By Belinda Goldsmith
LONDON, Jan 23 (Reuters) - A fly-on-the-wall documentary about a British street where most residents live on welfare payments has fuelled a politically-charged debate as the government cuts spending on benefits.
Dubbed "poverty porn" by critics, the five-part Benefits Street on Channel 4 chronicles life on James Turner Street in Birmingham, where recovering drug addict Fungi lives alongside jobless Becky and Mark who struggle to control their children.
It has struck a chord in Britain where many see benefits claimants as work-shy while others accuse the filmmakers of demonising the needy and vulnerable.
The show's defenders say it has put a human face on people often shunned by society and battling long-term unemployment and addiction, who nevertheless manage to help each other and retain a sense of humour.
Media regulator Ofcom said it had never received as many complaints about any documentary, many accusing it of falsely portraying benefit recipients as scroungers. The show is the most watched on Channel 4 in nearly two years, with more than 5 million viewers this week, a rare figure for a documentary.
Some on James Turner Street have voiced outrage at scenes suggesting they have chosen a life on handouts and use taxpayer money to buy large TVs and alcohol.
"Every new episode brings new tourists to the street and cars cruising up and down hurling abuse at people," said Steve Chalke, who is not a resident but is founder of the Oasis Trust that runs a school in the street and a member of a community group set up to tackle the fallout.
"We have children we need to accompany to school because their parents are too scared to go outside because of the abuse."
The show comes at a politically sensitive time in Britain, where the Conservative-led coalition government has vowed to toughen rules on benefits which critics say enslave millions in a culture of dependency in "welfare ghettos".
Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith said Benefits Street had given the middle-class majority a glimpse of the true nature of life in poorer communities.
"Even now, for the most part, they remain out of sight - meaning people are shocked when they are confronted with a TV programme such as Benefits Street," he said in a speech on Thursday to the Centre for Social Justice think tank.
The UK benefits system offers payments to help the unemployed, to help with housing costs for the working and non-working poor, for child care, the disabled and, most of all, for old age pensioners.
Official data show that in 2012-13, an estimated 161 billion pounds ($266 billion) was spent on benefit payments, almost 20 percent of public spending. Of that, 108 billion pounds went on pensioners.
Five billion went to the unemployed, 24 billion on housing benefit, 13.5 billion on disability living allowance and almost 5.5 billion on council tax benefit and income support. Many payments go to people in work on low wages.
With Britain struggling to balance its budget after years of austerity, finance minister George Osborne this month said he would slash 12 billion pounds ($19 billion) from the annual welfare budget by 2017/18 if the Conservatives were returned to power in an election in 16 months' time.
Britain's budget deficit peaked at 11 percent of GDP in 2009-10 - one of the largest for a major advanced economy - and by March 2013 was still 7.3 percent of GDP, with total public sector net debt of 1.25 trillion pounds.
Welfare has been put at the centre of the election campaign with benefits becoming a key political battleground.
Rather than promise cuts, opposition Labour has pledged to cap welfare payments while it tackles the causes of rising welfare costs such as unemployment, low pay and high rent.
Duncan Smith said the blame should not be attached to benefit claimants but on a system that traps them on the dole. For many, work would pay little more than they get on benefits.
"The reality is that our welfare system has become distorted, no longer the safety net it was intended to be. Too often it is an entrapment," he said.
The political and public debate on welfare is heating up, fuelled by the documentary and by newspaper stories about welfare recipients such as an unemployed man with 22 children.
Media regulator Ofcom said it had received 917 complaints about Benefits Street, the most for any show this year and for any documentary since it began monitoring in 2004.
"The vast majority of the complaints about Benefits Street are people arguing that the documentary gives an unfair portrayal about UK benefit claimants," said a spokesman.
Ofcom would decide if there were grounds for investigating any breach of the broadcasting code after the series ended.
Channel 4, which commissioned the show from independent Love Productions, said it had received 800 complaints so far.
A spokeswoman for Channel 4 denied the documentary makers had deceived the residents of James Turner Street, saying they were given the chance to view the programmes before transmission. Filming took about a year.
Kieran Smith, creative director at Love Productions, said the company was continuing to liaise with the residents featured in the series, with all filming of anyone aged under 16 done with the informed consent of all appropriate adults.
"We will make changes if the show is going to affect someone's safety or for the sake of fairness and accuracy but we are not changing the editorial direction of the series," Smith told Reuters.
"We always wanted the documentary to be thoughtful and humane and sympathetic but I have been surprised by how many people have watched the show and overwhelmed at the polarised views."