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FOR many, their experience of Merthyr Tydfil probably amounts to a 70mph drivepast as they zoom their way to some outdoor adventure in the Brecon Beacons.

In the past few weeks they might be more aware of the stunning and fragile beauty of the place thanks to the devastating grass fires which have hit the South Wales Valleys.

A few more might recently have got to know the place through the latest bit of poverty porn to hit our screens - Channel 4's Skint.

It's becoming an all-too-familiar format now, after that pioneering work by Channel 5's Benefits Street... essentially, it goes like this: some film-makers follow a bunch of jobless people who live in a deprived area around and make a TV series about them.

First Skint went to Scunthorpe to focus on families living in that forgotten part of Lincolnshire, before moving on to nearby Grimsby for the second series - until now, when they've landed in Merthyr.

Its previous incarnations have not been universally popular. Austin Mitchell, who was MP for Grimsby when it was broadcast there, hit out at the series for its "distorted impression" of his town.

"We have problems. All the other one-industry towns where the basic industry, be it coal, steel, textiles or catching fish, has died have severe problems," he added.

"These are made worse by the cuts in government spending, in benefits and in support for local government."

Nevertheless, the programmemakers continue, setting their sights on Merthyr, meeting the likes of Ashley, Hayley, Steve and Lisa - people living in the town, getting on with life.

"Unlike their forefathers, who had jobs for life," the programme said, "the younger generation live in a town with few opportunities and one of the highest unemployment rates in Wales.

"When you're young with no qualifications and limited job prospects, you do what is necessary to survive."

That's poverty for you.

The reaction in Merthyr to the film echoed that in Grimsby.

This was not the Merthyr people from the town know.

Council leader Brendan Toomey wrote on Twitter: "Skint: an outrageous and deliberate misrepresentation of Merthyr Tydfil and the vast majority of decent people who live here. "Disgusting!

"As a retired firefighter [with] 30 years' experience working the roughest parts of Merthyr Tydfil day in, day out, this is not the reality.

"Reacting to events outside my control here at MTCBC. Very frustrating explaining to the public that Skint was nothing to do with us!" None of this outrage will deter the producers, with the third and final programme promising to expose a couple who live in a tent above the town and who are forced to skip-dive for their food.

It seems faintly ridiculous, no matter how true and sad it actually is.

Before going on, a disclaimer: I fell in love with Merthyr Tydfil when I was sent to work there for three years as a young trainee journalist some 14 years ago next month.

It is a brilliant part of the world - and a great place to be a reporter.

It's full of amazing architecture and fascinating history. To understand what Wales is you have to understand Merthyr and its sister towns and villages across the Valleys.

In my time there I met and became friendly with all kinds of great people, like Brendan Toomey, who are all passionate about their wonderful town.

But the truth is it does suffer from some very real problems that come from being the place that it is.

Once Wales' greatest industrial town, now a shadow of its former self - afflicted by those things Austin Mitchell was on about in Grimsby.

"Something must be done," a horrified Edward VIII is misquoted as saying on a visit to Dowlais, in Merthyr, in the 1930s.

Nothing really has ever been done, apart from some ill-conceived town planning when they plonked a housing estate on the top of a mountain. Like the rest of the South Wales Valleys, Merthyr faces some very peculiar and difficult problems.

Like the rest of the Valleys, it's suffering because nobody's managed to come up with a solution to help.

And beautiful though they are, that beauty doesn't cure the ills of unemployment.

Nobody has ever come up with a proper plan to provide jobs and opportunities for the Valleys communities.

A general election might seem an opportune time for some proper debate about the region's future, a time to air some real ideas to help these places.

Of course, that's not really happened and we've been subjected to the usual mud-slinging irrelevant nonsense from all the parties.

I'm not in favour of poverty porn like that in Skint.

It objectifies and belittles society's most vulnerable.

Not only that, it sends out distorted perceptions of what places such as Merthyr Tydfil are like.

But what if the programme, for once, has beamed the problems of poverty - problems that affect many, many communities in Britain - into the lounges of, say, leafy Surrey? Because poverty shouldn't be ignored, even if we don't like the way it's portrayed.

And if that portrayal provokes thought among a few people who'd never thought about it before, then isn't that something that's good?


Hayley with her children, Kian, left, and Daniel, right, who appear in the new series of Skint, on Channel 4 <B
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Apr 17, 2015
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