Sunday, 6 November 2011

Case #3: Returned Fire

What follows is my second complaint to the BBC concerning the programme, The Future State of Welfare.

I have had a reply to my previous complaint about this programme and I'm not satisfied by it. Stuart Web summarises it as:
"I understand you felt the programme was biased against the welfare state. I also note that you wished a transcript of the programme:"
This is an incomplete and inadequate description of my complaint, which concerned itself with the quality of research and fact-checking that had gone into the programme. A transcript was requested so that it can be shown that the volume of errors was so intense that it could only have meant the writer and producers had no intention of informing the audience with accurate information at all. This request was declined but I have already made my own transcript; all Stuart Webb had to do was ask Red Bee Media Ltd for it as they did the subtitles. To say it's because of cost when their services have already been paid for strikes me as Mr Webb thinking I'm an idiot. 

I also do not care about the opinions of John Humphrys or the people featured in the programme nor that of the public, only the factual content and a great many of those opinions make factual claims which are either not corrected or presented as factually accurate. The programme did not seem concerned with accuracy. I will provide some examples from the multitude of serious blunders that were broadcast without qualification, sources or correction. 

The first one in the programme comes when John Humphrys says directly to the camera that the benefits bill has gone up by £60 billion in the last ten years. I could talk about what Humphrys was intending to make the audience think about this; that benefit claims are out of control, are unsustainable and the bill has done nothing but grow. Instead I will just focus on the figure itself: it's wrong in real terms and much of the growth comes from pensioners, who are not featured as benefit claimants at all. Humphrys source for this appears to be the Conservative Party. At the party conference Iain Duncan-Smith claimed that "Spending on working age welfare rocketed by 50 per cent before the recession" and on their website they even state this is in real terms. This drew the attention of fact-checking website who looked into it and couldn't find a source, nor have the Conservative Party or Department of Work and Pensions responded to requests for a source. FullFact looked at the Public Expenditure Statistical Analysis reports from the Treasury for the figures and found that between 1997 and 2007 the bill for 'social protection' went from £114 billion to £187 billion and in nominal terms that is a 64% increase but in real terms it's 29% and the real terms money figure is quite similar to that. In real terms again, expenditure on social protection by GDP has decreased slightly, but the large part of that decrease is in working age benefits. 

John Humphrys doesn't specify what time period he's talking about when he says 'the last ten years' but his method of calculating the figures seems to be taken directly from political speeches. As nearly every benefit he actually talks about in the programme except Housing Benefit has either remained static or decreased in the number of claimants in the last decade, his claim is very misleading. JSA was falling, Income Support claims were falling and falling fastest among Lone Parents, Incapacity Benefit peaked in 2005 and only rose by 200,000 in the ten years since it replaced Invalidity Benefit. John Humphrys mentions none of these clarifying points. They take the rhetorical effect out of his statement. 

After the introduction and title, Mr Humphrys promises he's about to tell us how the Welfare State has changed in his lifetime. Does he do this by comparing the benefits that were available in the 40s and 50s with the 80s and 90s and then the modern benefits system, tracking the changes and their affects on claim statistics? No, he takes us to see one of his old neighbours and we hear about his opinion of an 'entitlement culture' which saturates the tabloids. Mr Humphrys later acknowledges in the programme that the public take a very dim view of unnecessary benefit claims when the polls show it, but ignores the massive amount of evidence that this has always been the case and hasn't changed one jot since his day. Mr Humphrys is asserting an opinion as fact. He's also poisoned the well for anyone that understands that social security in Britain is run on the provision of statutory benefits: the entitlement is a legal one, not an attitude or a culture. But anyone that addresses this is coloured with Humphrys dishonest paint-brush right from the start. 

In the next scene John Humphrys speaks with Pat Dale, a single mother. She misstates the minimum wage which the programme does not correct which would be minor if not for the fact that throughout the programme, nothing inaccurate is ever corrected no matter how significant. Pat Dale speaks about her place in the benefits trap where if she worked she would lose a lot of income. John Humphrys uses his conversation with her as evidence of his supposed 'benefit culture', but does not bother to mention that the circumstances and combination of benefits required to cause work to make a household worse off are very rare. Splott is one of just 5% of wards in the whole of Britain where so many people are out of work. Before the recession this was just 3.7% and as I said earlier: Lone Parents are the fastest shrinking group for Income Support. They have been falling consistently for over a decade. These inconvenient facts do not support the notion of a 'benefit culture' so John Humphrys is not interested in them. If as Stuart Webb says John Humphrys was sensitive to those benefit claimants he interviewed, then there are several of them he has caused to compromise their claims on national television. He only seems to have interviewed those who didn't take the time to think that what they could say on camera could jeopardise them. 

This kind of sloppy management of the facts persists throughout the programme. John Humphrys flicks through a Job Centre vacancies machine without bothering to check if they are full-time, permanent, zero-hour contracts or even genuine (scams are rife in the jobs market, many of the advertised vacancies are not genuine but fishing for CVs and contact details to sell to telesales companies. Illegal but no one polices the system). He doesn't even make a note that of those vacancies shown on camera, about a third are not even in Cardiff. One is advertised for Austria. Not once does Humphrys speak to the Citizens Advice Bureau, who are extremely knowledgeable on the subject and unlike virtually everyone else in the programme base their opinions on evidence and not what pitiful misinformation the tabloids(and now the BBC) fill their heads with. Everyone spoken to is either a local or national government employee, non-UK resident or a comical stereotype that doesn't represent most benefit claimants at all. Undoubtedly plenty of benefit claimants refused to take part because it was obvious they would not be fairly treated so what remains are those unable to articulate anything they haven't heard many times before in the media. 

The programme repeatedly plugs the line that 'there are jobs' in response to frequent and accurate criticism of government policies that there are far more jobseekers than there are jobs available. The programme manages to fully dodge this and simply has people stating repeatedly that there are in fact jobs. No citation provided. 

Much later in the programme John Humphrys speaks with Sharon Fisher, a GP in Tower Hamlets. Dr Fisher is not a statistician to my knowledge nor otherwise qualified to offer an authoritative view on statistics. She is sought for an opinion on Incapacity Benefit statistics anyway. She seems to regard the benefit as Humphrys does as a benefit for people off work sick. Disabled people are not mentioned at all, of which there are 10 million in the United Kingdom which doesn't make the statistic surprising at all. People who are 'longer off sick' are less likely to return to work because if they are likely to be longer off work, then the more likely the person has a long-term condition. This is not mentioned. Humphrys states afterwards: 

"So your local doctor no longer has the final say. More stringent tests have been brought in to flush out people claiming on health grounds when they shouldn't be." With this Humphrys is saying that doctors had the final say before. This is false: the final say rested with the DWP decision maker and many IB claims were turned down even with notes from GPs. Humphrys seems to be relying on a myth circulated in the tabloids which he didn't bother to check before repeating it to the nation.

He also claims 11,000 people a week are assessed in the new system. This is also not true and is a myth circulated to hide the fact that the system is a shambles. In September the DWP published a response to a FOI request asking how many claimants Atos had assessed since the national roll-out of the IB-ESA transition in February. The total number was 56,000 but this includes claims that were not even assessed face-to-face. Atos were expected to assess 11,000 a week but it's closer to that a month.

The point I'm making is that these are not difficult to correct or to find. The volume of factual errors in the programme can only be because there was no interest in accuracy.


  1. "More stringent tests have been brought in to flush out people claiming on health grounds when they shouldn't be."

    A trope already signalled in the media as DLA turns to PIP-"20% of claimants found to be "falsely" claiming to be disabled and receiving £ x thousands over twenty years " etc -the headlines are written,primed to go.

  2. It appears the BBC reply was a "templated"response and therefore (even if they read it fully) did not even attempt to answer your questions-

  3. Hi Arec

    Thought you might be interested in this research on how many will be affected by welfare reforms: