Naming and shaming the journalists & editors who demonise people with disabilities
There was a sickening article in today’s Observer from Ian Birrell on the real-life effects of the recent media coverage on people living on disability benefit:
“Polls have found substantial increases in the number of disabled people experiencing aggression and abuse, with evidence that the attitudes of the rest of society towards them are worsening. Many disabled people were already scared to go out after dark or travel on public transport such is their justified fear of encountering hostility.
…Unfortunately, much blame rests on the shoulders of the media and certain parts of government. There has been a new dialogue over disability, characterised by the constant drip-drip of stories implying vast numbers of disability claimants are bogus, that benefits are doled out without proper checks and taxpayers fund free cars for thousands of children with minor behavioural disorders.
Many emanate from the Department for Work and Pensions, which has twisted facts, manipulated statistics and distorted data to win support for its drive to cut costs and crack down on benefit fraud. This cascade of spurious claims and scandalously spun stories ends up demonising the disabled. It does no credit to Iain Duncan Smith, the secretary of state, who proclaims himself a compassionate Conservative. Ministers say they cannot be blamed for the actions of the media, but they know how the game is played.
Meanwhile, there has been a significant increase in articles about “cheats”, “scroungers” and “skivers” in the media. Not just tabloids, but broadsheets and broadcasters. A recent Glasgow Media Group study revealed a near-tripling of these words in papers, alongside a reduction in reports on discrimination and sympathetic stories about disabled people. Focus groups found people suggesting seven in 10 claimants were fraudulent; in reality, levels of fraud for disability benefits are 0.5%, much lower than for other benefits – and less than the level of errors made by officials.
…It is grossly irresponsible for journalists and politicians to collude in this manner to create a climate encouraging hatred, hostility and abuse towards people for whom life is already so difficult. This would be true at any time, but especially at a time of such uncertainty, when people are fearful of the future and looking for others to blame for their misfortune. Those with disabilities should not be made scapegoats for other people’s sins.”
The picture Ian Birrell describes seems eerily similar to the way the more toxic elements of the media chose to portray refugees and asylum seekers during the early 1990s. Given the results of that campaign, it’s disturbing to think what life will be like for disabled people in ten years time if the current media campaign of demonisation is successful.
But the difference between then and now is that the internet allows us very easily to track false and misleading media coverage, and draw attention to the activities of repeat offenders.
When the overwhelming majority of stories that contain the phrase “disability benefit” portray the claimants in such a negative light, and focus relentlessly on the tiny minority engaged in wrongdoing, it’s difficult to avoid concluding that the editor of the paper in question has a political agenda.
When the collective audience of the newspapers engaged in this campaign is so large, it’s easy to see how the public are getting such an inaccurate picture.
Whether through out-and-out misrepresentation or through an extreme form of “selection bias“, the reporters and editors who are distorting public perceptions of disability are having a direct impact on innocent people’s lives.
With a few notable exceptions, UK journalists who make false and misleading claims have generally able to evade the consequences of their actions, damaging other people’s lives without ever “becoming the story” themselves.
It struck me that one way of trying to address this issue might be to start documenting the UK media’s “drip drip” campaign of demonisation, highlighting the most egregious examples, and naming and shaming the editors and journalists responsible.
I’m interested in how widespread this problem is, and whether it will turn out to be just a passing phase or a sustained campaign, in the classic mould, with the potential to do serious damage to the status of a minority group. If you come across examples of press coverage that exemplify the problems that Ian Birrell has highlighted, please do leave a comment. I’ll also be keeping an eye out myself, and will update this page with the most extreme examples I find.