Poverty porn or harsh reality? British argue over TV show on welfare recipients

Thu Jan 23, 2014 9:05am EST
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By Belinda Goldsmith

LONDON (Reuters) - A fly-on-the-wall documentary about a British street where most residents live on welfare payments has fuelled a politically-charged debate as the government cuts spending on benefits.

Dubbed "poverty porn" by critics, the five-part Benefits Street on Channel 4 chronicles life on James Turner Street in Birmingham, where recovering drug addict Fungi lives alongside jobless Becky and Mark who struggle to control their children.

It has struck a chord in Britain where many see benefits claimants as work-shy while others accuse the filmmakers of demonising the needy and vulnerable.

The show's defenders say it has put a human face on people often shunned by society and battling long-term unemployment and addiction, who nevertheless manage to help each other and retain a sense of humour.

Media regulator Ofcom said it had never received as many complaints about any documentary, many accusing it of falsely portraying benefit recipients as scroungers. The show is the most watched on Channel 4 in nearly two years, with more than 5 million viewers this week, a rare figure for a documentary.

Some on James Turner Street have voiced outrage at scenes suggesting they have chosen a life on handouts and use taxpayer money to buy large TVs and alcohol.

"Every new episode brings new tourists to the street and cars cruising up and down hurling abuse at people," said Steve Chalke, who is not a resident but is founder of the Oasis Trust that runs a school in the street and a member of a community group set up to tackle the fallout.

"We have children we need to accompany to school because their parents are too scared to go outside because of the abuse."   Continued...