Niall Cooper Taking sides
Are you on the side of saints or sinners? Are you for the “hardworking families” or the “benefit cheats”? You might think that the answer is obvious, but is the world really so clearcut? Are we not all both saints and sinners?
Over the past few months, politicians from across the political spectrum have been falling over themselves to announce their support for “hardworking families”. The media is equally obsessed with stories demonstrating the need to crackdown on “benefit cheats” and “benefit tourists”. Wherever you look, it’s clear which side you are supposed to be on. And even within poor communities, the world is seemingly divided into “saints” and “sinners”.
I have to confess that I couldn’t bring myself to watch the latest series of Channel 4’s Benefits Street, which aired in May, but my colleague Liam Purcell did. He observed: “It seems that the producers of Benefits Street had a clear narrative in mind for this second series – the old lie of the ‘deserving and undeserving poor’. The two focal points for every episode have been Neil Maxwell (who appears to deal drugs, and in one episode was arrested for assault) and Julie Young (who cares full-time for her disabled son, and whose funeral is featured in the last episode).”
Never mind that Maxwell is an extreme example, whose life bears no relation to those lived by the vast majority of people who are supported by benefits. Never mind that a civilised benefits system should provide a safety net for everyone. Never mind that it’s completely inappropriate to make moral judgements on other people’s lives based on the content of a TV programme that has been edited to produce maximum emotional impact and publicity. The audience is encouraged to see everything in black and white: Some people are deserving of our generous support, while others deserve nothing. The effect of this was very clear in the reactions on Twitter, where many people described Julie as a saint while writing off everybody else on the programme as “scum”…
This is an extract from the July/August 2015 edition of Reform.