‘Poverty Porn’ Show Provokes U.K. Media Storm

Welfare recipients allege they were tricked by makers of reality show

LONDON — A TV show devoted to the lives of people living on state welfare has been dismissed by critics as “poverty porn,” and the methods of the program-makers have been called into question.

Documentary series “Benefits Street,” which airs on U.K. broadcaster Channel 4, is focused on the residents of a single street in Britain’s second largest city, Birmingham, James Turner Street. The vast majority of the street’s residents are recipients of state welfare payments, or “benefits,” as they are known in the U.K.

Ever since the first episode aired, stories have been circulating in the media claiming that residents were allegedly misled about the nature of the show: they were told it would focus on the positive characteristics of the street, such as “community spirit,” whereas the portrayal, in the eyes of some, is of feckless folk.

Steve Chalke, a community leader in Birmingham, told the Guardian newspaper that “Benefits Street” was like “an old Victorian freak show.” Chalke said, “The street has been turned into a zoo and the residents feel like they are exhibits.”

Politicians have joined the chorus of criticism. Anne Begg, who sits in the upper house of the U.K. Parliament, says the show misrepresents the lives of those claiming welfare. One episode, for example, focused on the life of a small-time crook. “Part of the problem of projecting the extreme cases is that people then extrapolate that and say that applies to everybody who is on benefits,” she told the BBC.

Those behind the show have mounted a fight-back. Channel 4’s head of factual programs Ralph Lee said: “The producers have been working with the residents of James Turner Street for nearly two years now. There has been a consultation with them long before we started filming. We were there filming for a year.

“They were very clear and transparent with everyone on the street about what the nature of the program was, why they were there and what the nature of the end product was.”

Channel 4 has now organised a live televised debate about the show to which the street’s residents have been invited, but many are saying that they will not participate unless Channel 4 apologizes.

The broadcaster claims the series has sparked a national debate about welfare. That is debatable, but the show has proved a ratings hit, with more than 5 million viewers watching the second episode.

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