How Grimsby really went to war with Channel 4 over Skint

This blog is a response to the article in the Guardian on Tuesday 1st of April, by the journalist Helen Pidd.

Helen is a good journalist, and while I’m glad she wrote the piece, there are a few things which I think need to be addressed – apart from a couple of factual inaccuracies there are also some wider points made in the balanced article which could do with some attention.

Firstly to set the scene, for some months some of us in Grimsby have been working hard to prevent KEO films, a  production company that prides itself on an apparently ‘ethical’ stance, from making a new series of the ‘documentary’ Skint in Grimsby.

The first series of Skint was set in Scunthorpe, and while the talk was of documentary, the reality was much more about tabloid style journalism. Individuals felt they had been misrepresented and lied to by producers, communities felt let down by empty promises. And the whole country got to have a chuckle about the ridiculous behaviour of the benefit class preceriat who inhabit ‘the town with a swear word in its name. A whopping 2.8 million viewers got to see the residents of the Westcliff estate as they went about the daily lives of the urban underclass.

Reviews were mixed, and confusing: “It’s funny, fair, frank.” Said Sam Wollaston of the Guardian, while in the Telegraph Neil Midgely warned: “Presenting difficult topics on TV is one thing – presenting them as soap opera is quite another.”

But on one thing we can agree, that Channel 4 had a hit on their hands, the likes of which they hadn’t had since Kirsty and Phil engaged in a campaign to raise the property price bubble to breaking point.

The main Grimsby resident that Helen quotes is the Rev John Ellis, a man who has a hard won reputation for tenacity and drive, and whose Shalom youth project is a beacon of what real urban ministry among the dispossessed can look like. John is a friend who I admire greatly, and whose opinion on this I dispute totally.

He has spent almost as long as I have been alive working in this area, and it would be foolish to discount his experience and insight, but nonetheless I believe he has fallen for the spin of producers who are full of talk of ‘giving people their voice’ and allowing them to ‘tell their story’. What I know as a former hack myself is that this is tabloid 101. This is exactly what you say to get over the doorstep in any difficult situation – it’s precisely how I myself got over many a doorstep, although I hope I never exploited that opportunity as some do.

The truth is that the story is not going to be told just how the individuals want them to be told, they are not going to be in on the editorial decision making – they are the raw material, they are Foucault’s ‘bio power’ for the media machine. It’s their antics which are going to get Channel 4’s next ratings hit, not their grimy back story.

John says that his community is more ‘oppressed’ than deprived, he’s right – although the former is actually a consequence of the latter. He also says that he doesn’t think his community members are best described as ‘vulnerable’: “You keep hearing them being called ‘vulnerable’, but believe me, many are as vulnerable as a Sherman tank. They’re no shrinking violets by any means. They want their stories told.”

I’m one of those who do think many of these individuals are vulnerable, vulnerable precisely because they have been oppressed, vulnerable because they are addicted, vulnerable because they are poor, vulnerable because they are hungry. They are vulnerable because for many people, their whole lives have been lived under the shadow of domination by others, whether it’s an abusive or neglectful parent, a violent partner, a government (series of actually) who have chosen to ignore them or just didn’t know how to help them. They have had little or no recourse to self determination, and then along comes a media company keen to find another ratings winner in austerity Britain, which offers them a chance to ‘tell their story’.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the real story has to be told about this area, about towns and cities and village all across the country where people are living in squalor and poverty – about how people in the seventh richest country in the world can be going hungry, and about how children are growing up in environments where they are neglected and left with no aspiration or hope for the future and turn instead to the easy comforts and short term solutions of drugs, alcohol and crime.

Grimsby is a town which has certainly suffered as it has de-industrialised. Many parts of it are tired and run down, many parts of it are deprived or oppressed. On my own estate (Nunsthorpe) some houses are boarded up or derelict, and crime stats are depressing at times. This is a place at the sharp end of savage government cuts, and a place where thanks to cheap housing, people often move to – although not so often because they are in hope of a job. It’s also a place which is at the forefront of some emerging industries, particularly the renewables sector, and parts of the catering sector too, there are many exciting creative projects,and some wonderful creative people. There are good points about living here, and there are bad ones. A real documentary series might demonstrate that, and it might demonstrate the fact that some people do feel so desperate about the oppression they under that they make very poor choices indeed. They are a minority of the population, but they are real.

But lets be clear, that is not what Skint is going to do, to extend the Sherman tank metaphor a little, the very facade of strength and impenetrability that the oppressed and vulnerable build up to defend themselves against further attack will be used against them. The Sherman’s nickname of ‘Tommy Cooker’ for the way that they could be set on fire is apposite.

Now it could be that in the aftermath of the huge media fallout that followed ‘Benefit’s Street’ the next series of Skint takes a different tack, and actually does try to tackle some of the real issues, and tells some genuine stories – that is what I hope it will do. But to expect it is far too much. It’s narrated by an actor with a stereotypical ‘Northern’ voice, not by John Pilger.

The inaccuracies in Helen Pidd’s article are to do with the involvement of Steve Chalke in the public meeting which Helen attended. She cites Katie Buchanan of KEO Films as saying that “The Nunsthorpe public meeting had been convened by Steve Chalke, a charismatic Anglican pastor who runs over 40 schools under the Oasis banner, including one on James Turner Street.”

Perhaps this is Ms Buchanan’s misapprehension rather than Ms Pidd’s, but it’s quite wrong. Firstly the meeting was convened by Grimsby residents, I know for I am one of them. In fact I invited Steve, who is also my boss, and arranged the meeting at a school in which I work.

Secondly Chalke is not an Anglican pastor, he is a Baptist minister, and he doesn’t run any schools, he founded a charity under which an arm operates which does. Perhaps these are insignificant – but I don’t think so entirely, it shows me that Ms Buchanan at least, and perhaps Helen Pidd, haven’t been paying attention to my own correspondence with them, a particular shame with regard to Ms Buchanan whom I invited to the meeting personally, and explained the context fully. If she cant even get my story right in one paragraph when it was spelt out clearly in black and white, what hope do the residents of the oppressed areas of Grimsby have in a ratings chasing televised series?

Personally I strive to be even handed in this debate, I don’t try to pit one side against another, I haven’t backed calls for road signs with ‘get out channel 4’ or anything else. I believe in a free press, I believe in a society where people should be able to express themselves. But I don’t believe that is what is on offer here, and nor do many others, which is why I and others are at a kind of war with Channel 4.

But as it happens I don’t like using the rhetoric of warfare, I don’t really approve of the use of war as a metaphor in this way, it helps to embed an idea of war as normality in our thinking.

And in reality there is not one voice about this issue in our town, there are a large and vocal group of people who oppose the series, there are a smaller and vocal group who welcome it, and there are the vast majority who don’t much care – in reality it will be them who make the running.

The fallout from Skint will be something that I have to live with and work amongst, as it will be for John Ellis and others of us who have committed ourselves to the betterment of our communities. Ours will be the legacy of children who are kept off school, or ‘good’ families who move away from stigmatised areas, or families at war with themselves, or neighbours who never speak again. Long after Channel 4 have gone, and empty promises from local politicians with no money or mandate to deliver them are blown away like sand, there will remain those of us who don’t believe that its right to blame the symptoms for the causes, or to set up targets to be knocked down to spare the blushes of a political class living in times of austerity.

(Edited 4/4/14 to remove typo from line one where it read ‘Kidd’ instead of ‘Pidd’ which will teach me to wear my glasses while writing.)


On understanding and overcoming myself

We’re in a time of change and transition – it’s not yet clear quite how life will look when that time is over, it may look very similar to the life we lead right now, then again it may look a bit different, at least geographically.

Over the last few days and weeks I have found myself unsettled by this, disturbed by the thought of changes ahead, and their unpredictable nature. At the same time I’ve found myself engaging in some strange activities, compulsively sorting things, filing, alphabetising, doing accounts, sorting CDs and so on.

I’ve kind of run out of things like that to do, my CD’s are all in order, my bookshelves are sorted, my accounts are done, my files are up to date and I’ve done enough shredding to stuff a mattress. So for the last 48 hours I have felt really unsettled, almost panic stricken, and I couldnt see why.

I went out this morning to do some easy jobs, (bank, library etc) and while I was walking home I began to understand. I am someone who likes to feel in control of his surroundings, I am happy in the wilderness if I feel well equipped. I like to be prepared for what is ahead of me, and I prefer, where possible to have a good handle on the circumstances of my life.

That is not where I am at right now – things are unpredictable, I dont feel well prepared, some, perhaps even many of the plans I had for things are probably going to be unworkable. I am having to let go of the ideas I have about the way things should/will be. I must live in uncertainty, and it is that which has been bothering me.

But somehow just knowing that, has helped. Now I can recognise my own desire for control and self determination, I can feel free of it. I can accept the fact that I am not in control, and go with the flow a bit more.

I hadn’t realised about the way I was wired until I read some material about the enneagram, which helped me immensely in understanding my own vices, and in recognising my tendency towards controlling my circumstances. Now that I see my problem, I can feel free of it.

Still wish I knew exactly what was going to happen over the next few months though…

Today I’ve mostly been mucking around on the computer

I’ve been working on my new ‘emmaus encounters‘ project, its all been a bit multimedia-mongous today. One thing I did, was the thing I said I wouldn’t do… I  signed up for twitter again – if you want to, you can follow me at @numonastic. Don’t expect anything hugely amazing or entertaining at this stage, it’s all part of the development of a combined strategy for networking and promoting the various workshops and so on that we’ve got planned.

At the moment there are two workshops advertised on the site, one of which I mentioned here the other day, the other one is part of a UK tour that Nicholas Vesey of Norwich Meditation Centre is doing, to promote his book, which is named after the course ‘developing consciousness‘ that he runs. It looks like a good read. There are a couple more in the pipeline, including one on the Enneagram – and  I have another two larger scale things coming along too. All in all, it’s looking quite promising.

I’ve also been busy creating a new mailing list with Mail Chimp – I’ve never used it before, and have to admit to having been a bit grumpy about it before hand, but now I know how well it works, I must say I’m impressed. Takes an age to create the list though, or at least it does if you have a pre-existing list of any size.

And if that isnt enough to keep me occupied, I’ve got a school drama club ‘mime assembly’ to sort out. Yikes. Oh… and a labyrinth.

Intro to Christian Meditation

This saturday we are holding the rescheduled Introduction to Christian Meditation workshop, which was cancelled due to snow last year.

The workshop runs between 9.30 and approx 12.30, it will be at the City Church centre on Freeman Street, Grimsby, and entry is free. Donations towards room hire are welcomed.

We’ll be covering three basic kinds of meditation practise: Visualisation; Lectio Divina; and Centring prayer, taking time to practise each one. There will also be space for more general questions and discussion about meditation, techniques and philosophies.

If you are interested in meditation, how different traditions teach it, or perhaps you have a particular interest in Christian forms of meditation, and how you can implement them in your life, then come along. All welcome.

an earthy eucharist

I had the pleasure and privilege today of sharing a communion service at our local YMCA – the service was for staff rather than residents, but I knew before hand that I was likely to have a mixed bunch of people, from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. That’s fine with me, I prefer ‘mixed’.

So anyway, I chose as the focus of the half hour session, the idea of the sacrament as ‘a visible sign of an invisible reality’ – and took time to relate this not just to the ‘last supper’ but also other meals Jesus shared, and looking more widely, to the earth itself.

Obviously we didnt have lots of time for talking, and I wanted to keep the atmosphere quite reflective and calm, but the focus of the time really became the idea that in the earth, God has given us a moment to moment reminder of sacrifice and provision. And in our response to the earth, we provide ourselves with a moment to moment reminder of our callous disregard of anything good which comes our way. A betrayal of all the good we have been provided with.

We took a moment or two to consider our reactions to the sharing of the body and blood of Christ, and our reaction to the sharing of the body and blood of the earth, which the bread and wine, two extremely earthy substances, remind us of very neatly.

Sometimes I find it a little disheartening to share communion and find that the ‘bread’ on offer is some kind of fluffy white substance which has no flavour, no texture, nothing to remind the eater of its earthy origins. In taking time to reflect on the relationship between us and the earth, and in sharing bread that actually tastes of something, we can help to restore that balance. For a decent and easy communion bread, I tend to mix some self raising flour, about 4oz perhaps, a little bit of strong wholemeal flour, some olive oil, some water and a few pinches of herbs or spice. I mix them till the dough is smooth and pliable, and then I roll it out and cook it in a pan. Try it, its quick and its good.

We finished with the lovely prayer that is often attributed to St Francis, although I dont know anyone who has ever managed to show it was truly his. I find the Franciscan way  to be one which most clearly demonstrates our corporate commitment to waging peace on the earth, rather than carrying on destructive behaviour patterns, and often use them as an illustration when talking to non-Christians about a Christian response to environmentalism.

However, until we all begin to remember more actively, our personal responsibilities to the world in which we live, its all just talk. Taking time to pray and reflect on the sacramental nature of the earth may just help, I hope it does.

The Prayer of St Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury,pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen


Grimsby Mind Body Spirit event

If you happen to be coming along to the Mind Body Spirit Fayre in Grimsby this weekend, do drop along to my stall and say hello.

I and some friends will be offering free ‘healing prayer’ for ailments of the mind, body and spirit. Prayer is freely available to all, regardless of belief system, or lack therof.

We come from an unashamedly Christian perspective, and our prayer will be following in that tradition.

Even if you dont feel the need for prayer, do drop along and say hello to us, its always nice to see a friendly face.

The irony that pretty much all week I have been struggling with a heavy bout of genuine 24 carat Man Flu, is not lost on me.

I’ve also written a couple of small leaflets, ‘How Green is Your God?’ about Christianity and the environment, and ‘Mother God’ about Christianity and the Divine Feminine to give away. You could even get hold of a copy of my book – including one of the rare ‘unsigned’ editions – lol.

And there’ll be information about a forthcoming Meditation workshop to be held in February in Grimsby – more details to follow.

Peace out.


It seems to have snowed a lot this year, and it amuses me to reflect that my children will probably have their adult memories of childhood skewed dramatically by the unusual weather of 2010 – they will no doubt, in the same way that I do, recall a snow bound childhood full of days off school, sledging, snowball fights and wintry landscapes.

But I did think to myself this morning, driving the half hour journey back from our favourite sledging spot (Lincolnshire is not known for its hills), that there was some level of irony that I would drive 15-20 miles for a sledging trip, while the school round the corner, a sub five minute walk, is closed. Funny old world.

all together now: ‘snow is falling… all around… children playing… having fun!’