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My experience of last night’s Benefits Street debate

18 February 2014

2:59 PM

18 February 2014

2:59 PM

I spent yesterday evening in Birmingham with the residents of ‘Benefits Street’, assorted pundits and politicians. It was a slightly rowdy debate for Channel 4, and can be seen here. Since a number of controversial things came up perhaps I can deal with them in order.

‘The programme shouldn’t have been made.’

I felt very uncomfortable at one point last night, watching both the opposition minister, Chris Bryant, government minister Mike Penning and various pundits including Mehdi Hasan of the Huffington Post and Owen Jones of The Independent saying that Channel 4 should not have made the series, should have made a different series, made a series about something else or edited it differently and so on. I do not think it is the role of media to tell other media what they should or should not cover. And I certainly do not think it is the role of publicly paid politicians to act as television critics. In any case, all this bashing of Channel 4 strategically avoids the main point – which is that Benefits Street exposed a real problem. It isn’t an invented problem. And even if it were a small problem – which it isn’t – it is one that should not be responded to by a call to talk about something else.

‘Having children you can’t afford.’

Along with Alison Pearson of the Telegraph, I found myself last night in the unenviable position of appearing to be set up to attack the inhabitants of Benefits Street in the studio. Alison Pearson seemed to be particularly lined up for this. Indeed after the first segment, during which Owen Jones made a somewhat ad feminam attack on her, she left the studio and did not return. Thus we were left with a line-up of pundits that was not just almost all-left, but undeniably all-male.

Anyhow what was strange was this: early on the presenter Richard Bacon pulled up something I had written about an entirely different case, last year (about the irresponsibility of having children you cannot afford to keep), and implied I had written it about Benefits Street. He then, strangely, asked which of the children of the people opposite shouldn’t have been born. To say this is a low way to do things probably does not need to be pointed out. But here is a conundrum and so I lay it out straight.

I had said to the producers that since White Dee’s daughter was in the studio I would not engage in any discussion which would affect her. She is a child who is starting off in the world and who I am sure we all wish luck to. But it was her mother who went on national television – during one episode of the Benefits Street series – and said that she had only had her daughter because one night she and a friend went out drinking, ‘got completely wasted’ and that her daughter was the result. The father, needless to say, is not around. Another couple from the programme who are together – Mark and Becky – got together at school, have never worked, are not married, and have two children together.

Now both of these situations strike me as good examples of deep irresponsibility. Certainly neither are what I would regard as a commendable or serious-minded way in which to begin perhaps our most serious task of all – bringing a child into the world. As for the ‘who are you to judge’ point that some people will inevitably make, I would simply point out that among other things I am one of the tax-payers who pays the bill for these actions, a fact which should give me at least some right to comment.

In any case, these are points which I would be happy to make calmly to the people involved. But I will not make those points in front of the children. To me it seems highly irresponsible of Dee to tell the nation that her child was brought into the world the way she was. But it is no place of mine to rub that in by repeating the injury in front of her child. Doubtless some people will think that I ‘bottled’ this. But particularly in situations involving children I think there are times when common decency is more important than expressing a political truth. Nevertheless, my point remains. Most people who work in this country worry enormously about how they are going to afford to bring up their children and what they are going to do to support them. As I have said many times – a society in which those who are most responsible worry about having children, and those with fewest responsibilities appear not to, is a society storing up problems.

‘Do you like them?’

Having become the only remaining token right-winger, Richard Bacon seemed strangely keen to elicit my personal feelings about White Dee and her neighbours. I tried to stress – because it is true – that it doesn’t much matter whether I happen to warm to someone during a television programme or not. All that matters is how can we address a terrible situation which these people are stuck in. That is a system which (as Fraser has pointed out here) rewards those who don’t work better than it rewards many who do. White Dee herself acknowledged this in her recent Spectator diary. In my opinion the descent of this issue into ‘do you like them or not’ is a lowering way to turn a real societal problem into little more than public gossip.

Anyhow – I spent a little time afterwards with some of the residents and the programme makers. There is nobody who could not wish the people in the programme well. I am delighted that Mark has got a job and can begin to take responsibility for the welfare of his family. I wish the ’50p man’ and others the best of luck with their futures as well.

But there is one final thought. To see Dee at the moment is to see someone in the middle of a full wattage ‘celebrity’ moment. Everyone wants their pictures taken with her, and she is spoken to by interviewers in those familiar reverential tones once reserved for bishops and cabinet ministers. These are her 15 minutes. Perhaps they will run out. Perhaps they will run on. But here is a further problem.

I would not be the first person to point out that in recent years Britain has developed a culture of downward aspiration. It is best highlighted by comparing us to the United States. Drawing the brush-stroke broadly but not inaccurately, in the UK you mention a millionaire and people think ‘bastard’. In the US they think ‘well done him – how I can repeat that guy’s success?’ There was a terrific example of this last night. The self-made millionaire plumber Charlie Mullins made an important point and was immediately shouted down for being rich. Now Dee – whatever her other qualities – has been out of work since stealing £13,000 from her previous employer (the local authority). Mark and Becky – again, whatever their other attributes – had their benefits reduced when it turned out they had committed benefits fraud. All are currently at risk of being turned into the nation’s sweethearts.

I would be the first to admit that these people all still deserve a chance. It should be palpably obvious that all have been failed by our abysmal education system (something which Big Issue founder John Bird rightly and noisily pointed out last night). But all must also bear – as we all must – some responsibility for their actions. And that is where some moral discernment is at least partly necessary. For while few public figures may be willing to criticise those actions, I hardly think we can praise them for them.

And that is the crucial turn for the worse. There is a difference between a society which refuses to make any moral judgements and a society which actually makes the wrong moral judgements; a society which refuses to look up to anyone and a society which looks up to the wrong people. A society which makes heroes out of White Dee and co and shouts down a self-made man seems to me to be a society which is suffering some form of pathology. That is a pathology which is worth mulling over. Because if you crack why this is so you get closer to discovering not just how the situation depicted in Benefits Street has come about, but why the reaction of so many powerful people has been to say that it is a problem we should neither raise nor talk about.

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