After viewing SBS’s difficult to watch documentary, Struggle Street, I thought about the ethics of broadcasting others in their worst moments.
Struggle Street highlights the difficulty of day to day life for Australian families in public housing. The show, after its debut in early 2015, sparked outrage amongst the Mt.Druitt community. The area has very high rates of unemployment and is significantly disadvantaged. “The subjects of the television program say they were told the show would look at both the positives and negatives in their lives, including the challenges many faced and how some had overcome them.
The mayor of the council representing Mr Druitt says the program only exposes their worst moments on national television.” (ABC, 2015). Many Mt. Druitt community leaders were hurt by the provocative promo. Stephen Bali called for SBS to immediately pull the series from the air so it can be viewed by the people depicted in it, and contacted [former] Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull to intervene. The call came after Mr Turnbull alerted the broadcaster’s managing director to comments on Twitter from then-SBS journalist Scott McIntyre. Mr McIntyre was later sacked (SMH, 2015).
The shows finale especially, as shown in the YouTube clip above, sparked debate, evoked emotion and resonated with the community long after the filming had ended. Media coverage of the resident, Billy Jo, who was filmed doing drugs while in her last trimester of labour, carried on much longer than Billy Jo and her family would have liked.
Sue Sontag explores the topic of the suffering of others, stating that “the gruesome invites us to be either spectators or cowards, unable to look”. Some say that if you are neutral when viewing someone or something, then you are on the side of what has harmed them, to which Sue says, “So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence.”
What do you think about the use of media to highlight these issues?
Do they evoke a particular response from the viewer?
What was SBS trying to provoke with the airing of this controversial and highly debated documentary?
The show provides an unfiltered glimpse into a world that most of Australia isn’t exposed to and humanises a community that is often not heard or understood by others. As Sydney Morning Herald puts it “No one chooses to be born into disadvantage, yet Australians who’ve been kicked in the arse by a rainbow because of the privilege of their upbringing are only too happy to judge, condemn or simply ignore those not as fortunate. Struggle Street makes us take notice. It is a living, breathing study in how the flapping butterfly wings of government policy become hurricanes in the lives of the neediest Australians; how drug laws and legislation to trim pensions or change eligibility for health and disability services can tip people off the edge of society’s map. Once you’re off, it’s very hard to find your way back.”
I’m sure this SBS documentary put many people’s lives into perspectives, and made them feel grateful for what they were born into, how great their upbringing was and what they have now. But are these people just contributing to the suffering by only spectating and not doing anything to help these communities of Australia?