This might not sit comfortably with some, but I refuse to be disgusted, outraged or in the slightest bit angry about Benefits Street.
Mainly because I haven’t seen it. And I doubt I will, despite just about everyone I usually respect imploring me to sign petitions to get the programme banned, or generally Make A Fuss about its negative portrayal of people on a housing estate in the West Midlands.
It seems that people have been queuing up in the past couple of weeks to tell me just how bad it is, and how This Sort Of Thing shouldn’t be allowed. And the more I think about it, the more I’m reminded of these guys.
Just yesterday, the comedian Frank Skinner said that he’d turned down a job on the show because he was “a bit worried about the topic”. Personally, I’m of the opinion that hundreds of complainants may ultimately be disappointed. I don’t normally do predictions, but if OFCOM does launch a formal investigation (which it has yet to decide), the result will inevitably be “case dismissed”. Or, more likely, the regulator’s favourite conclusion “complaint resolved”. And here’s why.
Channel Four does some excellent investigative journalism, and over the years has well earned its own moniker “Born Risky”. But many of those expressing concern about the people and subjects portrayed in Benefits Street seem to be confusing journalism with what the show really is : observational entertainment. Unlike current affairs programmes, there is no over-riding obligation to provide balance, or to be impartial. See also Big Fat Gypsy Weddings and – to some extend Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents.
What all of these shows have in common is that they fall under the very broad remit of “factual” programming – which thinly disguises their ultimate purpose of mass entertainment. What’s more, every single person shown will have filled out a disclaimer contract – full of small print, but basically saying “we [the production company] own all of the footage and may edit it exactly as we please”. In that sense, Benefits Street is no different to X Factor.
The criticism of Benefits Street hasn’t gone un-noticed. From Jeremy Vine to the One Show, rival broadcasters are doing exactly what Channel Four wanted : talking about their show. Lots. And it’s not the first time that the Indy Love Productions has created “talked about TV”. In recent years it has been responsible for shows including Can’t Stop Eating, Britain’s Youngest Grannies and Underage and Having Sex.
Oh, and the Great British Bake Off. Now, who’s up for a phone in on soggy bottoms?