The controversial Channel 4 documentary Benefits Street, labelled by many as “poverty porn”, has been hogging the limelight for some time. Somehow, a handful of residents from the impoverished James Turner Street did quite well out of the series, with ‘White Dee’ (Dee Kelly) bagging herself a career in television, she recently appeared on Celebrity Big Brother. Word on the street is that she’ll soon be hitting the big screen too – nice.
However, many did not wish to reap the benefits – pardon the pun – of the documentary. Other residents felt they were taken advantage of, and claimed that they had been purposefully misrepresented by Channel 4. Meanwhile, many of the public didn’t find the programme as engaging as promised, and it received a total of 900 Ofcom complaints. Riled audience members stated that the series embarrassingly supported a “something-for-nothing” benefits culture, which should not be given air time.
Channel 4 do not seem fazed by the negative backlash and have fearlessly ploughed ahead to film a spin-off programme, Immigration Street, due to hit our screens before the election this April. Any press is good press, it would seem. Channel 4 claims “Cameras will follow the lives of some of the residents of Derby Road” down in Southampton, where “the majority of residents were not born in the UK. The series will explore how the changing population is shaping the community, relationships, friendships and everyday life for those who call it home.”
The locals, however, were not content. A number of residents feared the documentary would split the community and provide incentive for racially motivated attacks. 1,000 residents signed a petition in a desperate bid to stop the project going ahead. Many also protested outside of Channel 4’s headquarters to raise media attention.
A local councillor who grew up in the area, said: “Just like me, the majority of people who live in Derby Road are not first generation immigrants. They will be second or third generation. This begs the question, at what point do me and my neighbours stop being classed or considered as immigrants and start being considered British?” All this has resulted in Channel 4 cutting the series from six episodes down to just one. The show’s producer, Kieran Smith, has defended the programme, asserting that “many people on Derby Road made the crew feel welcome and wanted to share their stories”.
Though Immigration Street will provide insight into the interesting yet sensitive immigration debate, it is easy to forget that documentaries of this kind are not just entertainment, but people’s lives. Benefits Street shined a spotlight on many issues that have not previously been aired to the public, creating a rifling mainstream debate. Whatever your opinion, whether you were appalled or fascinated, the controversial series was a documentary insight into the lives of many that evidently made powerful TV viewing. However this was at a price and some residents claimed they faced unwelcome attention due to Channel 4’s misrepresentations.
The residents of Derby Road are justified in their reservations, as this programme promises to tackle and highlight an extremely complex and sensitive subject. It would be wrong and prejudicial of Channel 4 to abuse the relationships of an already vulnerable community. The TV channel are stirring up a toxic debate, capable of provoking extremist behaviour. Whatever questions marks hang over the morality of these programmes, one certainty is that it won’t be up everyone’s street.
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