If a Community Speaks and Nobody Hears It, Does It Make a Sound?

richpennyBy Richard Penny, Teaching Fellow in Political Theory and PhD student at the University of Southampton (Academia.edu). You can read more posts by Richard here.


I was fortunate to attend a public meeting last week, called to discuss residents’ fears over the sequel to ‘Benefits Street’ (creatively titled ‘Immigration Street’) which is to be set in the Derby Road area of Southampton. Around 200 local people, charity workers and community leaders lined up to explain their opposition to the filming of the series to its director, Kieran Smith, of Love Productions.

The residents’ anger was both palpable and wide ranging. Speakers wanted to know why Derby Road was chosen as an ‘Immigration Street’ when most residents were British citizens, born and raised in the UK. “We’re all as British as each other,” one resident shouted, “you’re here because of the way we look!”. Smith replied merely that they wanted to find an area that had been ‘influenced by immigration’. In this case then, another resident asked, why were they not filming in her community – built on generations of Irish-Catholic immigrants?  In fact, as others pointed out – which parts of Britain haven’t been influenced by immigration? Smith didn’t answer, and it was hard to escape the conclusion that – intentionally or accidentally – Love Productions had failed to grasp the difference between ethnicity, and nationality. Either way – as one colleague noted – it raises doubts about their ability to make a ‘nuanced’, ‘careful’ documentary about immigration.

Many residents also pointed to the impacts on the residents of James Turner Street, aka Benefits Street. Local councillor (and PAIR graduate) Satvir Kaur asked Smith if he really cared about the community on Derby Road – and if so, why he was happy to expose them to death threats, intimidation, media intrusion, and a stigma that could last for generations. Smith argued that he wanted to portray the community positively, and would offer residents influence over the final output. If this were the case then, Smith was asked, why were the residents of James Turner Street so unhappy with the way they were portrayed? Had Love Productions failed to inform them of the framing they were putting on the series, or had they failed to listen to their objections?

From the outset the degree of trust in the room was low – and it declined from thereon as residents presented a list of revelations about the conduct of Love Productions. The first of these was that prior to this ‘consultation meeting’ Love Productions had already been filming for between 10-12 weeks. Some consultation. Further, many participants had been told only that they were taking part in a ‘documentary about immigration’ with no mention of the show’s title, or its connection to ‘Benefits Street’ – a fact that for many, was very significant.

Perhaps most worrying of all were the testimonies from a number of care workers, regarding how Love Productions had operated thus far. In particular, it was alleged that crew from the series had entered, and loitered outside a day centre in the area, looking to speak to residents with a range of vulnerabilities including substance abuse problems, learning difficulties and mental health issues. Did Smith understand the notion of ‘informed consent’ it was asked? Another care worker asked why Love Productions had been speaking to members of the National Front in Southampton (and not resident in the area) if they didn’t wish to spark ethnic division. Another case was raised in which it was alleged that Love Productions had sent cameras to record a resident being sectioned under the mental health act.

By this point Smith had all but given up justifying the filming. He responded incredulously to the allegations regarding targeting vulnerable people (including the line of the night: Smith: “Are you really questioning our ethics as TV producers?” Whole room: “YES!”), before refusing to comment on specific allegations regarding who they had spoken to. Increasingly he fell back on the argument that if residents didn’t want to be filmed, they didn’t have to consent – but that Love Productions had the right to film consenting individuals. What Smith didn’t seem to be able to grasp was that the community itself might have rights of its own. It is, after all, the community that his show is seeking to represent, and yet the community seemed utterly united in its opposition to the programme.

It was this impasse that underscored much of the bad feeling during and after the discussion. In a sense the meeting was heartening. The residents of Derby Road had a keen sense of their identity – of how to reconcile what it means to be British, and what it means to be an immigrant – and of how they needed to speak and act together to protect the proud and diverse community they had built (in what is historically one of the most troubled areas of the city). And yet, at the same time, there was no obvious idea of what they could do to stop the production of ‘Immigration Street’. One community leader urged attendees to write to OFCOM, but this suggestion was met with utter derision from most – who were acutely aware that the regulator dismissed all complaints about Benefits Street.

Indeed, the question was put to Smith (by Alan Whitehead MP) as to what it would take for his team to stop the filming. Smith’s couldn’t provide an answer. And why should he? Contracts have been signed with Channel 4. Money had been paid. Filming has started, and they will have no trouble finding a pool of participants for whom the lure of being on television, and a potential route to stardom is too much to refuse. There are Bafta’s at stake, and nothing that either the law, or regulators can (or will) do to prevent the filming. Indeed, to the extent that the authorities are involved in the filming of ‘Immigrant Street’, it’s likely that it will be in the role of protecting the film crew as they do their work – at least if the threats of interference from some community members are realised.

The overriding sense at the end of the meeting then was one of powerlessness, and frustration. And in this sense it was hard to escape the conclusion that the meeting in question was also something of a microcosm for British society more generally. Smith will make his show, he will make money, he will advance his career, and he will do so unhindered by regulatory bodies and unaffected by its consequences. Smith, of course, is part of a strata of British society for whom the law, the economy, the media and the regulators work perfectly well.

On the other hand there is a community for whom – despite its obvious strength – none of these facts are true. They are not organising from a position of wealth, resources or power. They do not have the luxury of choosing how they are presented to the nation, and nor can they call upon the law or the political system to protect them. One of the most telling parts of the evening was the meetings’ reluctance to let the BBC and ITV news crews report on the discussion. Almost no-one trusted them to do so impartially. And who can blame them?

For the most part these differences bubble under the surface. Both the advantaged and disadvantaged in Britain have priced their status into their worldview to a large extent. But increasingly these two worlds are unable to ignore one another – and when they do collide – when privilege and power comes face to face those who lack it – the result is toxic. The show will doubtless be made. The economic and political interests behind it are simply too strong. Yet, with no alternatives there will doubtless be confrontations – legal and otherwise – as residents try to stop it. But this controversy will only feed the fire further, until it moves on, to quench its insatiable appetite for outrage elsewhere. And the community will be left to pick up the pieces by itself. It feels chillingly like as there goes Derby Road, there goes Britain. What is to be done?