The first episode of the new season of Benefits Street, based in the Tilery Estate in Stockton-on-Tees, strangely enough offered a degree of positivity that was sorely missing from the first. Some characters are portrayed in a more sympathetic manner, explanations are offered for their continued reliance on benefits that even the most hard-hearted couldn’t criticize, and attempts are made to offer an insight into the disillusionment many disadvantaged people feel with the establishment. It’s important to get the recognition of this out of the way, though, before making the main point—that this marginal improvement does not redeem the series, nor allow it to climb out of the poverty porn cesspit that constitutes the very worst kind of elitism our modern popular culture can muster up.
The matriarch role of this series is shared by best friends of 20 years, Julie and Sue, who have 11 kids between them and are both on benefits. Sue, we are told, hasn’t worked for a year, and Julie for 15—something the show wastes no time getting out there, playing into the hands of those who would berate poor women for having more kids than they can afford. Those who make such snap judgments though will later be left feeling rather foolish, when Julie—a former Youth and Community worker—reveals the tragic details of her life, tearfully recalling the moment when her now 15-year-old son suffered a cardiac arrest as a baby and died in her arms. Though he was revived through the determined efforts of a crash team—to whom Julie pledges any potential future lottery wins—he was left severely brain damaged and entirely dependent on round-the-clock care from his devoted mother.
Caring and motherly by nature, both women support their neighbours, regularly cooking meals for the more vulnerable amongst them. This spirit of solidarity is touching, and may hope to counteract the run of the mill demonization of communities such as these. Of course, Channel 4 can’t allow their subjects to get away that easily—positive aspects are counteracted by the handling of other characters more ripe for exploitative consumption. One star of the series, Maxwell, is a drug user and repeated offender—his criminal record includes incidents of burglary, fraud and shining lasers at police helicopters—who sells cannabis from his flat and collects £500 a month in Income Support and Disability Allowance on account of memory loss problems, clearly implied to be a result of cannabis use. Footage showing Maxwell bagging up weed, as well as taking a large number of Diazepam pills before turning up 45 minutes late to a court appearance—he was let off anyway—has been criticised, and many have asked whether he was naively undertaking acts of bravado for the benefit of the cameras, unaware of possible consequences. Portrayed as the typical undeserving recipient of state handouts, Maxwell is ultimately likely to damage the reception of other characters that might otherwise be judged deserving. Its notable that no attempt is made to offer a wider socio-cultural explanation for Maxwell’s behaviour and incarceration at only 18, whether it’s a result of his childhood, economic factors, a failure in the education system, or any other reason.
Particularly unpalatable in this first episode were the relentless attempts at self-defense through deflecting blame onto reporters who had gotten wind of the new location. Whilst rightfully challenging the authority of reporters to take pictures of unconsenting subjects, including children, as well as documenting the false claims excreted by newspapers such as The Sun, the episode sidesteps the issue of whether a documentary subject can ever really give consent, given they cannot truly know how they will be portrayed. Alex Cunningham, MP for the local area, makes his first ever visit to the street to criticize the exploitation of his vulnerable constituents—though making sure to bring his own news crew each time—and is ridiculed by residents who feel his concerns are insincere. Whilst this segment does well to highlight the isolation of the estate and its lack of facilities, offering concerning viewers a chance to analyse why a pocketed community, abandoned by the outside world for all intents and purposes, may suffer from incidents of crime and drug use, it does feel like it’s primary purpose is to defend Channel 4 from criticism—one resident declares that they, unlike Cunningham, are giving her a voice, no doubt to the glee of producers.
Benefits Street represents the very worst of trash TV. Laughably posing as groundbreaking journalism, shows such as this serve only to perpetuate extremely damaging myths concerning the abuse of our welfare system, which pave the way for further demonistation of our most vulnerable and needy. The première of the second series was postponed until after the election, for fear it would interfere with the result. This may sound admirable to some, but really the damage has already been done.
Benefits Street is airing on Monday nights at 9pm on Channel 4.