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.)

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not too busy – just busy enough

There’s been plenty to do over the last few days, and I’ve been distracted away from blogging – amazing eh!

We’re beginning to bring things together for the new Pilates business which Kel will be running from November, so if you are looking for a Pilates teacher in Grimsby – Get in touch!!

We’ve also been attempting to make some progress on a new place to live, something I dont want to talk about too much right now… but hopefully we’ll have a new place before too long (please, God!!!)

I’m also looking at starting some ‘introduction to Christian Meditation’ classes in Grimsby, which if nothing else should ensure that I practise more meditation than I do currently.

And of course the Parkour club is going well… on that note I’ve got some outstanding models of playmobil Parkour action to show you, courtesy of a certain young person of my aquaintance…

This guy is attempting a lazy, one of the most fundamental parkour moves. I’m not sure he’s doing it right, but apparently its a problem with his legs…

Here the same guy is heading into a reverse, let’s hope he’s calculated the drop off those battlements eh… Make sure you get your head round and spot your landing pal!

As for this showboater, he’s only gone and attempted the human flag – with one hand!! What a header, and personally I never saw the point of that move anyway, especially not in dungarees… get out of here chum.

We’ve also been spending some time with some good people who have secret plans and clever tricks which involve an old building… very much looking forward to seeing this move forward, and I hope to be able to enlighten you more as we proceed…

Of course that’s not all that’s going on, there’s the usual other stuff, writing, parenting classes, ethical clothing stuff, cycling, and when I can manage it – a bit of gardening too, although that has suffered along with the blogging over the last few days. I guess I should apologise to the earth now…

It’s a good news/bad news day

Today is a good news/bad news day – on the good news front it seems like my book is likely to arrive today, I got an email from the warehouse yesterday claiming my order has been despatched, which is exciting!

On the bad news front yet another house we were hoping to be able to rent is not going to be available to us, this has happened a number of times, and it gets more frustrating and upsetting each time. It’s getting harder to live in our flat, and also annoying is that our car seems to be getting broken into or damaged most weekends. That is not too demoralising, as its part and parcel of living here – it is just a bit annoying really, but it encourages us to think that we need to find a more permanent/settled base on the estate. Trouble is, each time we think we’ve found one, it turns to dust! At the moment the bad news appears to outweigh the good, although hopefully when the book arrives it should spin the other direction.

Plus it’s raining. Bah humbug.

Parkour club

We have started a parkour club, with the help of the good people from Team Reality – so now every friday night there is a Parkour training session on Nunsthorpe, Grimsby.

The lead trainer is the very talented Neil Hutson, and the sessions are indoors using safe equipment – ideal if you are interested in trying the sport or want to practise your skills.

Sessions cost a whopping 50p… and if you can scrape it together then come along for two hours of top quality Parkour training – an absolute bargain my friend. For time and venue details – contact me.

newsletters

Every now and then, we do a newsletter, sometimes they are more exciting than others, and they are always rather erraticly timed. Anyhow, be that as it may, I’ve just sent out a new one, and it has gone to most of our friends.

However, if it hasnt gone to you, and you want it, then please let me know. There are, you see, many reasons why it might not have reached you:

we might have fallen out, and you havent realised

I might have the wrong email address for you

actually – come to think of it those are the only two…

…only joking, I am very poor at keeping up to date lists of email addresses, which is another reason I dont send out many newsletters. At any rate, if you know us well, there wont be much by way of news in there, and this time round there is a real paucity of jokes, although there is a picture of me looking comedic with a ridiculously small hat – sigh.

So the long and short of this is, if you dont know much about what we’re up to, and you consider yourself a chum of ours, then let me know.

Stand by your beds

We’re due an inspection…

alright, its not an inspection, its a visit, and to be honest its very welcome.

A friend is coming up from Wales to talk about our future plans, we’re coming to a point where we need to take some fairly important decisions about future direction in terms of location, work and so on. Its great to be able to get the input of wise friends who are willing to drive for five hours or so just to discuss options with us.

Perhaps part of the reason I’ve not been blogging a lot recently is that we’re at this kind of pivot point, and trying to work through decisions about where our commitments lie over the next few years. We made a three year commitment to live here in Grimsby, which will be up in just over one year’s time. But because of the kind of things we are getting involved in, we need to begin to take decisions which will affect our situation in the years after that.

So here’s hoping that we’ll have plenty of wisdom in our conversations over the next day or two, and that by this time next week, I’ll be able to begin sharing some of the plans we have been mulling over.

Although, of course, Burns was absolutely right to point out:

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley

So we wont hold them too tightly.

Divine Inspiration – Permaculture Magazine

Permaculture Magazine

I have an article in the most recent edition of Permaculture Magazine, it’s called ‘Divine Inspiration’ and touches (all too briefly) on the heritage of sustainable land use that the monastics have left us with.

I should really have gone into the ecological and economic crisis that precipitated the end of the Roman Empire, which the monastic small scale farming models helped to stem, but perhaps someone else wants to commission that article… 😉

I warmly reccomend Permaculture Magazine, which I always enjoy and find a very helpful source of information and inspiration.If it’s not available locally to you, you can buy it here, or get an e’edition here. It always seems to have lots of good things about Kelly Kettles, which is a sure fire sign of goodness, and this month it has a whole section on outdoor cooking, including the honey stove… you can understand why I like it.