Hurricane Benefits Street: a perfect Twitterstorm

Published as a opinion piece on The Chamberlain Files.

I suggest Benefits Street has achieved what Jon Bounds has termed 0.7 Morans.

The ‘Moran Scale’, much like its Richter or Beaufort equivalents, is a means by which Mr Bounds suggests we can measure the strength of a ‘Twitterstorm’. Over to Mr Bounds:

It’s an attempt to give a quantitative scale to something that cannot be measured directly in numbers—this is about extent and influence and simple measures are never going to cut it, although as the number of Morans increases so does the number of Tweets and their anger. It’s based roughly on the idea of the news cycle and how the subject of the storm operates within it. We chose the name ‘The Moran Scale’ after Caitlin Moran, whose ability to kick off the storms—and get them featured in the old school media—is unrivalled. As it’s about intensity of storm, a parallel to the Beaufort Scale is entirely intentional.

It’s difficult to pin down what strength a twitterstorm reaches at any given moment, but 0.7 Morans seems like a reasonable calculation (hopefully Mr Bounds will look into a twitter account giving us a forecast for such stories, nudge nudge).

The story is yet to feature on the Radio 4 News Quiz or Newsnight, but has earned a vexatious Mail article andself-righteous Comment is Free piece. With several more episodes to go it certainly has the potential to go all the way and achieve the full Moran.

For those who missed the Channel 4 documentary, it doesn’t take a vivid imagination to guess the nature of the programme’s content. Benefits Street introduced us to the residents of James Turner Street in Birmingham, including: Danny the shoplifter, his pal Fungi the fake big issue seller and Smoggy aka ‘the 50p Man’. Fortuitously, the programme aired on the same day that the Chancellor announced the next Conservative government, if elected, would seek to make yet deeper inroads into the welfare budget.

Whether the residents James Street in Birmingham were misrepresented or not, the footage was far from flattering – drug use, theft, anti-social behaviour were all common themes to which the show repeatedly returned. For every good story about an impressive public library opening, the city must wear a feature about it’s feckless poor.

Apparent benefits scroungers or vulnerable individuals seemingly targeted by sensationalist producers, the conditions were perfect. Aired on Monday night, the programme attracted an audience of 4.3 million people: cue outrage.

A simple search of Google or Twitter will give a reader a sample of the response of the 4.3 million. Denouncement followed denouncement, recrimination by recrimination and legitimate criticism glazed over in favour of ad hominem attack or declarations of outrage in 140 character form.

In the face of such a tempest, calm and sober comment is lost.

By Thursday morning it seems we have reached the eye of the storm until Question Time, the Sunday morning political round or the next episode when the down pouring of outrage will soak us once more.Soon after the hot air of the news cycle will have blown us onto a new outrage, while any rational rebuttal has been blown in the wind.

Granted this small corner of the web could offer a considered response about welfare and work, skills and social attitudes, but it would be like attempting to hold back the tide as the storm surge poured in.

The danger is we’re becoming desensitised to the events or issues that may genuinely require sober public discourse and policy attention. Debate is being drawn to more exaggerated and melodramatic world views. Twitterstorms (et al) make us despondent and frustrated, but scandal hungry.

Any sensible and dull but ultimately reasonable figure or idea can stand little chance of being heard in the strong gales of indignation.

For what it’s worthMr Jones’ lengthy Huw Wheldon lecture offers a superb analysis for anyone who feels uncomfortable with watching voyeuristic depictions of the poor.

But otherwise the news cycle of despair continues as the Morans stack up.

Happy New Year.

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