I wear two hats when I write this blog of mine. First and foremost, I manage a small charity in a small Scottish town called Dumfries. Ours is a front door that opens onto the darker corners of the crumbling world that is Britain 2015. We hand out 5000 emergency food parcels a year in a town that is home to 50,000 souls. Then, as you can see from all of the book covers above, I am also a thriller writer. If you enjoy the blog, you might just enjoy the books. The link below takes you to the whole library in the Kindle store. They can be had for a couple of quid each.

Thursday, January 23, 2014


The last couple of days have seen a deal of agonising about the rights and wrongs of Channel 4’s ‘Benefits Street’. In case anyone is unaware of the main thrust of the series, it basically gives a fly on the wall view of a blighted street in Birmingham where just about everyone is on either the dole or the sick. It features the full range of tabloid villains who are scrounging the nation to penury: drug addicts, alcoholics, Romanian migrant workers, dysfunctional families and feckless single mums, all swilling down morning cans of lager.

Last week I heard a pundit on the Guardian’s ‘Politics Weekly’ podcast call the programme ‘Poverty Porn’. Many have felt the same. Is the programme merely pandering to our prurient desire to take a peek at people who have so much less than ourselves? Maybe. But in reality seeing people on their absolute uppers doesn’t really cut it. I never heard anyone label Michael Buerk’s reports from the famine stricken dustbowls of Ethiopia in 1984 as ‘Hunger Porn.’ Viewers took no vicarious pleasure in tuning in to the sight of dying babies with eyes full of flies and bloated bellies. People didn't gleefully discuss the look of abject despair in the eyes of mothers whilst knocking back a couple of after work pints. Instead the nation rallied behind Bob Geldof and sent ‘Feed the World’ to number one in the charts for weeks on end.

Only the most warped individual would take any pleasure from watching utter human misery. I have yet to hear any outraged liberals complain at the nightly ‘Civil War Porn’ that pours out of the desperate rubble strewn streets of Syria.

So why is shining a light on the chaotic lives of some of Britain’s most deprived citizens deemed to be so very wrong? Well there is a distinct difference. Documentaries focusing on the plight of starving African kids or dismembered Syrian kids do not encourage the viewer to judge the victims. The only emotion they tend to generate is one of gnawing pity, coupled with a guilty private horror: what the hell would I do if that was my kids?

Benefits Street’ offers the viewer rather more options.
One, you can feel sorry for the poor sods who have been locked into the benefits trap for most of their lives and have little or no chance of ever escaping it.
Two, you can get well and truly angry at the moronic system that allows such a thing to happen.
Three, you can harshly judge the people in the programme for their idleness and fecklessness. I guess this is where the ‘Porn’ accusation comes from. All too many people love nothing better than to judge others.

Judge harshly. Look down on. Turn their noses up. Say things like. ‘It’s a disgrace.’ ‘Shouldn’t be allowed.’ ‘They should be ashamed of themselves.’

Oh yeah. Let’s not forget the old favourite.

‘If I had my way I would put the whole lot of them on a boat, sail it out to sea, and sink it.’

This is what I often think of as the ‘bloke at the bar test.’

For as long as there have been bars for blokes to sit at, there have been blokes who have loved nothing better than to hold forth and spit out their poison of choice. The bloke at the bar never really changes. He wants to hate someone. He wants to feel better than someone. He wants to blame someone. He wants someone to carry the can. And most importantly, he wants everyone within earshot to agree with him. To slap him on the back. To buy him a drink. To notice him. To give him some credit.

So the bloke at the bar who gets his rocks off by publically hating someone never really changes. What changes is who he is allowed to publically hate without being reported to the police, arrested and charged.

Here are a few examples.

A bloke at a Munich bar in 1937.

“God I hate these stinking Yids. If I had my way I would put the whole lot of them on a boat, sail it out to sea, and sink it.’

Would he have been in any bother? Be serious!

Would he be in bother if he tried it today. Sure would.

A bloke at a bar in Glasgow in 1949.

‘I really hate all these shirt-lifting poofs. If I had my way I would put the whole lot of them on a boat, sail it out to sea, and sink it.’

Trouble? Not a bit. We used to chemically castrate homosexuals back then so being called shirt-lifting poofs would have been the least of their problems.

Strathclyde’s finest would have lots to say about it today.

A bloke at a bar in Birmingham, Alabama in 1956.

‘Christ I hate all these Commie bastards in Holywood and Broadway. If I had my way I would put the whole lot of them on a boat, sail it out to sea, and sink it.’

On you go son. Senator McCarthy was saying much the same thing on prime time every night.

Well our American cousins still have little time for communists, but that kind of thing wouldn’t be deemed to be acceptable any more.

A bloke at bar in Birmingham, UK in 1958.

‘Tell you what lads, I can’t stand all these bloody Niggers. If I had my way I would put the whole lot of them on a boat, sail it out to sea, and sink it.’

Fine and dandy in 1958. Not fine at all now.

The same bloke sat bat the same Birmingham bar in 1971.

‘Tell you what lads, I can’t stand all these bloody Pakis. If I had my way I would put the whole lot of them on a boat, sail it out to sea, and sink it.’

Still fine and dandy in 1971. Not fine at all now.

Bloke at the same Birmingham bar last night.

‘Have you seen that lot in ‘Benefits Street’? Make me bloody sick they do. Alkies, junkies and Romanians. Can’t stand the lot of them. Scrounging bastards. If I had my way I would put the whole lot of them on a boat, sail it out to sea, and sink it.’

Would there be a call made to summon the West Midlands Police? Doubtful. And even if there was a call, there would be nothing that the boys in blue could do about it.

And so we arrive at the very heart of the matter. Whether we like it or not, a large percentage of people like nothing better than the warm glow of prejudice. It makes them feel better about themselves as people. It makes their bare little lives seem more acceptable. The likes of Hitler get this and they create dynasties out of it. They turn hatred and prejudice into the done thing. The way ahead. The norm.

They turn the bloke at the bar into an icon. All of a sudden he is the flavour of the month. He is not painted as a twisted, bitter old git who spits out his own brand of poisn to mask the fact that his life is rubbish. Oh no. Adolf and Joseph Goebbels were having none of that. Instead they bigged him up. They told him he was a Superman for no other reason than the fact that generations of his relatives came from within the German borders. The fact that he was thick as a plank and as nasty as a yard dog was all forgotten. He was praised as a hard working family man. He was revered for coming from pure Aryan stock. He was made a hero for no other reason than the fact that he worked ten hours a day for minimum wage and hated the Yids like a true patriot.

This I suppose is the main reason why so many instinctively recoil from ‘Benefits Street’. From a purely commercial point of view, it must have the money men at Channel 4 doing jigs of joy. I wonder how much the cost of an advert must have gone up from Episode 1 to Episode 4. 200%? 500%? It has to be an absolute load.

All over Britain blokes sitting at bars will be passing judgement on the chaotic antics of the residents of Benefits Street. Nobody will be arrested and charged because just like it was perfectly OK to hate the Jews in 1930’s Germany, it is every bit as OK to hate the scrounging poor in 2014 Britain.

So is this enough to say that Channel 4 were wrong in putting this kind of stuff out at prime time?

Well not in my book.

Just because the programme panders to the spiteful poor hating agenda of the Government and the tabloid media doesn’t mean that it isn’t painting a very true picture. The reality of lifetime benefit dependency is a thing that we have been banging on about at First Base for years and years. And for most of those years, nobody has shown any inclination whatsoever to listen. We have never judged the people who have make such a lifestyle choice. After all, they are doing nothing more than the vast majority of people. They are working out which life choices will give them maximum return.

Any maths graduate in the top ten of his Harvard class has the chance to make his brilliant mind available to creating new, ground breaking scientific breakthroughs which will make the lives of millions of fellow human beings better. More crops and less disease and cheaper homes. Do many take such a path? No. Instead they almost all succumb to the siren voices of the casino banks on Wall St. They follow the dollar and sell their genius to Goldman Sachs. Does the bloke at the bar have a pop at them? Does he hell.

What life choices does an 18 year old girl in Britain with no qualifications have? Not many. She can get work on the supermarket checkouts or in a hairdressers. 20 hours a week at minimum wage. Never in a million years enough for a place of her own and a weekly spending spree in Primark and ten bottles of Blue Wicked on a Saturday night. There is however a choice.


Four kids can generate a benefits package of £20,000 a year after tax and a rent free house. Four kids basically means the equivalent disposable income to someone earning £60,000 a year. So do we judge the individual for making the career choice of having kids for an income that otherwise would be a pipe dream? Well the bloke at the bar certainly does. But it would be a whole lot smarter to judge the stupid system that puts such sums of cash on the table.

For me the main message from ‘Benefits Street’ is exactly the same as we see every single day at First Base. Of course all of us would rather the individuals who have taken benefits as their choice of life would go out to work for a living instead. Obviously we would. But it isn’t as simple as that. The real question is what work are such people capable of doing. They have never in their lives got out of bed at seven in the morning to take the bus to work. Many can barely read or write and they have no experience in anything at all. If they knuckle down and get someone to help them to fill in an application form and by some miracle get themselves an interview, what are the chances of them being chosen ahead of the other ten or twenty folk who are pitching for the same job? Less than zero. And if by an even bigger miracle they do manage to get a start, will they be able to dump the habits of a lifetime and arrive every day on time?

It is all very well sitting at the bar berating the residents of Benefits Street and demanding that they get a job and stop sponging. That is the easy bit. The hard bit is finding any job they have a chance of getting.

The Welfare State has been a complete basket case for 30 years and many have chosen it as a career. We don’t like it, but it has happened. We see the characters of Benefits Street every single day at First Base. In reality most will never get a job and they will be completely dependent on welfare until the day they die. It is a horrible truth but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
Be honest. If you had a small business of your own and you had advertised a vacancy, would you take a risk on one of the characters from the programme who has not a single entry on their CV? No references and no work experience and a few black marks on their Disclosure report? Or would you hire the smart Chemistry graduate from Kracow or Riga or Bucharest? Let’s face it, we cannot blame employers for playing safe and hiring the bright young things of the old Communist Block. It is the smart choice.

There is no point in staying in denial about the legacy of allowing the Welfare State to become a sad joke for thirty years. And there is no point in blaming the people who have played the system for everything they could get. At least Benefits Street has lifted a lid on the whole fiasco and got millions to watch.

Does it offer any answers? No. Well, not so far.

But at least it has posed the question and for that Channel 4 should be commended, not slagged off.      

No comments:

Post a Comment