BBC1 11th September 2012 9.00 pm
Conditions on the Shadsworth Estate, on the outskirts of Blackburn, are far from ideal. According to Trouble on the Estate, Panorama’s hour-long special, it is a hotbed of drugs, anti-social behaviour, bad parenting, violence, and unemployment.
2,000 people live there, but the programme focused on just a few families. The filmmaker, Richard Bilton, spent months filming among them, to gather what he believed was an accurate account of life on a British housing estate.
The advantage of using this filming method – embedding a journalist for a longer period so he can gain the confidence of his subjects – is that your subjects relax and you get a version of their truth. The trouble comes when you realise that your subjects act up to the camera, and that they often don’t know why they do what they do, and are as susceptible as the rest of us to falling back on prejudices and information from untrustworthy sources when considering their lives.
As an unemployment specialist, our review centres on this aspect, which means we must ignore the scenes of small children play fighting with dramatic music playing over them, the shaky hand-held camera shots (which denote urban roughness on TV) showing ‘anti-social behaviour’ which in fact show nothing but some children running around in a field, and the drug bust of a baffled middle aged man who had marijuana plants in his airing cupboard; despite the desperate pedalling of the producers there was little of impact here.
The sensationalist tone was present throughout; a more balanced documentary may gather fewer viewers, but it would be fairer and more truthful without the dramatic music, repeated shots of the one boarded-up building suggesting deprivation that wasn’t shown, and lack of factual and statistical context for much of the information provided by those appearing on camera.
In presenting the idea that we were seeing all life on the estate it erred towards dishonesty; life everywhere includes positives and calm time when little happens. The closest we came to a functional relationship was a 15 year old who had moved to his Aunt’s house a mile away; we saw him with his girlfriend on the swings in full romantic effect. For every workless family we saw, statistics suggest there must be at least two with work, people who are getting up every day and providing, even on the Shadsworth.
The government statistics service, NOMIS, backs this up. It shows that in the Shadsworth with Whitebirk ward in Blackburn only 10.8% of working-age residents are unemployed, and 60.7% of people are working. It also follows a fairly traditional pattern, in that 70.9% of men are working and 51.3% of women. This isn’t a place with no role models and no hope for work.
The programme gives its own figures, stating that nearly a third of adults in Blackburn aren’t working. Typically they present a figure that doesn’t bear much scrutiny; ward-level information is more accurate, and available. ‘Not working’ is also a fairly meaningless category; it may well have been presented to give viewers the impression that it relates to real unemployment, rather than a range of categories including contributors to society like carers, disabled people, and students.
The other issue with letting people speak for themselves is that you can’t control what they will say and, as with all of us, they will say some things that are oxymoronic and some things which are just the first idea to come in to their heads, leading to uncertainty in the film’s messages. In this programme a group of charismatic young men say on camera that there is no work for young people, but then that there is low paid cleaning work in nearby Burnley.
The film maker then asks them if they would work for the same money as they receive in benefits but they say no, that they don’t see why they should work unless they would be better off. This rational position, that work should always pay, underpins the current government’s benefits strategy, yet we are invited to judge these men to be morally lacking in comparison with Andy, the documentary’s saintly character.
Andy earns £100 per week as a cleaner, but gets the same amount in tax credits. More proof that public funding is vital and a force for good in a deprived area.
Andy’s wife tells us that it ‘does my head in’ that those on benefits seem to be able to afford more things than them, then Andy says ‘I wish I could get a handout but I have to work for my handout if you know what I mean’. The moral relativism here is straight from The Daily Mail and Jeremy Kyle; both the low paid and unemployed are rightly entitled to benefits, but the low paid are favoured as morally superior and come to believe this themselves, even when working leaves them in hardship.
Andy’s wife believes that ‘probably the majority of people on this estate don’t work’, which official figures suggest is untrue; another example of the evidence around people being filtered through the gauze of misinformation from elsewhere. A documentary that presents this testimony primarily without comment or additional fact or context is always going to struggle to stay within the boundaries of accuracy and fairness.
The effect on its subjects of being filmed can be seen everywhere, further eroding the idea that we are watching a truthful representation of life on the estate. You can see the kids acting up to the camera – and this even ends up on screen when one young person shouts excitedly to a friend ‘you can get on TV – he’s got a camera’. This is perhaps the most telling passage in the documentary.
The programme ploughs a difficult furrow between individualism and collective responsibility. It only alludes to the important benefits of public investment, appearing to hold individuals responsible for things that require group effort, like the mother who says she can’t get her children to school, the unemployed man who can’t afford to work part-time for minimum wage in the next town, or the policeman who is blamed for not eradicating all drug use on the estate.
Panorama seems to believe that salvation comes only from leaving, and states in its closing voiceover that Shadsworth is no different to hundreds of estates across Britain ‘on the edge of where the state can make a difference’. But we have seen multiple instances of the state providing real improvements in people’s lives across the hour, from the basic benefits which are keeping people fed and sheltered to the special support offered to troubled families and the special school provision which gives disengaged children a chance at an education.
Last week UnemployedNet reviewed another BBC programme, Saints and Scroungers, which had a similar moral standpoint with similarly poor results. For obvious reasons, particularly the social and educational background of most of its programme makers, the BBC just doesn’t seem to have the skills to make documentaries about working class life in Britain. Perhaps it either needs to cast its talent net wider, or retire in to the programmes that it makes well and understands, like those about real wild animals.