Benefit Street: Media Industry urged to be more responsible

There is a really worrying trend going on in our TV industry attacking the dignity of both working and workless people on low incomes.  TV chiefs are not standing up to morally bankrupt bankers and their continuing huge bonuses or to wealthy tax dodgers who deprive the Treasury of millions. Instead TV programme commissioners seem intent on making programmes  ‘standing up to’ communities facing poverty,  rooting out the most extreme examples and presenting them as the norm.

‘ Benefit Street’ is the most notable of these programmes targeting people in poverty and showing them in the worst possible light, fueling a pervasive sense that everyone on benefits is lazy, deviant and playing the benefits system.

‘Benefit Street’ focused on a road in Birmingham, but ‘Skint’ was another programme from Channel 4 portraying a community in Scunthorpe struggling with de-industrialisation in a negative light. Channel 5’s  ’Benefits and Proud’  also had a subtext that just being on benefits is a crime.

Even the BBC programme ‘The Future of the Welfare State’ seemed to suggest that Britain was living in ‘an age of entitlement’. This programme was heavily criticised by the BBC Trust for breaching impartiality and accuracy rules but it is easy to see how some people can be seduced into believing that everyone on benefits is just looking for hand-outs.

This stream of programmes dis-informs the public and leads to a completely distorted view.   For example, polls show that people on average think that 27% of social security payments are lost to fraud when the real figure is closer to 0.7%. Only 3% of the benefit budget even goes to unemployed people with most (rightly) going to pensioners. There is not enough media coverage on the poverty wages that so many people who want to work are forced to take.

Low wages push up the benefits bill in terms of working tax credit whilst unscrupulous low paying employers cream off the profits to line their own pockets instead of paying a living wage. There are so many bad private sector landlords not doing repairs and yet charging ridiculously high rents financed through housing benefit system. £16 billion of benefits go unclaimed each year BUT tax dodgers deprive the treasury of over £24 billion a year.

There is not enough investigative programming on the rich and powerful getting richer by exploiting the benefits system for their own ends and once again those facing poverty even when in work are made out to be at fault.  I hope we can go some small way to redress this imbalance by telling the stories of working families in Liverpool who are struggling to make ends.

Helen O’Gorman, Getting By researcher

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