Benefits Street? Quality Street methinks.

Birmingham has been in the news this week because of a ‘documentary’ on Channel Four called ‘Benefits Street’. I say ‘documentary’ because I’m aware of all the controversy surrounding representation and the truth that is implied in ‘documentary’ or ‘factual television’. Plenty has been written already about whether the programme is ethical or not, which is exactly the kind of discussion that Channel Four wants to provoke so they can retain their ‘edginess’. It joins a long list including ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’ and ‘Undateables’, and the controversy that emerges is as tiresome as the programmes themselves, but hey-ho, I’m not using the 72 blog to critique television.

But I did watch the programme with one thought in mind. The programme was set in Winson Green, an area of Birmingham that I don’t frequent that often. In fact, the sentence ‘I don’t frequent that often’ proves that I’m not a local to Winson Green. But I’m not going to take the piss out of it for one very sorry and sad reason. It is a story that involves the media, the police, Winson Green, and the shopping malls. It is my own little experience that I think is interesting, and I hope brings a different perspective.

August 2011. There are riots all over Britain, although the majority of the media coverage is based on London, because of the killing of a man in Tottenham (this week’s other story). As I live in Birmingham city centre, I saw people breaking into the shops and looting. I live opposite the Mailbox and saw the whole thing being smashed in by around 200+ people on the first night that rioting began in Birmingham. It was pretty horrific.

The second night, the police had a different tactic. Instead of chasing the looters, they simply waited outside the main malls and waited for the looters to come. They never did, the looters went to the suburbs instead.

In fact, they went to Winson Green. And three men died. And then the father of one of the dead came out and spoke:

Tariq Jahan, the father of Haroon, has been lauded for his part in quelling tensions after the riots across England, with both David Cameron and Ed Miliband singling him out for praise.

Speaking outside his home, less than 60 metres from where his son died, Jahan said last week: “Our three boys have died. Another 68-year-old man has died in London. Let their deaths be the last as a result of this madness. They are martyrs who died defending their communities.”

September 2012: I am at the Media Education Summit in Bournemouth and a Guardian journalist is talking about the London riots. I mentioned to him that it wasn’t the ‘London’ riots, and I pointed out how the deaths in Winson Green posed a bit of a problem for the media, because the deaths seemingly sprung out of nowhere in the minds of the rest of the country, because there had been no representation of the Birmingham riots at all, other than a young lad with a blog and an Indian cable channel called Sangat that drove around all night. Now the narrative was ending in Birmingham, when as far as the media were concerned, there hadn’t been a riot in Birmingham.

This week: I’m watching Benefits Street and I’m seeing how the police are defending the town centre from a career criminal but letting him walk free in Winson Green. He’s only a menace to society if he is in town centre apparently. And I’m thinking of the riot police back in 2011, standing outside Harvey Nicholls with their riot shields on, whilst up the road three people die defending their own stores. And I’m thinking, Channel Four have got the wrong story here haven’t they? Who is on Benefits Street?? The commercial High Street shops seem to have the benefit of police protection using our tax, when commercial entities should surely be securing their own shop themselves??

But here’s the rub, and it is why I feel it belongs on this blog about our project. I don’t know which is worse, misrepresentation or no representation at all, but I know what is best – self representation. I love Birmingham for lots of different reasons that I never see on television and I probably never will. I’m not from here, but if I’m honest, most of the people I know in Birmingham aren’t from here and that is part of the reason I think it is great. I’m looking forward to making a film here because I live here and I’m sick of watching it through the eyes of others.

James

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