Channel 5 has picked on the wrong people, at the wrong time

Hull North MP Diana Johnson had the article below published in the Hull Daily Mail. It can also be read at .

As Channel 5 films a new programme about life on benefits, Hull North MP Diana Johnson demands a fair and balanced portrait of the city

AS HULL added City of Green Energy to being UK City of Culture, news emerged last week that Channel Five had chosen Hull for the latest TV "documentary" about people living on benefits.

There are people living on benefits in Weybridge, Surbiton and Chelsea. To meet their stated requirements, Channel Five could film in any of these places.

The fact that, yet again, a northern city has been chosen gives away the stereotypes dominating the thinking of these London-based programme-makers. It throws light too on an underlying agenda.

The series will not exactly be original. The idea behind it is far from new. Over the past five years, we've seen a proliferation of "documentaries" about people on benefits, or slight variations on that basic theme.

It evidently fascinates certain programme-makers.

In 2009, Channel Four made Benefit Busters, featuring Hull.

Hull North's Orchard Park then appeared in Tower Block Of Commons on Channel Four in 2010.
The first series of Channel Four's Skint last year was widely seen as damaging for Scunthorpe.

Following Scunthorpe's experience, Grimsby residents recently organised a petition against a second series of Skint being made in Grimsby.

Last year, Channel Five produced On Benefits And Proud, part of a trilogy that also included Shoplifters And Proud and Pickpockets And Proud. The implied link between being poor and criminal dishonesty betrays the political agenda.

I wouldn't deny the possible effects of desperate poverty but as we know, Canary Wharf bankers can be dishonest too.

Channel Four's Benefits Street recently ventured as far south as Birmingham. After it was shown early this year, Birmingham MPs told me that the series showed the community featured in a selective, distorted and overly negative way.

Against this backdrop, we hear that Hull will feature in another benefits series.
There's every reason to believe that what Hull can expect will not be the "documentary" described by those promoting the series, nor the high editorial standards of ITV's World In Action in the past; or BBC Panorama and Channel Four's Dispatches in the present.

Proper documentaries explore issues such as welfare but do so in depth, asking tough questions. They do not shirk complexity and try to find answers and insights that inform the policy agenda.

There was little of this in programmes like Skint and Benefits Street. Hull should not be optimistic about Channel Five's plans.

I suspect that they would film and edit their production to show almost exclusively negative aspects of Hull, glossing over positives such as our recent locally-won successes on the UK City of Culture 2017 and Siemens. Much of the work of those building a stronger local economy, with fewer on benefits or needing food banks, would go on the cutting room floor, if filmed at all.

The benefits issues would be covered in a simplistic, shallow and exploitative way, designed to provoke a predictable reaction from the audience, sneering at people and whole communities who, whatever faults some have, aren't the most fortunate.

If we were to succumb to the lazy, stereotyped thinking of Channel Five, I could suggest some other programme ideas. Why not film Loaded in Putney, On Bollinger And Proud in Notting Hill or Bonuses Street in Chiswick?

From their City of London office, how many of the PR people promoting this series, an outfit called "The Outside Organisation Ltd", know Hull and the challenges facing us?
So, given the way these TV production companies operate, and that filming in Hull has already started, how should we respond?

I've concluded that there needs to be an alternative fair, honest and balanced TV portrayal of Hull. An independent-minded and experienced journalist with a deep understanding of Hull could work with a reputable broadcaster, with a record of covering community life in Hull, on making a high-quality rival to Channel Five's project.

It would show the positives as well as the negatives.

On the negatives, it would not just show people sitting at home, standing outside the Job Centre or in food banks. Neither would it overuse shots of derelict buildings, loitering youths or litter as representative of life in Hull. It would cover Hull's challenges in a serious, in-depth way that seeks out the often complex causes of social and economic problems.

It may also ask why many in work struggle with the cost of living and whether Hull has been getting a fair deal, compared to other parts of the country, from policy-makers in Whitehall, going back several decades. There would be awkward questions for all those taking part not just those on benefits.

On the positive side, it would also show the progress Hull has made, often against the odds. It would feature the work of inspirational local people in business, the council, the voluntary sector and many others of great industry and aspiration behind Hull's recent successes , most of them not on benefits at all.

It would give a flavour of a pioneering city with a colourful history ambitiously building future prosperity. It could feature local engineering apprentices, the University of Hull and the growing local digital economy. It would also show many of the great facilities the city has, such as The Deep, Hull Truck Theatre and our Museum Quarter.

Only such fair, balanced and intelligent reporting would give Hull and TV viewers the appropriate respect, after seeing so much nonsense broadcast about Hull and the North in recent years.

This week, I suggested this idea to a nationally renowned journalist who grew up in Hull and to the head of the BBC in East Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. Both were enthusiastic. Hopefully, planning for a high-quality documentary about Hull people will now start.

In a free society, of course, Channel Five has the right to make the show we suspect it will.
In Hull, we have the right to criticise rubbish, and to fight back.

This time around, this TV company has picked on the wrong people, the wrong place, at the wrong time.

Diana Johnson
MP for Hull North