Owen Jones: My latest battle to stop the demonising of people on benefits
The Independent, By Owen Jones
Another Monday, another rowdy TV ‘discussion’ in the wake of Benefits Street.
Evidence-free yelling; arguments based in emotion, not fact. I’m not talking about Channel 4’s Benefits Street debate which I appeared on Monday night, as predictably disorderly as it was. I mean the whole so-called debate about social security that this country has endured since the financial sector plunged Britain – and much of the world – into economic disaster.
The Government and much of the media have fed us a relentless, poisonous diet of “skivers” and “’scroungers”, of the feckless and workshy hiding behind blinds, subsidised by you, the hard-working taxpayer, who have to get up in the morning and slog your guts out. It was the behaviour of those at the top of society which led to a surge in unemployment and underemployment, the longest fall in living standards since the Victorian era, and hundreds of thousands driven to food banks in one of the richest countries on earth. But it is the behaviour of those at the bottom of society that has been scrutinised, poked, criticised, and demonised ever since.
That’s partly why Benefits Street has caused such a furore. The producers cannot pretend they have nothing to do with this wider context: of a government slashing the welfare state, intentionally fuelling resentment towards benefit claimants as it does so. This is just the latest such programme – Channel 4’s Skint, Channel 5’s On Benefits and Proud, BBC 3’s People Like Us being others – which present an entirely distorted picture of what our welfare state is, much to the benefit of our political elite. No wonder so much of the public is left unaware that social security mostly goes to elderly people who have paid in all their lives; that millions of low-paid workers depend on in-work benefits because their pay is too low; that sick and disabled people receive support that is in too many cases is being tragically taken away; and that 6.5 million people are looking for full-time work.
When I learned that the Telegraph’s Allison Pearson was appearing on Monday’s show, I thought there was a good opportunity to make a point about how cynical and distorted media coverage of social security is. Pearson wrote a piece entitled “Mick Philpott, a good reason to cut benefits”, one of many tawdry interventions last year that attempted to use the monstrous Philpott’s killing of his six children to make a political point about the welfare state.
But that wasn’t what I wanted to take Pearson up on. In her piece, she had claimed that "we need to acknowledge that 837,000 people who were claiming incapacity benefit failed the new tests and were found to be fit to work immediately". In a further attempt to associate them with the child-killing Mick Philpott, she added: "That’s nearly a million Britons who were taking the Mick." Her employer, the Telegraph, was forced to issue a clarification, pointing out that these were new claimants, not existing claimants, and "that while there is no official data as to why they withdrew their claims, important reasons could include that they recovered, returned to work or claimed a more appropriate benefit."
Now I’ll give Pearson some leeway: the Tories’ Grant Shapps had made a similar claim – and had been rebuked by the UK Statistics Authority as a result. As they pointed out, there is a natural churn in the system – there are improvements in people’s health, because only some conditions are permanently incapacitating, and people end up getting jobs.
It was astonishing, then, that Pearson would attempt to make the same claim on television again, which is what she did – repeating discredited claims that help to stigmatise benefit claimants. And yes, these claims do have consequences. Disabled people’s charities have highlighted how they have provoked a surge in abuse towards disabled people. That’s why I believe Pearson had to be publicly challenged.
But Pearson showed that these "journalists" are ferocious in attacking voiceless, struggling people when they’re behind their keyboards, but cowards in real life. When she was asked on the programme to respond to my rebuttal, she said at least she hadn’t stolen £13,000 from her employer, a reference to the star of Benefits Street, “White” Dee, who was convicted in 2007. I beg your pardon? It’s OK for journalists to say things which are untrue about disabled people because someone stole money seven years ago? And then, when the show went to a commercial break, Pearson simply walked off the set, and the discussion carried on without her.
It was a rowdy, chaotic show, based on the formula of "who shouts loudest". But the response to the arguments put by me and the Huffington Post’s Mehdi Hasan – we were a tag team – showed that this is a debate than can be won. Why isn’t the far more socially destructive behaviour of those at the top held to account, like the £25 billion lost through tax avoidance, like the bankers who have caused so much misery and yet continue to thrive? In a country where most people in poverty are in work, why do we so rarely see those who get up in the morning to earn their poverty, whose low wages we have to subsidise because bosses don’t pay their workers properly? Why are we subsiding private landlords with housing benefit, rather than building homes which would also create skilled jobs? Why don’t we have an industrial strategy like other countries to created secure, dignified jobs for people?
Without getting out the smallest violin in the world, rebutting the myths and lies about social security in the mainstream press has often felt like a lonely battle, as I’m sure Mehdi will agree. It’s not just a fight against overwhelming odds: the other side don’t play by the rules. But I’m genuinely starting to think this is a fight that can be won. It’s truth and honesty against manufactured prejudice and ignorance. We know that when people know the reality of social security, they’re much less likely to support Government attacks on it. There is an appetite to turn the focus away from those at the bottom, and on to the real villains at the top. With a bit of determination, courage and honesty, this whole poisoned debate can be turned around.