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

Share
Related Topics

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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

(Senior) IT Support Engineer - 1st-3rd Line Support

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful IT service provider that has bee...

Wind Farm Civil Design Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principal Marine Mechanical Engineer

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principle Geotechnical Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A Russian hunter at the Medved bear-hunting lodge in Siberia  

Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

Oliver Poole
Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

How has your club fared in summer sales?

Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

The best swim shorts for men

Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup