The five episodes of Channel 4’s fly-on-the-wall documentary about life on welfare were certainly controversial. Benefits Street was the subject parliamentary questions to the Prime Minister and a slew of complaints to Ofcom. Even as commentators on the political right claimed the show as evidence of an underclass abandoned to the “welfare trap”, those on the left decried it as “poverty porn” that was at best misrepresentative, at worst outright exploitative. Meanwhile, participants complained that they were misled by TV executives about the nature of the programme, which prompted four arrests (for drugs and firearms offences), torrents of abuse on Twitter and allegations that featured children were being bullied in school.
Whatever side one might take in debate over welfare, and whatever one’s conclusions regarding the exploitation – or not – of the residents of Birmingham’s James Turner Street, the farrago has been an indisputable reminder of the power of television. Deirdre Kelly – aka White Dee – who featured in the documentary and also took part in this week’s spin-off panel debate, is even planning to become an independent MP.
Nor does the long reach of the television executive begin and end with documentary. As we report today, British East-Asian actors have written to the Culture Secretary to complain at their simultaneous under- and mis-representation in BBC programming. Not only are high-profile series such as Casualty and Eastenders notably lacking in East-Asian characters, the few that do make an appearance are negatively stereotyped, the artists claim.
The latest report from Demos only underlines the point. Research conducted by the think tank indicates that false stereotyping of young people across the media, including television, is eroding already difficult job prospects. Although the vast majority of youngsters believe their generation to be more concerned with social issues than their predecessors, teenagers are routinely portrayed as disengaged, binge-drinking yobs.
Television is not, of course, the sole arbiter of social mores. But its power is undeniable, and, as Voltaire notably put it, with great power comes great responsibility.