Our founding Director, Steven Johnson grew up on Shadsworth, the subject of last night’s Panorama documentary on BBC1. He dedicated his career to social change as a result. Here he discusses what was so wrong with the BBC’s portrayal.
I grew up on Shadsworth. My mum still lives there (a few doors down from one of the families featured last night), as does my sister, her husband and my nieces and nephews. As a direct result of this experience, I’ve dedicated my career to positive social change.
If you watched last night’s Panorama, you’re probably expecting me to wax lyrical about how the wretched depravity I experienced inspired me to fight for a better world. In fact, I’m not driven at all by the thought of bringing a little light to dark hole, a little hope to wasted life. What drives me is the humanity, the compassion and spirit of places like Shadsworth and the massive potential of the people that live there.
I followed the #bbcpanorama twitter feed, blood boiling at comments that fell into two broad categories—empty platitudes about how sad the situation is and ugly outbursts about flat screen televisions and choices—their disparate authors united by their ignorance and unwillingness to do anything about it.
It’s clear to me that it was not Shadsworth (the reality) that inspired such incisive commentary; it was the BBC (the portrayal).
I’m not going to attempt to rewrite Shadsworth as some sort of utopia, built from the salt of the earth with the blood sweat and tears of a working class hero. Even when I lived there, there were fights, robberies, drugs, glue, gas and a steady stream of what is now ironed out as ‘anti-social behaviour’. But there was so much more to the people who lived there: spirit, love, humanity, laughter, compassion and potential… so much potential!
As I grew up I played football, cricket and roof climbing with (Shadsworth) mates whose athletic ability I couldn’t understand. I played cards and games in the (Shadsworth) pubs with (Shadsworth) blokes whose intelligence, memory and mathematical ability left me flummoxed (and skint). And all the time, I laughed hard, loud and lots and lots with (Shadsworth) people whose wit, mental agility and humanity left me reeling.
Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, we saw none of this in last night’s tendentious portrayal. Whilst the BBC may claim honourable intentions to make a political point that may drive positive change, last night’s show was clearly driven by the need to make the point, rather than reflect the reality.
The real frustration is that this is just a specific example (albeit a hugely high profile one) of a more general theme that is such a serious hindrance to the positive change that we need to bring about.
When, as the BBC have done, we so sharply focus on the negatives, we profoundly exaggerate the reality and create a sense that both people and place are beyond hope. What is implicit in the portrayal of a place so devoid of hope, humanity, ability, resilience, motivation and aspiration is the futility of any attempt to improve it.
In attempting to highlight how dire the situation is, we actively discourage action rather than trigger it. We reinforce perceptions that the people and the place are not worth the effort and paralyse those who could otherwise be mobilised to take action with a challenge too daunting to tackle.
It’s the naive use of media to shock, rather than the considered use of insight to empower. It’s a classic needs-based mentality that creates an atmosphere of negativity, gives momentum to self-fulfilling prophecies and disempowers those who are working hard to make a difference.
I’m from Shadsworth. I’m no different from most of the people that live there and they are largely no different from you. Different circumstances, different influences, different opportunities… but we’re the same people.
The depth of potential that is buried in places like Shadsworth is a blight on our society and a drain on our economy. No, not because of the pressure it puts on the benefit system (although that is a factor), but because of the talent, intelligence and energy that could be realised if we had more considered approaches to releasing and harnessing it.
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