*This blog is part of assessment for the Media Ethics module on the Theology, Media and communication MA course. 500-600 words*
Benefits Street is a documentary series on Channel 4 aimed at showing the ‘reality of life on benefits’ by following a group of residents in a community in Birmingham. (Channel 4). The series as a whole has attracted much criticism from viewers with 979 complaints to Ofcom and in particular the residents of James Turner street as they have argued the show has represented them as ‘anti-social benefit scroungers, irresponsible parents, drug-takers and foul-mouthed wasters’. (Collier and Deans, 2014, January 7).
The documentary series poses many moral and ethical questions relating to; the representation of the residents, the perceived lack of consent, editorial intervention and the role of the media in delivering an objective view of the subject. It is also important to note the importance of; social media, regulation and the role of politics and the press.
The main ‘characters’ in Benefits Street are represented as ‘folk devils’ (Cohen, 2002, p.27) and ‘different’ from society (Hall, 1997, p.230) as they are continuously shown; swearing, consuming alcohol, committing crime and arguing with children. In the second episode, the ‘folk devil’ switches from the residents to the Romanian immigrants on the street as they are continually attacked by the James Turner Street residents. This portrayal creates a sense of moral panic to the viewers that these people are damaging for society. Marxists would argue that this portrayal is a way to oppress the most vulnerable in society and to keep them within their ‘false class consciousness’. (Wood, 2004, p.10). Or perhaps it is a cheap way in engaging the public with politics and a mechanism to highlight the relationship between; the media, law, politics and society at a time of welfare cuts and austerity?
But who are the real winners of this production? It is most certainly is not the residents who were reportedly filmed under false pretences and are now facing criminal charges (Collier, and Deans, 2014, The Guardian). The public may have gained a healthy debate across social media platforms but perhaps the real beneficiary is the production company as a result of commercialisation. Is it moral to suppress the most vulnerable in society for commercial gain? Utilitarianism particularly through the work of Jeremy Bentham and the ‘greatest good is the greatest amount of happiness for all’ would argue not (Ward, 2011, p.35). Deontological thought would also take this view because if we were to apply broken promises as a universal rule it would be detrimental to society as a whole.
The media as an institution have a responsibility to deliver news, information and entertainment to society. The primary role of the media and journalism is to shine a light in dark corners and to hold the state to account but is this fair at the expense of others? Surely the media also have a responsibility to protect the vulnerable which is supported by libertarianism? (Berry, 2013, p. 74)
In contemporary society it is important to study the relationship between the media and the public sphere as we are all sharing the same media platform due to globalisation and the development of technology. Social media gives the opportunity for instant comment and conversation whereas pre 21st century the right to reply stayed with letters to the Editor of newspapers. During the broadcast of Benefit Street social media was swamped with views about the people and the programme from across the world. Many negative discussions took place about the participants, however, there has been a lot of support for the James Turner Street residents (Anderson, 2014, The Independent) which has even led to a national fundraising campaign. (Lee, R, 2014, change.org). This programme may have been aimed at segregating society, however, with the availability of social media and instant reply it has brought the wider community together in supporting the residents.
This programme highlights the clash between freedom of expression, the role of the media and the negative effect this can often have.
Benefits Street poses a palette of moral and ethical questions, however the programme paints a perfect picture of the relationship between; media, ethics, and society and the ever-growing effect of technology on the wider community.
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Berry, D. (2013). Ethics and Media Culture: Practices and Representations. (1st ed.). CRC Press
Cohen, S. (2002). Folk Devils and Moral Panics. (3rd ed.). Taylor & Francis.
Hall, S. (1997). Representation: Cultural Representation and Signifying Practices. (1st ed.). Milton Keynes: The Open University.
Ward, J. A. (2011). Ethics and the Media An Introduction. (1st ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Wood, A. W. (2004). Karl Marx. (2nd ed.). Oxon: Routledge.
Anderson, D. (2014, January 21). Benefits street: How it feels for those of us who are judged because of our background. The Independent.
Baker, P. (2014, January 20). Benefits Street? its nothing like the James Turner Street we researched. The Guardian.
Retrieved January 23, 2014, from http://www.theguardian.com
Collier, H., and Deans, J. (2014, January 7). Benefits street footage may have shown criminal activity, say Police. The Guardian.
Retrieved January 15, 2014, from http://www.theguardian.com
Monroe, J. (2014, January 21). It’s time ti focus on the real benefits street. The Guardian.
Retrieved January 22, 2014, from www.theguardian.com
Channel 4, Benefits Street.
Lee, R. Channel 4: Stop broadcasting Benefits Street and make a donation to a relevant charity for the harm caused.
Ofcom, audience complaints.
Retrieved January 21, 2014, from http://www.stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/enforcement/audience-complaints/