Channel 4 is no stranger to a controversial documentary series; in fact, their aim to push boundaries and spark debate with their programming is what they are most famous for. But ever since the first series of Benefits Street, a show that sets out to give viewers the “reality of life on benefits”, made its debut earlier this year, many have questioned whether Channel 4 had finally pushed things too far. After the first episode was shown, Ofcom received 300 complaints all highlighting concerns towards the glorification of illegal activity, and the Birmingham Police Force was flooded with demands to investigate some of the incidents on the show. Other critics have argued that the documentary “demonises” and exploits the poorest members of society for the entertainment of others, calling ethical arguments into question about what we as the British public enjoy watching on television; if documentaries like this are in fact exploitation, why do millions of people tune in every week, regardless of how negative their reaction can be?
Filming for the second series began two weeks ago and already there has been a notable amount of tension between residents and the documentary makers. Stockton-on-Tees is, according to Love Production’s Creative Director Kieran Smith, one of the areas hit hardest by the recession and economic decline in the UK, and the residents hardest hit are the ones dependent on the welfare system. It is because of this that the documentary makers decided to give the residents of Kingswood Road a voice. Despite this, many of the residents of Stockton-on-Tees have been outraged by their area being chosen for the show, with many insisting that the majority of people living there work full time – recent statistics have shown that only one in ten of the households in the area are in long-term unemployment. It has also been proven that the crime rate is below the national average. Local Labour MP, Alex Cunningham, expressed his disappointment at Stockton being chosen, slating Channel 4 for exploiting people for the sake of growing audiences.
It is understandable that residents are upset – because of the way in which the documentary is filmed, it is difficult to not judge how people live their lives; on the first series a couple of residents proudly claimed that they did not work and had no plans to get a job. Whilst it may be Channel 4’s intention to give these people a voice, they conveniently emphasise all of the things that would spark controversial debate. Residents who did not want to work and, in some cases, resorted to other means to make money, were definitely given more screen time than those that did. Channel 4 has done a good job in highlighting that the benefits issue is not completely black and white, but in doing so it presents people who are either perfect characters to judge as abusers of the system, or portrays them in such a way that it is impossible not to make this kind of judgement about them. In this light it is easy to see how the documentary can be classed as exploitation of the poorer members of society, although the reverse argument is of course that were they not guilty of some of the things they do they wouldn’t be on the show in the first place.
The welfare and benefits system is a historical issue of debate in the UK, and it is likely that it always will be. Creating a documentary series focused entirely on people dependent on that system was always going to be a passionate point of discussion for most people. It remains to be seen whether the outrage of the residents of the Kingswood Road translates on screen, but it is becoming a mystery as to why Stockton was chosen out of every poorer area in Britain. Either way the second series is likely to be another one filled with conflicting points of debate from start to finish.
Benefits Street 2 is Filming Now and should air in Jan 2015 on Channel 4. Exact release date TBC.
Image Rights; Channel 4