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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Food and money

raspberriesI am almost at the halfway point of the fast, after tomorrow there will be fewer days to do that have already been done, and the golden moment when I can eat again will be approaching rapidly.

Of course there is still some way to go, twenty days is not a short amount of time to fast.

But yet again this highlights to me the immense privilege I have in such a defined period of not eating.

I was able to prepare for it, take it on as a mental and physical challenge, and then look forward to a definite ending point.

I am also able to reassure people that: ‘If I get ill, I will stop’. All the while knowing that the likelihood of me falling ill is remote in the extreme.

As I have noted previously, those who go without food for reasons of poverty have none of these advantages. And the likelihood of them falling ill is significantly higher.

Another startling thing I have noted during this fast is the link between food poverty and crime. It is obvious when you think about it – we’re existing in a place of plenty, where window displays scream ‘consume consume’ and most people’s cupboards groan with edible things from all around the world.

For the hungry man or woman it must seem incredibly tempting to pocket something.

And that is happening – to a much greater extent than before. In North East Lincs the rate of shop thefts which are just food, has gone up to a massive 46%. In my book, that is as close as it needs to be to half of all shop thefts.

The police say that the vast majority of these crimes are due directly to food poverty.

And it’s not just here, a quick web search throws up stories from around the country about people who have been arrested for shoplifting food, often petty things like the man from South Shields who stole a pot noodle and a chocolate bar after a relationship breakdown left him homeless and broke. Or the down-on-his-luck teenager from Galashiels who stole muffins worth £2.00 from Asda. While the first was let off, the second received a four month sentence.

It’s not quite Jean Valjean territory – but we’re heading in the right direction.

Police have now been warning some time, of the rise in shoplifting from first time female offenders, all the more notable given that shoplifting is a male dominated crime.

One study in an area of Northern England showed that officers had stopped 26 first-time shoplifters, compared with five the previous year. Twenty of the people arrested were women, and 11 of the 26 incidents were low-value, food-related thefts.

A nationwide crime survey revealed a 4% rise in shoplifting, amid an overall 10% drop in crime.

For all the talk of economic recovery and budget giveaways, there is still little sign of any let up in the hardship faced by an increasing number of single people and families who are finding a way of scratching an existence amid the empty cupboards and grumbling stomachs of austerity Britain.

And that means that more and more desperate people will commit criminal acts, often while operating on low blood sugar and going through difficult and deeply unpleasant withdrawal symptoms from food.

I certainly accept that until the financial problems in our country are sorted out, there will be no end to this crisis, but whatever one’s approach to this matter, it is obvious that many people need help now, and they aren’t getting it.

How are you not dead?

waterBreaking away from my reflections on hunger and poverty for a moment, I’d like to answer a question that lots of people seem fascinated by – essentially the practicalities of doing a long fast, or as my friend George put it: ‘how are you not dead?’

Obviously at the moment I’m only about a quarter of the way through this fast, so it may seem a bit precipitate to talk about how to do long fasts, but at the same time this is something which I had to read up on quite a bit before starting, so I feel like I’m reasonably well equipped to give a basic overview.

Long fasts are something that many people do. Fasting is common across the faith traditions, and long fasts are often undertaken by ascetics seeking some form of enlightenment or spiritual clarity. Likewise people often fast as part of a health regime, people even go on fasting holidays, so they can feel hungry in a group.

Fasting itself is claimed to have many health benefits, from the detoxification of the system to reducing internal fat stores.

But of course, fasting isn’t for everyone, and for many people – especially children – it can be quite dangerous and harmful. It’s not something to be undertaken lightly or without careful thought. If you’re not sure, seek medical advice.

The fact is though that lack of food is something humans have had to deal with for millenia. Abundance of resources is only a relatively recent phenomena, and the human body is designed in such a way that it can go for some time without food without dying.

What it cant do is go for long without water, so I drink lots of that every day, along with a bit of juice, I also take vitamin supplements. The juice gives me a bit of extra energy, but in the main my body finds the energy I need elsewhere.

In case anyone isn’t aware of the basic biology of how that works, let me give a brief and probably slightly inaccurate explanation. We eat various kinds of things, one of the sorts of things we eat is carbohydrate, its found in potatoes, grains, and numerous other forms. We often consume it in the form of rice, pasta, or bread. Carbohydrate is broken down by the body into sugars and either used up as energy or stored as fat, so that when the body doesn’t get the energy it needs from food, it can break down the fat to get more energy. The less energy one uses, the more the carbohydrate is stored as fat.

I used to be more active than I am today, and as a legacy of that previous more active lifestyle I still tend to eat a lot of carbs, that means that I have a reasonable amount of fat stored in my body, which gives me something to rely on during this fast.

Now, the body doesn’t particularly like breaking its fat down into energy, it prefers to take on new energy through food, so when the fast begins there is some difficulty persuading it that you’re not going to eat. This is much more about a mental battle than a physical one – you have to fight the cravings for food that your system throws at you. The battle can be quite intense, and one can require a fair amount of resolve to get through it, but having a cause to fight for very much helps.

I am fortunate in that I am a vegetarian with a pretty healthy diet (my over consumption of carbs notwithstanding) I don’t drink alcohol or coffee (not because I’m a saint, but because I don’t like the taste) and I drink a lot of green tea, which is very good for you. All this means that my body is quite healthy, and I don’t have many food addictions, this made the detox process of the first three days somewhat easier. For those with a lot of food addictions, the detox process can be quite a bit harder, and can go on for longer – which is why its better to wean yourself off things before beginning a fast.

After those first few days, the body settles down into a rhythm of living of its reserves – that’s where I am now, and that will continue until all those reserves have gone – which I am hoping will not be for some time. When they have gone, I will go through another period of mental battle as the body begins to apply the brakes – the only energy it can get then is from my muscles, and it will begin the unpleasant task of consuming some of my muscle to create energy.

As things stand I am living off my fat, and that should remain the case for quite a while yet – the only difference I feel is a slight lack of energy, which I am managing reasonably well. I have made a pledge that should I become unwell, I will stop the fast, but at the moment well – I aint dead yet.

To read my previous reflections on the fast see previous posts here and here, and to learn more about the End Hunger Fast campaign and how you can get involved, go here.

True Fasting?

chainIsaiah 58: v 6

This is the kind of fast day I’m after:
to break the chains of injustice,
get rid of exploitation in the workplace,
free the oppressed,
cancel debts.

I woke up this morning with a sense of emptiness in my stomach. Not hunger – the discomfort and craving for food which I experienced in the first few days of my fast are not with me any longer – but a strange hollow feeling.

While emptiness is uncomfortable, it is easily bearable. And it is much to be preferred over the early part of the fast, when the body is effectively detoxing and craving all kinds of substances, sugar, salt, and fat in particular.

I have now reached the stage of Ketosis, the point in the fast where the body begins to break down its fat deposits via the liver, to turn them into energy. Until this stage ends, I am not expecting to be terribly uncomfortable for a while.

But the thing is this: Most people who are going without food in the UK today are not doing so over long drawn out periods of never eating. They are missing meals here and there, they are going without food for a couple of days at a time.

More than that, they don’t have the luxury of planning or researching their hunger, as I have my fast.

Often these short blood sugar draining spells of hunger can lead to rash decisions. Just as most of us know we should not go food shopping when we feel hungry, so it’s best not to apply for a pay-day loan while you have low blood sugar. Hungry people are easy targets for exploitation.

Occasionally these rash hungry decisions can end up in criminal acts – there is nothing new about this: an ancient Hebrew Proverb calls on God to neither provide too much nor too little – in order that one should neither grow rich and ignore God, or grow poor and have to steal to get what one needs. (Proverbs 30: 7-9)

Another side effect of the early stages of going without food is a slow down of the body’s essential services, in particular the ability to regulate heat. I’m a naturally warm person, but even I was cold and shivery in the first couple of days of the fast.

This reminds me too that one of the big tussles people have financially is with the costs of heating their homes – the ever present card or key meter ticking down until ‘clunk’ the energy goes off. No central heating, no hot water. The difficult decision of whether to put more money on the gas card, or to get some food is not one to be made when the body is craving sugar.

I’ll continue to blog my thoughts on hunger as I fast through Lent – I’m now on day five, an eighth of the way through, and the other 35 days still seem like an improbably long period of time, but there is light at the end of my tunnel – I will eat again. I am privileged to be able to make this choice. Others are starting their own involuntary fasts today, and for them there is no clear way out.

You can sign up to join the End Hunger Fast campaign here – why not join the many others who have pledged to fast for the day on April 4th?

End Hunger Fast

file9941313599376This Lent I will be fasting from food for forty days.

I’m doing this because I want to raise awareness of the fact that in my community, and in other towns, villages and cities around this country, people are going hungry every day. Parents are making the hard choices between food and fuel, between eating themselves, and giving food to their children.

In my own area of Grimsby the local food bank has seen a staggering rise in use since 2012 – a massive 420% more people are accessing the Daily Bread Food Larder food bank. Even more chilling is the statistic that 25% of those who are relying on food hand outs are children.

Across the country there are millions of people, many of whom are in work, who have had to access a food bank since last year. In that time thousands of people have been admitted to hospital with malnutrition.

In any country it is terrible that people should be going hungry. In a country like ours, a rich country where ‘money is no object’ when it comes to rescuing flood victims, and where billions are spent on bailing out banks, it’s nothing short of a total disgrace that people should be going hungry.

You may know that another issue in our town right now is the proposal that a new series of ‘Skint’ will be made here. It’s a programme which highlights the way some individuals have chosen to live in a climate of unemployment, benefit dependency, and social problems.

I have been involved, heavily involved, in campaigning to prevent this filming. But this is not because I don’t want the problems to be highlighted. Some people have said that we ‘shouldn’t hang out our dirty washing in public‘ – I disagree with that. I want people everywhere to understand the plight of those who live on or over the edge of poverty and hunger. I want us all to wake up to the fact that societal failings have led to children going hungry.

The difference is that I don’t want individuals and their families to become scapegoats for the moral failings of society. I’m not interested in providing fuel for a form of contemporary freak show where we can all gather round our large televisions and laugh at the village idiots in the hope that it will raise awareness of what our communities have to live with.

We need to face up to the problems of our society and acknowledge their causes, not mock their symptoms.

That is what I am going to be going without food for forty days, starting on Ash Wednesday, I’m doing it as part of the ‘End Hunger Fast’ campaign, and if you want to support what I’m doing, you can find ways of doing so on the campaign website.

A practical response could be that you could make a donation or series of donations to your local food bank, if you’re in Grimsby you can do that via either of the schools I work in, Oasis Academy Nunsthorpe or Oasis Academy Wintringham. If you want to join in by fasting, there is a national day of fasting on April 4th. You can also tweet your support using the hashtag #endhungerfast.

Some people have voiced concerns about my health, please be reassured that this is planned, and I have measures in place to protect myself from harm – but lets not forget that I’m privileged to be able to do that, for others this is more like a way of life.

 

Joe is quite right

It happens quite a bit in my experience, Joe being right that is.

Why cant people see that material wealth does not equate with spiritual blessing? It’s the constant battle between the flesh and the spirit I know, and perhaps too its the constant human desire to become like God – or to become a God, but it makes absolutely no sense for a Christian to claim that material prosperity reflects a spiritual blessing – look at Jesus for pity’s sake.

Christianity needs riches like I need another hole in my head.

And I personally still struggle to get past the idea that if I have money in my bank account, while another dies for the lack of $100.00 – I am in some way responsible for their death.

Fortunately for me, its rare for me to have money in my bank account, if that were not the case I would find myself deeply conflicted, and not greatly blessed. Please dont anyone say that old ‘blessed to be a blessing’ chestnut to me either, I toast chestnuts and eat ’em.

Saint Francis

Today is the feast day of Saint Francis, the poor man of Assisi.

Francis founded the brotherhood now known as the Franciscans, and is widely regarded as a model of selfless Christian virtue. His commitment to radical living is respected across the traditions, but its worthy of note that very few of us are willing to follow too closely in his footsteps.

Here was a man who repented so thoroughly of his worldly ways that he gave up all of his possessions, choosing to abandon everything and rely solely on providence and charity. A difficult enough task for anyone, but consider that Francis was born into wealth and privelige, and from an early age had a reputation for being a party animal.

Francis demanded of his brothers a vow of poverty which was considered too extreme by his contemporaries, leading him to evenutally be deposed from the leadership of his own order.

His poverty wasnt tokenism either, he suffered for his choice, hard living and malnutrition leading to his becoming ill towards the end of his life (he only lived to 45), and going blind. When the pope heard of his blindness, he ordered that he should be operated on – which meant the cauterising of the eyes with red hot pokers – nice.

So Francis models radical devotion, selfless and without personal consideration. He reminds us that it is not the self publicists and the powerful who can have great influence for good. He reminds us that Christianity means suffering, that none of us are exempt from hardship because of virtue.

No wonder so few of us want to model any part of our lives on his, but love to talk glowingly of him as one of our favourite saints.

Just a note by the way – Francis was originally Christened Giovanni – which is ‘John’ after the Baptiser – his father demanded he be renamed Francesco and should become a businessman and dandy. It was only when he broke with his father’s expectations that he reclaimed the mantle of the itinerant prophet clad only in rags.

Francis too is remembered for his love of, and respect for, all nature. He has much to teach any of us who make pretentsion to care for the environment and the garden in which we live.

A truly important figure in the ongoing story which we are part of – and one on whom we need to turn more of our attention.