The media in Britain, particularly our national newspapers, have for many years carried stories about ‘dole cheats’, ‘scroungers’, and ‘spongers’ and made other negative characterisations of unemployed people and other benefit recipients. It is our belief that this erodes the confidence of unemployed people and benefit recipients, making the challenges we face, including gaining work in a difficult economy and living on a low income, worse. It is also our belief that many employers, faced with this onslaught of negative characterisation, would rather employ someone who already has a job than an unemployed person, again entrenching the problem.
Perhaps you think that this is a price worth paying for such a large and costly benefits programme? But the real figures might surprise you. According to the government’s own estimates Jobseeker’s Allowance is only overpaid due to fraud or error in 6.5% of cases amounting to a total of £290m per year, 4.4%/£350m per year of income support is overpaid, and 2.4%/£130m of Incapacity Benefit is overpaid (DWP estimates 2010/11 - http://statistics.dwp.gov.uk/asd/asd2/fem/nsfr-final-120711.pdf). This total of £770m includes staff error as well as claimant error, so does not tell us all we need to know about fraud, but the total is only 0.005% of the total social security bill. This suggests that the level of reporting (the number of times newspapers feature negative stories about benefits or benefits claimants) is out of all proportion to the issue.
Contrast this with the amount of tax avoided, which, according to Tax Research LLP (http://www.taxresearch.org.uk/Blog/2010/07/01/benefit-fraud-is-624-times-more-serious-than-tax-evasion/) is £70 billion. Why is this huge issue not featured more strongly in newspapers? Could it be because they represent the interests of multi-millionaire or billionaire owners who have a greater personal interest in tax issues than benefit issues?
Certain facts are reported regularly, such as the overall benefits bill of over £153b, with a direct link being made in stories between this figure and unemployment to try to justify the coverage. To be clear, Jobseeker's Allowance costs £4.5b per year (2010/11), and the majority of benefits payments go to pensioners. There is a natural reluctance to attack older people, but the unemployed and disabled are seen as fair game.
Our Charter makes commitments to try to balance this debate, through the following measures:
1) All national newspapers, radio stations and television stations that report negative unemployment and/or benefit stories will be asked to balance this with official comment and information from UnemployedNet;
2) The words 'scrounger' and 'sponger' are designated hate language. They are both inaccurate in the way they are typically used (they mean beggar rather than fraudster) and are commonly terms for the abuse of unemployed people and benefit claimants; we believe their use should be banned;
3) National newspapers, radio stations and television stations will be lobbied to alter their style guides and other guidance to include recognition of the unemployed and benefit claimants as a special interest group who are sometimes subject to oppression and prejudice;
4) All national newspapers, radio stations and television stations will be monitored for anti-unemployed and benefit claimant bias and this will be reported on the UnemployedNet website.
These four elements form the basis of UnemployedNet’s media campaign. We will work with media outlets where possible to achieve these aims; we want to form partnerships with newspapers, radio and televisions stations to help them to deliver information about unemployed and economically inactive people appropriately and proportionally.
These measures are designed to be easily achievable, to ensure that real changes in reporting standards can be made in short time. UnemployedNet’s users have been asked to make suggestions for changes to the Charter so other measures may be included after this process.
These newspaper articles give a flavour of the language used and the regularity of the anti-benefit claimant reporting:
The Mirror 7/11/11 (occasionally some papers do apologise for their hysterical reactions to benefits issues) http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/for-the-record/2011/11/07/for-the-record-benefit-fraud-115875-23561274/
The Express 5/11/11 http://www.express.co.uk/posts/view/281788/Psychic-who-didn-t-expect-fraud-probe
The Daily Star 5/11/11 http://www.dailystar.co.uk/posts/view/219134/Scum-mum-in-disabled-kiddie-con/
The Daily Star 2/9/11 (this is the worst example found, as the article explicitly calls all workless families ‘scroungers’ rather than an individual who has been convicted of fraud) http://www.dailystar.co.uk/posts/view/209093/4m-UK-scrounger-families/
The Daily Star 18/6/11 http://www.dailystar.co.uk/posts/view/196480/Judge-blasts-scrounger/
The Daily Star 1/4/11 http://www.dailystar.co.uk/posts/view/184014/-5-Billion-bid-to-get-spongers-working/
The Daily Star 15/3/11 http://www.dailystar.co.uk/posts/view/181262/Job-dodgers-forced-to-clean-the-streets/
This is just a small sample of newspaper coverage of the issue and the language used, provided to give an idea of how continuous and widespread this negative reporting is.
Newspapers choose which stories to report, how to report them, the language to use, how much space to give them and how prominently to place them. If they feature the same stories over and over again we are entitled to ask what their agenda is and why comparatively minor crimes (judged by the amount of money over claimed in each case) as most of those detailed above are given such prominence.
We are not excusing criminals, but we want balance in the reporting so that those in work are not led to believe that all benefits claimants are thieves, scroungers, fraudsters, liars and cheats. If a newspaper almost always uses language like this when reporting the benefits issue it is clearly engaged in a direct campaign against claimants as a group, and we will oppose them.
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