Channel 4 puts forward the impression that its documentaries serve the purpose of raising awareness about various social conditions and, in doing so, encourages its viewers to engage in the debate. The fact of the matter is, however, that the Channel’s skewed view of what these debates actually consist of amounts to serious exploitation of the people being featured. Whether it be the complexities of the welfare state generalised by one street in Birmingham, or attitudes towards disability encapsulated by the title of Undateables, or the pseudo-intellectual presentation of dogging, Channel 4 does nothing but point an intrusive camera at the fringes of society, so that us ‘normal’ people can have a quiet chuckle or an ill-informed rant at our TVs. This polarises the notions of ‘us’ and ‘them’ even further, and the patronising attempt at balance from the voiceover narrative provides little respite from the exploitation, especially in the face of brutal and heavily-loaded editing.
Admittedly, it has produced a number of eye-opening and genuinely balanced documentaries, which is why it is all the more surprising that it reverts to glorified freakshows time and time again. There would be little opposition to Channel 4 providing documentaries on a whole number of different topics, but presenting a largely accurate insight into the British education system via Educating Yorkshire alongside 47 minutes of adults dressing up and acting like infants in The 15-Stone Babies, is not balance; it’s an excuse for balance hiding behind a guise of exploitation.
Unquestionably there are a number of faults in the way that Channel 4 documents fashion. Twitter storms, negative reviews and petitions circulating threatening to remove shows from airing are typical of the public’s reaction to the controversial shows. However, what many fail to realise is that a number of the documentaries receiving negative media attention are at least addressing a stimulating debate about hugely prominent issues affecting society today. Shows such as Beauty and the Beast and Benefits Street may be addressing extreme situations, but such circumstances should not be ignored due to their extremities. Channel 4 brings to our screens subjects too often disregarded by television and what at times makes for uncomfortable viewing. It forces viewers to engage with issues regarding disability, cultural stereotyping and prejudice. Beauty and the Beast, for instance, explores the boundaries of discrimination and addresses the problems associated with the beauty industry and the war of beauty fascism, through bringing together individuals with opposite perceptions of what beauty entails. Benefits Street, through documenting the lives of residents living on James Turner Street, the majority of whom claim benefits, provides something of an insight into the constant battle involved with living off a minimal amount and has induced wide political debate on the topic of welfare. Channel 4’s documentaries may not make for balanced representations, but featured topics do need to be addressed and considered further by a mass audience.