In March 2011 I wrote about the ways media portrayed disabled people at a time of punitive cuts to disabled peoples’ social and financial supports.
….a range of false accusations against disabled people and those with long term health conditions are visible in the media. Rather than offering support to disabled people, certain sections of the media prefer to label disabled people as unsustainable, unproductive or immoral members of their communities. The major accusation, however, is that disabled people are not disabled at all, but profiting from fraudulent benefit claims
Eight months on there is a clear escalation of the negative portrayal of disabled people in the UK media. These attacks are no longer confined to screaming newspaper headlines in the Daily Mail and Daily Express declaring that the majority of people on disability benefits are frauds, but a whole host of television programs setting out the Saints and Sinners, even programs with usually good credentials such as Panorama have jumped on to the band wagon of who’s responsible for ‘Broken Britain’. Since March 2011 negative and unbalanced reporting has become worse.
Social and Economic facts versus ideological messages
At the same time unemployment has increased to the highest rates ever recorded for youth and women, and the highest since 1992. On average vacancies have decreased from an average of 2/1 (2005) vacancy rate to a 6/1 (2011) with six people chasing one job according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS). Figures on averages hide local variations which are often much higher.
Yet, still unemployment or any need for state support is consistently identified as a personal failing regardless of personal circumstances or societal limitations: it’s this ideological message, rather than economic and statistical facts that gathers pace and shouts out loud and clear from some sectors of the media, with disabled people most often identified as the group needing to leave welfare and get jobs because they are ‘faking it’.
How the Newspapers are reporting Disability
A recent report commissioned by the organisation Inclusion London and carried out by the Strathclyde Disability Research Group and Glasgow Media Studies group at the University of Glasgow: Bad News for Disabled People: How the Newspapers are reporting Disability, found significant changes in media reporting of disabled people which show a clearly defined increase in stories and views identifying disabled people as ‘undeserving’.
The report identified changes in reporting through comparative content analysis of tabloid newspapers in 2005/6 and 2010/11and through focus groups. The researchers found that incidents of negative language regarding disabled people in print media had more than doubled over the time period, while what they termed ‘sympathetic’ stories had more or less disappeared in the tabloid press. Terms such as ‘burden’, ‘scrounger’, and ‘cheat’ were used repeatedly in 2011with a rapidly decreasing use of articles on disability discrimination. In addition stories outlining the political and economic context were rare. When the focus groups were asked to describe a typical disability story in the newspapers: disability benefit fraud was the top theme.
The media examined were the Mirror, the Sun, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, and for balance the Guardian. The researchers also carried out a number of focus groups asking what each group thought the level of disability benefit fraud was, there were variations from rates of 50% to 70% of perceived disability fraud from focus groups.
The reality in terms of incapacity benefit it is just 0.03% according to the ONS the report states. The Department of Work and Pensions own figures on Disability Living Allowance are 0.05% both stats also include administrative errors within their figures. The media strategy appears to be working when focus groups state perceived incidents of fraud of up to 70% which is more in line with Daily Mail and Daily Express headlines, than any statistical realities.
The report’s timely commission by Inclusion London, a London wide Deaf and Disabled Peoples’ organisation provides more evidence for further campaigns and for those who doubted that the print media in particular were objective. In addition, there have been several examples of stories usefully backed by a quote or two from Iain Duncan Smith MP welfare and pensions’ secretary. The most stunning in the Sun newspaper in 2011 when he happily implied that disabled people were responsible for the UK deficit, the most recent quoting him as ‘enraged’ and ‘shocked’ based a story that carried false figures regarding mobility cars. He wasn’t shocked by the inaccuracies but by the figures which weren’t checked before publication, but false figures are par for the course, as are false accusations.
The Cuts, Media and ‘real life’ Implications
Sheffield Hallam University have also produced a report outlining the impact of the cuts in incapacity benefit, claiming that almost half of those now receiving incapacity benefits will lose them, not because of fraud, but because of a tightening of the qualifying criteria for the replacement of lower income benefit Employment Support Allowance. The report by the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University, estimates that the reforms will cut the number of disabled people on out-of-work disability benefits by nearly one million in just three years. Add to this other reforms set to take away any support from disabled people and those already carried out removing over 9 billion pounds worth of support and we see a very different story from one of fraud. We see a story of ‘cuts’ to a group that the UK public had consistently agreed to be deserving of support in national surveys such as the British Attitudes Survey.
Professor Fothergill author of the report on Incapacity Benefit changes said
The large numbers that will pushed off incapacity benefits over the next two to three years are entirely the result of changes in the benefit rules” and added that this ..’would impoverish vast numbers of households and cause untold distress to countless more. The incapacity numbers need to be brought down, but this is not the way’
He is also clear that this is not about fraud, but about ‘changes in the benefit rules’ see Jolly . He adds: “Incapacity claimants often face multiple obstacles to working again and their concentration in the weakest local economies and most disadvantaged communities means they usually have little chance of finding work.”
Yet, it is the benefit fraud stories that abound despite the 0.03% figure; people believe the figure is much higher. A rise in disability hate crime has been linked to the media strategy on the demonising of disabled people. One example was reported on 4th December, one day after the International Day of People with Disabilities. It tells of Peter Greener’s constant barrage of abuse from his neighbour.
Sometimes, it was eggs thrown at his house, stones thrown at his windows or paint thrown at his fence; more often, it was words hurled in his face: spastic, cripple, scum, scrounger. These assaults went on for months, leaving the former Nissan car-sprayer in floods of tears, feeling suicidal and on antidepressants. He was scared to leave his home in Hebburn in South Tyneside and blamed himself for the upset it caused his wife and two children. “It made our lives hell,” he said.
Like many people with conditions such as multiple sclerosis, Greener’s regressive condition fluctuates. One day, it affects his memory, the next his speech. Sometimes, he uses a wheelchair; at other times, he can haul himself around on crutches. But this only led to more abuse, with angry shouts he was faking his disabilities and exaggerating his problems to get benefits
This is just one story; but the climate of fear is clearly working, there are disabled people who are frightened to leave their homes because of verbal and physical abuse, and accusations of being scroungers and frauds. There are those who refuse to claim their entitlement to support in spite of previously paying years of national insurance when they were in work, because they do not want to be labelled as benefit cheats. In total 16 million pounds worth of entitlements goes unclaimed. There are also those denied entitlement to support through the tougher regimes for claiming any benefit such as the replacement for incapacity benefit through the work capability assessment, carried out by the private company Atos who are being paid 100 million pounds per year by the government. The sums do not add up, but the strategy seems to:
A further report carried out by BT showed that a third of those questioned demonstrated increasingly negative attitudes towards disabled people. Reasons cited for this ranged from disabled people being seen as a burden on society (38%), ill feeling around the perceived extra support given to disabled people (28%), and the personal worries and sensitivities which rise to the fore during a recession (79%).
European Media Strategies
The media attacks on disabled people are not just happening in the UK. In Holland up to 90% is being cut from support for disabled people, similar media demonization is taking place in the popular press identifying perceived ‘undeserving’ cases. In Sweden cuts are being made to assistance to support disabled people with tougher qualifying criteria being put in place, they too have a focus on those who defraud the system highlighting such stories while record numbers of people loose entitlement to support.
The figures for fraud are just 0.05% in Holland. Yet, the magazine Vrij Nederland, a major quality magazine in Holland reproduces outrageous comments from the Secretary of State, responsible for the drastic 90% cuts:
The State Secretary of Health, Marlies van Zanten Veldhuijzen finds it unacceptable that some thirty percent of people with a personal budget (PGB) wrongly receive it. She said in an interview this week: “It can have you on the internet looking for the name of a disease, and then think: look, I can get 2000 Euros per month. With PGB we need to sort the wheat from the chaff.
She states that 30% receive a budget without having the right to receive it, as if it is a fact. Yet, here is no existing evidence or research confirming or even indicating this. Before receiving a PGB, as in most countries, a strict assessment is carried out. However, here we have a government minister saying that individuals can simply choose a disease at random by searching the internet to gain these funds.
Stories used by media to usher in cuts to disability support appear to converge into strategies by particular populist media to create a media panic around the extra perceived support given to disabled people for the extra costs of disability. This is proving effective , especially when there are examples of ‘undeserving’ cases being presented to shift the traditional view of disabled people as ‘tragic victims of circumstance’ –the claim of ‘tragic victims’ has always been rejected by many in the disabled peoples’ movement –maybe this will change as the 21st century welfare reform policies and the media strategies in the UK and Europe reinvent millions of disabled people as the tragic victims of the circumstance of recession and easy targets for savings from the state budget.
The political use of media to promote demonization of disabled people is aiding the work of governments’ intent on cutting the support and the human rights of disabled people. There are rising cases of verbal abuse against disabled people such as that endured by Peter Greener and rising cases of suicide amongst disabled people with one couple entering a suicide pact after surviving for a year by walking 10 miles to receive food parcels which they made last all week.
Ann McGuire Westminster Shadow minister for work and pensions wrote recently:
Disabled people say they are fed up with being labelled as scroungers in the media – and are beginning to point the finger in the direction of the Government. Yesterday at Work and Pensions questions I asked the Minister for Disabled People to assure the House, and disabled people up and down the country, that Ministers are not behind the stories knocking disabled people that seem to be emerging with alarming regularity…
McGuire called on the minister for disabled people to quell the insidious media attacks, a challenge that was also made directly to Miller at a recent disability conference in London: McGuire said:
The Minister for Disabled People has a responsibility as the champion of disabled people inside government to challenge some of the more outrageous and outlandish comments by some of her senior colleagues and others associated with her government…And I call on her to do so.
UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
Article 8(2c) of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities states:
‘Encouraging all organs of the media to portray persons with disabilities in a manner consistent with the purpose of the present Convention’.
This would include any change in reporting over time: it seems that there has been a change in reporting which is clearly not in line with the convention’s principles of promoting, protecting and ensuring the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms nor with promoting respect for disabled peoples’ inherent dignity. In fact the opposite seems to be occurring.
Inclusion London, the pan Deaf and Disabled Peoples’ organisation that commissioned the Glasgow University research into the media have led a response on the Leveson Inquiry. The response: titled ‘Open Season on Disabled People?’ supported by Disabled People against Cuts and others states:
- The Government must issue a clear and public rebuttal every time the media release inaccurate information citing Government / Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) statistics.
- That the Government commit to full transparency in their dealings with the press including keeping a publically available record of all communications between Government officials, Ministers, their aides and special advisors and the media.
- That there needs to be an independent review of how the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) releases and provides commentary on its statistics to assess how fair and balanced this data is presented and communicated.
- That the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) must carry out further research on the impact of media coverage on disabled people and the implications this has for disability hate crime, disabled people’s protection under The Equalities Act and the UN Convention on the rights of disabled people.
We call on the Leveson inquiry, Press Complaints Commission, and OFCOM to:
- Carry out an independent investigation into the media reporting of disabled people. This investigation needs to include the impact this coverage is having on disabled people and the implications this biased and inaccurate reporting has for the culture, practices, ethics and standards of the press. It must also examine the opportunities disabled people should have for effective redress.
Debbie Jolly is on twitter: @redjolly1
An edited version of this paper is published on British Politics and Policy London School of Economics, entitled: ‘As the government moves to cut the number of disabled people on benefits, the media is increasingly portraying them as ‘undeserving fraudsters’.http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/2011/12/14/disabled-people-media-attacks/
Acknowledgements: I would like to acknowledge the assistance and kind support of Jamie Bolling Executive Director of the European Network for Independent Living (ENIL) and Peter Lambreghts of ENIL and the Expertise Centre Independent Living