parents and foul-mouthed wastrels in the digital stocks for public condemnation. So gripping was this poverty porn that, after the broadcast, voyeur tourists arrived in the street all week to shout abuse at its residents or simply to gawp like Victorian visitors to the lunatics of Bedlam.

Not everyone was so enthralled. A thousand people complained to the broadcaster or the media regulator Ofcom. And 20,000 people signed a petition calling for the rest of the five-part series to be pulled and demanding Channel 4 make a donation to charity to compensate for "stirring up hatred".

The programme-makers defended their work as a study of community spirit in the face of public spending cuts and few jobs. And the film certainly conveyed a human warmth persisting amid the squalor. It also cast interesting light on how individuals entrapped in welfare dependency divert energy they should use to take responsibility for themselves into a braggardly defiance of authority.

But it was classic demonisation because it took the exceptional and invited viewers to see it as normal. Had Benefits Street merely been a dramatisation of how Britain's benefits budget is really spent, its 99 houses would have included: 42 old-age pensioners, 20 low-paid workers receiving tax credits, 16 sick or disabled residents and only two people on jobseeker's allowance.

As the local MP Shabana Mahmood told Channel 4: "If you were interested in making a programme about what life is really like for people who are on the breadline, then I can promise you two things: it won't be entertaining and it won't be funny." But it might go some way to dispelling myths. A recent poll showed that the public thinks 41 per cent of UK benefits go to the jobless; the real figure is 2.3 per cent.

The problem goes beyond lazy ratings-chasing journalism. One of the reasons the Liberal Democrat Sarah Teather is quitting politics is because she perceives a wilful strategy to demonise the poor. Research she saw while a government minister suggests that the cap recently placed on benefits will not save money (because emergency accommodation will have to be found for people thrown out of their homes). It is rather, she says, a deliberate and immoral attempt "to stoke up envy and division between people" in an attempt to gain electoral popularity. It is not a genuine cost-cutting measure but "a political device to demonstrate whose side you are on".

Our society thrives on clichés and stereotypes. But sometimes, as with the verdict of lawful shooting by the Metropolitan Police of Mark Duggan, the stereotypes collide. Duggan was a dangerous gangster out on the streets with a gun. Duggan was a happy family man convicted of only two relatively minor offences. Demonisation requires unhelpful shortcuts and reality is more nuanced, as the complex verdict of the jury after the Duggan inquest showed. Perhaps we should not be surprised that, after four months and 100 witnesses, it came to a subtler verdict than those relying on news soundbites and well-set prejudices.

The outcry over the police shooting a black man came the same day as the inquest on the policeman who was shot by the white gunman Raoul Moat about which there was hardly a ripple. When Duggan's aunt made a black power salute and shouted "No justice, no peace" outside the court, it did not mean the same thing as when it was shouted by one of the low-life characters in Benefits Street the next day.

A demonised figure from the past spoke out last week. Christopher Jefferies, the man vilified by the media with unsubstantiated innuendo that he was guilty of the murder of the architect Jo Yeates in 2010, revealed that these baseless suggestions plunged his life into a limbo in which he became uncertain of the difference between fantasy and reality. Fact and fiction, truth and falsehood, nightmare and familiarity are blurred by the process of demonisation. "It feels as though we are living in a parallel universe from mainstream society," wrote one of the Duggan family's supporters the same day.

In Benefits Street on Friday, the local newspaper found a businessman in a suit leaving one house bright and early. At another a woman was polishing her front-door knocker. Smartly dressed children were on their way to a primary school which has just been reopened as an academy. A local trader was complaining that his insurance company was threatening to withdraw cover on his vehicles as a result of the documentary. The public pillory has private consequences. Good journalism should challenge the stereotypes of demonisation, not reinforce them.

Paul Vallely is visiting professor of public ethics at the University of Chester

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