Poverty in the media - who benefits?

People living in poverty are the experts – film-makers and editors need to listen to them when making programmes, say the Poverty Truth Commission

Who benefits when television programmes depict those living in poverty as people to be ridiculed, pitied and blamed? Who benefits when clever editing and dramatic music skew what is real and what is a judgement? Who benefits when producers purposefully seek out the negative and refuse to show the positive?

Travelling to Manchester to the BBC Conference 'Who Benefits? Poverty and TV', we were keen to discuss these and other issues. We have often talked in the Poverty Truth Commission about the media portrayal of people living in poverty, and were looking forward to engaging with some key people in the industry about these questions.

The right people were together in one room. People experiencing poverty, commissioning editors, production companies and charities – and yet we felt the conversation never began, and we are left feeling it was a missed opportunity.

It can be difficult at a large conference to encourage debate and real listening. However to address the question 'Who benefits?', that was what needed to happen. We needed to do more than watch and clap show reels. We needed to do more than hear about psychological testing and psychological support for people taking part in programmes. We needed to be willing to get beyond the comfortable and ask questions. We needed to listen to the voice of experience of people who have been portrayed on television – a voice that was often missing and at times seemed deliberately limited.

Two moments stand out. Helen Bullough, Head of Production at CBBC, spoke of the need to talk with and listen to children every day if they wish to make relevant and real children's programmes, reflecting their lives. To do this they spend time, and she emphasised spending time, with around 5,000 children a year 'because none of us in production are 12 year olds'. What if this happened when making programmes about poverty? Who would benefit?

Later two participants from Church Action on Poverty's brilliant Real Benefits Street spoke about the importance of telling their own story in their own way. They had much to say and we had much to learn. However their contribution had been cut short by conference organisers - and almost cut entirely. It was a dreadful missed opportunity. Who benefited?

Toward the end of the day we heard of specially commissioned research that showed the public are less sympathetic to the cause after watching programmes about poverty. Some parts of the room were surprised by these figures – others were not.

We at the Poverty Truth Commission believe that many people and communities feel stigmatized after shows such as those we were discussing. They are made to feel ashamed, and as if their poverty is their own fault. We are concerned not only about what this is doing to individuals and communities, but also what this is doing to the public debate, where people in poverty are seen as part of the problem, not part of the solution. How different would it be if it was the other way round?

The Poverty Truth Commission recognises that people living in poverty are the experts, that we have the solutions and that we need a platform to showcase our ideas. We were disappointed that the conference did not give us a chance to do this. However, we offer a challenge to all film-makers and commissioning editors: to stop, listen and spend time with people living in poverty when they are making programmes. To ask themselves and those they are working with the question – who actually benefits?

Nothing about us, without us, is for us.

Susan McMahon
Caroline Mockford
Elaine Downie

The Poverty Truth Commission