Our Poverty Media Coordinator Jackie Cox works alongside people in poverty to ensure they are more fairly presented in the media. So she was excited to be invited to a conference in November on ‘poverty and TV’. Unfortunately, the event illustrated some of the very problems we are trying to tackle…
The conference ‘Who Benefits? Poverty and TV’, led by the BBC and in partnership with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, NCVO and the Royal Television Society, offered an innovative way to widen the discussion and speak directly to broadcasters. The BBC Head of Outreach and Corporate Responsibility, Diane Reid, said in her opening speech: “There are many conferences about poverty and there are many conferences about TV. This is the first conference about TV and poverty”.
In keeping with our commitment to having the real voices of real people involved in debates about poverty in the UK, we invited Shirley and Letitia, two of the people supported by benefits who had made videos for our Real Benefits Street project, to the conference.
We were asked to make an eight-minute presentation, but because of time constraints, this was changed at the last minute and instead, BBC Breakfast News presenter Louise Minchin interviewed Shirley and Letitia “for a minute or so”.
Theirs turned out to be the only voices of people with experience of living in poverty that were heard, along with a one-minute story from someone who has been filmed for a new BBC series. Benefits Street ‘star’ White Dee was part of a panel debate but didn’t get much chance to voice her opinion, discussion being dominated by broadcast professionals who got more and more defensive as the session progressed. At one point, a producer from an independent production company referred to people living in poverty dismissively by saying “you know how hard it is to find these people”.
The conference became divided between broadcast professionals and those who work in the charitable and voluntary sector challenging UK poverty. There was a genuine willingness to find common ground to enable both ‘sides’ to work together, but certain assumptions and misunderstandings made this difficult. In addition to the lack of authentic voices, Martin Johnstone, Secretary of the Church of Scotland’s Church & Society Council, observed another problem:
“There is a misunderstanding that speaking to charities that work with those struggling against poverty is the same as speaking to people directly.”
There was an assumption among those representing broadcasters that charities want TV broadcasters to make programmes about the charities, to boost their profiles and help raise funds. But we are arguing for authentic voices to be heard; we want to raise the voices of people facing very real issues and challenges on a daily basis, to help them highlight the injustices they face, and demand change that ends poverty in the UK in the 21st century.
Andrew Grinnell of the Leeds Poverty Truth Challenge summed it all up on Twitter afterwards:
“I left the day with more questions than answers about responsible TV-making.”
“I think for me the organisers completely missed the point of the conference. Or maybe I misunderstood the aim of it! I felt that Letitia and I were the only authentic voices in the place…overall I feel very disappointed. Sadly I did not feel like I gained anything positive from it. The person who said ‘those people’ should have been thrown out!”
Shirley (Real Benefits Street expert)
“To me the question ‘who benefits?’ was never actually answered. The only subtle hint came from the commissioning editor from Channel 5, who said that TV channels need to make money and therefore programmes need to be entertaining to appeal to target audiences.
I thought it was great that Letitia and Shirley were given time to be interviewed and it’s a shame that there was not more involvement from people in poverty which in my opinion shaped the event and not for the better (e.g. the types of questions they asked, the panel).
What was positive for me was that I started to really think about why we conflate poverty and benefits, which to me are not the same thing and what can TV programmes do to help challenge this?”
Naomi Anderson (ATD 4th World)
“It was a privilege to be invited to the BBC conference and to have the opportunity to share my ‘expert voice’ on poverty.
Although there is a wide narrative on the definition of poverty and the social consequences, we still have the burning issue of its associated Stigma. We need to challenge media terminology such as ‘these people’ and ‘case studies’.”
Letitia (Real Benefits Street expert)