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Channel 4's Shameless: The Squalor Porn Of Benefits Street
Phil Harrison , January 13th, 2014 04:35

On the day of its second episode Phil Harrison despairs of the moral blankness at the heart of Benefits Street

As austerity moves from being a necessary evil into its next phase – one ominously if tellingly described by David Cameron as "permanent" – so does its TV representation. Back in 2012, BBC4 gave us The Year the Town Hall Shrank, a heartbreaking series documenting the impossible choices being made (in Stoke-on-Trent as it happened, but it could have been anywhere) between hospices and swimming pools; social housing and SureStart schemes. The government's narrative has shifted of course, but it's dispiriting to see TV channels recalibrating their sights accordingly.

Here we are in James Turner Street, Birmingham. We're told that five percent of the inhabitants are in work, but we never meet any of them. And why would we? This is Benefits Street, so the producers were presumably too busy rubbing their hands together with glee after encountering Danny. Danny is a self-confessed "lazy dickhead"; a qualified gym instructor and football referee who instead has apparently opted to become what his mate Fungi describes as "one of the best shoplifters I've ever seen in my life". Benefits Street has ended up under fire from all sides. Did detailed exposure to Danny's light-fingered ingenuity constitute a lesson in criminality? Did C4 wilfully turn a blind eye to this and various other illegal acts perpetrated during the film? These objections came from the Daily Mail, in case you were even slightly curious.

The criticism has been just as fierce from the other direction. The street's admittedly naive residents are adamant they've been sold a pup. Despite claiming they were told they were to be involved in a show celebrating community spirit in hard times, they've instead been repackaged as Iain Duncan Smith's worst nightmare – or his most savagely arousing wet dream, depending on how you view his agenda. The ratings, meanwhile, were spectacular, and with four parts to go, this is probably the only news that matters to the channel who, for the record, have described their treatment of James Turner Street's residents as "sympathetic".

And there's the rub. C4's previous ventures into this most contested of TV subgenres have felt less like investigations and more like stinging rebukes to the very idea of someone claiming benefits because they've run out of better choices. The frankly nightmarish The Fairy Jobmother saw the channel mind-bogglingly joining forces with A4E, the now-discredited 'welfare to work' business whose founder Emma Harrison was briefly a 'Families Adviser' to David Cameron. The company later faced allegations of fraud, lost customers' data and eventually became the subject of an efficiency investigation, after which MP Margaret Hodge damned their "abysmal" returns on the public money they hoovered up (Harrison still walked away with an astronomical dividend derived from that self-same source of public money, however). Next came Benefits Britain 1949, a series whose whole raison d'etre seemed to be to poke elderly, disadvantaged and disabled people with sticks until they bloody well got up off their arses and helped themselves; the lazy, apathetic, over-entitled and thoroughly feckless fuckers. Not a spotless record, then.

In this context, we suppose Benefits Street was kind of sympathetic. After all, it didn't actually unleash the hounds of hell (otherwise known as The Fairy Jobmother's Hayley Taylor) on these people. Or shoehorn their travails into some sort of competitive 'last one off benefits is a loser' reality-show journey trajectory. But then again, that approach isn't really necessary any more. We all know what we're supposed to think about benefit claimants – even the most slaveringly Pavlovian among us don't need it spelling out after all this time. Instead, Benefits Street juggles with signifiers. The whole, tiresome lingua franca of austerity TV is here; there's looming tangles of barbed wire, CCTV cameras, off-the-peg music which sounds a little like the xx. There's the sense that C4's documentary work is drifting ever closer to one of its more successful recent drama franchises – somehow, Shameless has morphed from blunt and breezy fiction into a template for the presentation of barely-contested 'factual' documentaries.

In Permanent Austerity TV, the nuances of judgement-formation are best honed in the editing suite or via the voiceover. We only got to meet the most entertainingly picaresque members of this community. We saw the cannabis farms, the fags and the cans of Kestrel Super. We heard the proud boasts about how much money could be extracted from housing benefit and income support. There was no serious discussion of actual routes out of poverty or of the problems that undoubtedly bedevil the area, just 'evidence' of endless system-gaming. But what did we really learn? Only that powerlessness compounds, like interest in a tax avoider's offshore savings account. Here, the almost jaunty tone became nauseating. Because, after all, what was Fungi if not a victim; a man who'd been abused as a child and had subsequently, struggled endlessly with addiction? Already his difficulties were so palpable that he was forced to ask 'mum of the street' White Dee to speak to the social services on his behalf, because he couldn't understand the forms. Surely people like him need helping, not demonising or turning into representatives of some sort of nebulous cultural decline? But no. The poor have always been with us – it's just that now it seems they're expected to sing for their suppers on television before being ceremonially excoriated on social media.

The only way Channel 4 and the queasily-named Love Productions can pitch Benefits Street as sympathetic is if it's viewed through the prism of Britain's prevailing socio-political weather systems. If "sympathetic" means sly, sneaky button-pushing rather than overt, Tebbit-style moralising, then yes, it's sympathetic. But actually, it's simply blank – just too jaded and opportunistic to care that there's an urgent need for a serious national conversation about poverty, inequality, media manipulation and the welfare state, and too busy fashioning money and Twitter-storms out of the mess. Love Productions are, it's interesting to note, also responsible for The Great British Bake-Off – surely a Keep Calm & Carry On tea-towel to flick in the face of this brutal un-reality. Either way, the idea that this reprehensible squalor-porn is sympathetic to those whose problems it takes such delight in distorting and misrepresenting is symptomatic of a Britain more broken than David Cameron ever dared claim. Permanent Austerity never looked so prefabricated or so sinister.