Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Seven Weeks Of Eye Strain

What follows is the full-blown text sent to the BBC almost seven weeks ago. One week from now will be seven weeks to the day since Fiona Campbell the Commissioning Editor for Current Affairs at the BBC told me I should expect a response by then. This is the series 'What Is Wrong With The Future State Of Welfare' complete with the covering letter in the e-mail and notes I added. This is what those dealing with my complaint had to read. I wouldn't try reading it all at once, but if there was any part of the programme last October that really got under your skin, flick to that part and put your mind at ease that you're not wrong.

The E-mail

In accordance with the decision of the BBC Trust, I am supplying additional points of complaint concerning factual inaccuracy, broadcasting scenes and statements which materially and/or intentionally mislead the audience, failure to corroborate information, failure to gather information first hand, lack of due caution when dealing with material supplied by third-party sources, relying on single unnamed sources, failing to verify information to achieve due accuracy and failing to report statistics in context leading to the risk posed by the benefit system to the public finances being unjustifiably exaggerated.

Whilst the points of complaint are 55 in total, I have not counted most instances where the same alleged error is repeated in the programme except where it is the case that individually some of them are too minor to bother with but when taken together in context they effectively mislead. Including every individual problem would have taken the count beyond 70. Some of these points were examples I raised during stage 1 and were passed on to the producers of the programme who responded through the same channel. I have included highlighted notes to some points to illustrate that my original complaint in its whole was that the programme 'lacked any factual rigour' and the response of the producers to specific allegations presents prima facie evidence that they were not at all concerned about factual accuracy. The notes also explain context and elaborate on complicated topics that the programme fudges. The reason for pointing out how the producers responded is because of what I read in the BBC guidelines concerning accuracy, they say that those who produce content for the BBC should acknowledge factual errors and correct them quickly, clearly and appropriately but the producers didn't. The section on note taking says they should have made records of their research which are accurate, reliable and where possible, contemporaneous. The sources they did reveal were flagrant breaches of the guidelines which were often uncorroborated and I have a fear that when the ECU approaches the producers to see their records, they will not resemble the sources they told me they used or will include information I wasn't given in their response.

I found the programme to be atrociously biased like most of the other who made a complaint about it. Bias is very difficult to prove, but I identified that the bias almost entirely reflected itself in the factual content of the programme. The BBC practically never broadcasts single-issue opinion programmes or polemics because they are not conducive to being an impartial public service broadcaster. So this programme was based on the premise that it was a balanced and factual current affairs programme and it does take the form of one. The content however is of an entirely polemical nature, so whilst I think context is provided by interpreting the programme makers intentions, the case against the programme was always better placed with a focus on how matters of fact are treated. I comment on the bias, but only to give context to the way the programme treats factual information. This would not matter so much if in their response, the producers did not fall back so heavily on explaining their intentions rather than explaining why they got it wrong. I expect the ECU's correspondence with them is going to be like nailing jelly to the wall, if they don't manage to completely bamboozle your staff.

I am specially requesting that if the programme makers appear to have a solid case on any point, that I be contacted with questions about it because I have researched most of them and have excellent second-hand knowledge of the rest. None of the issues attached to each point has an editorial justification for being present in the programme when they mislead the audience as much as they do. As the BBC Trust decided I would be allowed until the 12th of July to provide additional points of complaint, I would like to add one in addition to those about the programme. As a 56th point of complaint, I would like to raise the issue that the producers of the programme in their response through the stage 1 complaints channel failed to acknowledge factual errors that had been pointed out to them and failed to correct them accurately, clearly and appropriately. I initially believed their response to be a prank.

I do not like the system that appears to only be concerned with issues like accuracy when a complaint is made. The guidelines might put an obligation on content producers to defer to due accuracy before the broadcast, but not retrospectively afterwards when an issue is discovered without a formal complaint. As such, whilst my complaint does not directly concern bias, I do hope the ECU during their investigation develops enough concern about the programme to refer it to the appropriate people. Those people who complained about the programme and were disillusioned with their stage 1 responses and just gave up, they deserve more.

My points of complaint are included in the attached Rich Text Document, which can be opened with most word processors. If an attachment is not appropriate, please contact me as soon as possible for an e-mail of the text.

Yours Sincerely,


The Document

The Future State Of Welfare


The programme breached the BBC guidelines on accuracy by: failing to gather information first hand, relying on single unnamed sources(3.4.1), failing to verify information to achieve due accuracy(3.4.2), failure to use due caution for information supplied by third parties(3.4.5), materially misleading the audience(3.4.11) and failing to report statistics in context(3.4.21).

The response I recieved breached the BBC guidelines on accuracy by doing most of the above and ignoring that I had highlighted problems with the figure and the way it was presented(3.4.26).

I have included notes for some points to explain context, to refer to the standards on which the producers of the programme operate in relation to the topic of the point and elaborate on them.


1. Almost immediately at the start the presenter tells the audience that the benefits bill has risen by almost £60 billion in the last ten years. This is a flat statement without qualification which omits to mention much of this is down to inflation, not a real terms increase. Given as the programme does not look at pension aged benefits at all, they also omit how much of the rise was in that category. Failing to inform the audience of these meant the statement was misleading.

Notes: During stage 1 this was one of my concerns which was raised with the production team for the programme. I alleged that not only was the figure misleading because its context wasn't given, but also that their source was Iain Duncan Smith who had used a similar figure and timescale in a speech. I also pointed out that the fact-checking organisation FullFact.org had attempted to find his source but the Conservative Party never actually got back to them with it. I would have thought the problem here had been made obvious but the producers responded by not addressing whether the figure used by the presenter was accurate or not. They stated that their source was a speech by David Cameron, so they incredibly did not understand the issue as Cameron and Duncan Smith are not independent of each other as sources.


2. An edited vox-pop clip is then shown of a GP interviewed later in the programme who says "Two and a half million people who are on incapacity benefits in the UK, unbelievable". I will come back to this interview in a later point but for now the problem that comes to mind is the unqualified expression that this figure is inexplicable. The programme omits to mention that Incapacity Benefit has not risen in the period since it was introduced. It rose slightly between 1995-2004 and then began dropping again even before the phasing to Employment Support Allowance began. The programme never makes it clear that when it is talking about 'incapacity benefits' this includes ESA too. The programme makes no effort to explore the figures for IB-ESA.

Notes: In their response, the producers said Dr Fisher spoke as a GP with frontline experience of the welfare reforms and their impact. In the programme she is never asked nor does she say anything about the reforms. I had criticised them for presenting Incapacity Benefit as 'sickness benefit' and that the emphasis used means the audience might not realise it is claimed by disabled people. Their response to that was to pretend I hadn't said it and instead they said they didn't talk about those on Disability Living Allowance because the segment was about Incapacity Benefit. I had not mentioned DLA at all, I was pointing out that IB is claimed by disabled people. I get the impression that they were intentionally trying to avoid acknowledging that Incapacity Benefit is not exclusively for people off-sick from work, but those who can't work because of disability. It would have put the total IB-ESA figure in more explanatory context, but would have spoiled the rhetorical effect the programme was using.


3. Another edited vox-pop is shown from a later interview with a single mother. She makes blunt states of fact which are in reality more complicated but are not explored.

    "Some people haven't worked in their life, they don't know what a job is." "Would you work for the minimum wage?" "No, I wouldn't. I'd be working for nothing."

The programme omits to actually show what she would be entitled for if she did work. The audience is misled by its absence.


4. The presenter describes his childhood experience, asserting that it illustrates the difference between then and now in how the welfare state has changed. He talks entirely about employment, not disability, single parenthood or full-time caring but then when describing the area now he tells the audience that one in four people of working-age are now on some kind of benefit. He does not specify if this is an unemployment benefit, nor does he specify the unemployment rate. A general audience will assume from his use of words that it's one in four on 'the dole' or Jobseeker's Allowance. It appears it doesn't: it throws in IB-ESA and Income Support claimants like single mothers, disabled, sick, carers etc; people not expected to work. That's what you need to do to get the presenter's 'one in four' figure. If you look at just unemployed and expected to work claimants it's 6.7%.

Notes: Splott is one of just 5% of the wards in the whole of Britain where so many people are out of work. Before the recession it was 3.7% of wards.


5. The presenter introduces the audience to single mother Pat Dale and her daughter. It is announced that they say it doesn't pay them to work, repeating the unqualified and unexplored blunt claim of fact from earlier.

Notes: I left out most of the repeated misleading claims and scenes from the programme, but this segment in particular misleads the audience through a low-level repetition of what it is doing. A tone is set and a 'dog whistle' of popular tabloid myths about benefit claimants is being blown.


6 and 7. Pat Dale is shown stating that if she worked she would 'lose all her rent benefits'. The figures are not explored so the audience is left with the impression that this is true. Statistically she is unlikely to be worse off working. The programme does nothing to point any of this out and the presenter does not converse with her about the figures. She also miss-states what the minimum wage is and the programme does not mention what it actually is.

Notes: This was a complaint I made among 11 examples of alleged problems with the programme during stage 1. It was part of a much larger complaint about how someone as uninformed as Pat Dale could be interviewed and then the audience doesn't get any corrected information, of which the minimum wage misstatement is but one. Pat Dale's appearence in the programme seems to serve no purpose other than to shock the audience rather than inform. My complaint does not centre on this overt bias however, but factual accuracy and the programme for what ever reason allowed a series of uncorroberated claims to stream from this interviewee. Individually these are small and almost unnoticeable, but when condensed like this they can mislead.


8. Pat Dale is then shown making fact-based statements. She points out that Child Benefit is £20 a week for the first child and £13 a week for any child after that, expressing dismay that what is already a very small amount to raise a child on gets cut for further children. Pat Dale expresses her opinions based on the information she has, both accurate and inaccurate but the presenter then berates her off-camera where she can't respond. After getting some facts right and accurately identifying her statutory entitlements, the presenter distorts this into being an attitude of entitlement belonging to a 'benefits culture'.

Notes: The presenter shows more concern with correcting(behind her back) Pat Dale's factually-accurate moral short-comings than correcting her factually-inaccurate moral sanctimony. A comparison of the programme's opening montage where Pat Dale is featured and her later interview hint that it was either partially staged or heavily edited to make her look foolish.


9. The presenter begs the question, asserting that there can be no other answer for why so many in the area are out of work, emphasising that Splott is a district of Cardiff and not one of the mining villages of the Welsh valleys where unemployment would be explainable. The presenter omits the effect of demographic distribution and that Splott is in fact one of only a handful of places where this applies, it does not reflect the national picture.

Notes: The producers said Splott was chosen because John Humphrys was born and raised there and that he was using his personal experience to demonstrate how attitudes had changed. This ignores completely what I said, which centred on how the presenter's personal experience actually demonstrated how the benefit system had changed.


10. The presenter goes to a Jobcentre and uses one of the terminals. He flicks through the screens, speaking as if he is finding lots of legitimate vacancies located in Cardiff. A closer look at the screen reveals that whilst they are being advertised in Cardiff, many are much further away. Some are in eastern Europe. The presenter misrepresents what is on the screen, which is not clearly shown but I paused the programme and looked carefully. This is what I saw:

On-screen:
Selected today's local jobs.
75 jobs were found.
First 8 in Cardiff.
2 were minimum wage.
3 'met or exceeded' national minimum wage.


Remainders were manager, engineer and director and not generally accessible to the unemployed. Humphrys checks none of them, just zips through the pages reading titles out. By the fourth page, more than half of those displayed are not specifically Cardiff but 'Wales, various, London and nationwide'. This further expanded to 'Europe, Austria, Paisley and others on the next page. About a third that are actually displayed in the programme are not in Cardiff. Those that were in Cardiff required experience or specialist skills. Humphrys makes no distinction or effort to check how many were full-time and permanent. What he read out also seemed to bare little resemblence to what was on the screen; cleaner and carer were there but mainly on different pages to the one he was showing at the time, the rest he seemed to be making up whilst flicking through pages without reading them.

Notes: The producers responded to my criticism in regards to the programme not mentioning how many jobseekers there were in comparison to the number of jobs over the same period, they insist they did address this. They said it was the scene where they visited a Middlesborough job club where it is made clear that whilst jobs are advertised they are often very difficult to secure with many individuals seeking the same opportunities. This does not equate to informing the audience of the deficit of jobs in comparison to the surplus of jobseekers, especially not in the context of the programme frequently having the presenter and interviewees state that jobs are plentiful.

11. The presenter asserts that 1,600 jobs were advertised in Cardiff. This misleads the audience into thinking that there were 1,600 vacancies located in Cardiff. First, the total number of advertised vacancies is misleading because many can be out of date even though in theory they are supposed to be taken off the system as soon as the vacancy is filled. Many job-seekers will point out that this often doesn't happen and they find themselves applying for advertised vacancies that have long since passed. A significant number of vacancies advertised in one region are also repeatedly advertised nationwide and the job itself is not located in the region it is advertised in. Had the presenter actually used the terminal properly and read out what was there rather than follow a pre-set script to say regardless of what actually appeared on-screen, the audience would be made aware of the irregularities. This does not even begin to cover the extent of illegal 'fishing' vacancies put out by firms to simply farm CVs and sell the details on. No one policies the jobs market for this, so the law isn't enforced. The programme just assumes that all the vacancies are genuine, local(rather than just advertised locally) and up to date.

Notes: The producers insisted that the Jobcentre confirmed the 1,600 vacancies were advertised there and labelled as 'local jobs', which side-steps the issue that John Humphrys selected 'todays local jobs' from the terminal and it came back with a third of the results being much further than Cardiff. They were fine to simply take the Jobcentre's(or the terminal's) word for it even though I'm pointing out that these are inaccurate and require corroberation. The producers don't seem concerned with being right at all. Because I pointed out that what the presenter was saying appeared to be pre-scripted and irrelevant to what actually appeared on-screen, they insisted that whilst one of the vacancies was in Austria this could clearly be seen by viewers. John Humphrys scrolled through ten pages totalling 75 vacancies in ten seconds whilst reading off the fictional vacancy list in his head. It was almost certainly not clear because each page went by quickly and two weren't even on camera.


12. The presenter has a conversation with a staff member. The staff member emphasises the benefits of work but does not elaborate, nor are they asked to talk about how financially almost anyone is better off in work. The opportunity is ignored. Throughout the programme the publicly available information that does show the stark financial difference between being on out-of-work benefits and in employment is never investigated.

Notes: This appears to be to maintain the idea that benefits in Britain are generous. No one who would say they're actually quite low is interviewed. I asked why the Citizens Advice Bureau was not consulted as they have the expertise to accurately map out almost any kind of hypothetical scenario in relation to benefits and the producers responded that they included a range of people including experts and non-experts. This completely sidesteps the criticism I made. They said it is difficult to respond to complaints about material not included in the programme, but in this particular case the material is crucial to the audience understanding the subject. If they could not address an issue in a way that does not mislead the audience, then they should have left it out unless they could get someone actually qualified to explain it and unlike a DWP employee the CAB is impartial- neither trying to minimise nor maximise the number of benefit claims.


13. The presenter turns the subject towards the pet fixation of the 'benefits culture', bringing up the issue of there being a supposed 'lack of stigma' to not working. No evidence is presented that this is in absence, the masses of evidence such as every tabloid, commentator and even many of those interviewed in the programme carry a sense to stigma towards the idea of not working is ignored.

Notes: The complaint is about the factual support for this. Mr Humphrys is entitled to his own opinions and like many who complained about the programme I have strong feelings about his opinions, but he is not entitled to his own facts. But that is the only sense of 'entitlement' I can pick up from the programme.


14. The staff member is then shown agreeing, with the assertion that it is 'too easy' to claim benefits. The process for claiming benefits is not actually gone through, nor what benefits specified. The evidence available; that long-term Jobseekers Allowance claimants dropped over the period which the presenter earlier said the benefits bill went up by £60 billion, that Incapacity Benefit claims never rose and that single parents on Income Support are the fastest falling group of claimants- all are ignored, apparently because they do not fit the 'benefits culture' 'lack of stigma' and 'sense of entitlement' the presenter insists has become a problem since he was a child.


15. The presenter sits in on a meeting with Owen Oakley, an Incapacity Benefit claimant  trying to get back to work and being migrated onto Employment Support Allowance. The presenter asks Owen if he can have a word. The presenter asks a distorting and leading question: "How do people react to you being out of work? Do they think 'he's a lazy so and so, can't get out of bed in a morning'?" Owen is on an 'out of work' benefit but he is not out of work. He has been on Incapacity Benefit for ten years because a Personal Capability Assessment, the most stringent of it's kind in the whole of the OECD, found it was unreasonable because of his condition to expect him to look for work. Owen seems to know exactly what the presenter wants and understandably makes the comments needed to reinforce the 'benefits culture' narrative without taking any flak himself on or off camera. The ESA system has moved the goalposts and obviously under the new criteria Owen is not eligible for the Support Group.


16. The presenter tells the audience that there are now more than 800,000 people who have been out of work for more than a year. The presenter does not mention that over the past decade, the numbers of long-term unemployed have fallen.

Notes: The point here is that this claim is used to lead onto a segment about the Beveridge report. With the framing the presenter has used up to now, the audience is unavoidably going to be misled into thinking the long-term(1 year-plus) out of work figure is because of the available benefits, rather than the recession. It would have been a simple thing to mention what the 1 year-plus figure was a few years ago before the recession. It is a common tabloid myth that unemployment has risen over the past ten years when in fact it fell and only rose when the recession came.

17. To get this figure the presenter must also lump in some claimants for benefits where they are economically inactive and not expected to seek work. You can not make it up to 800,000 working-age claimants by counting just 1 year-plus JSA claimants alone, of whom there are but 250,000.

Notes: The producers really need to explain how they padded out this figure. The closest I can get is by lumping JSA and Income Support together to get about 750,000 as of February 2011. A look at the more recent figure for the quarterly period of August 2011 which is closer to the time of broadcast brings back 660,000. If the producers are using the combined net totals of 1 year-plus JSA and IS, then this is a very unreliable figure. There's an issue about why if the producers think IS claimants should be considered 'out of work' do they not think IB claimants are? A significant proportion of IS claimants are doing so because they are low-income IB claimants. If the producers are using this method, then there is a lack of familiarity or lack of interest in the data.

18. The presenter summarises the Beveridge Report. Omits to mention that William Beveridge's ideas of social insurance relied upon full employment as national economic policy, which Britain has not followed since the 70s. He continues on by repeating an opinion as fact that it's the welfare system itself that is the problem.

Notes: This is a repeated problem, which I am including as a seperate point of complaint because the issue with the presenter constantly trying to drill into the audience that the benefit system has backfired and created a 'benefits culture', but without quantifiable evidence seperate from opinion that this is the case. Mr Humphrys is entitled to his own opinions, but I don't think the BBC is the right platform to air them and certainly not in a factual current affairs programme. As far as I'm aware, the BBC does not do single-issue opinion programmes, polemic documentaries or political propaganda because the ethos of public service and impartiality can't justify it. Yet the producers and presenter have managed to get away with exactly that.


19. The presenter sets up the argument that lack of jobs causes high unemployment and then instead of addressing it brings on the Mayor of Middlesbrough Ray Mallon to say that 18,000 out of a population of 88,000 in Middlesbrough are on some form of benefit. It's a figure which again requires many benefits to be lumped together. Rather than actually producing a coherent point, the opinion about there being a widespread culture of not working but staying on benefits is repeated. No critical comment is made of this.


20. The presenter is driving around a neighborhood commenting on the number of young men. They refuse to talk to him but he assumes anyway that none of them have jobs. This is asserted as fact, punctuated with the word 'obviously'. As soon as he does find someone prepared to look ridiculous on television he doesn't hold back on demonising them to the audience in a voice over so they can't answer back.

Notes: The focus here should be on the presenter's claim that the people he sees on the streets 'obviously do not have jobs'.


21. The couple are Steve Brown and Paula Mort. The presenter asks them leading questions, maneuvering Steve into accepting the narrative of the benefits culture he keeps insisting is widespread. At no point are Working Tax Credits mentions or the figures actually added up to see if the couple would in fact be better off if at least one of them went to work. Steve cottons on to what's happening and falls back on sentiment; he doesn't want to work because he'd miss his kids. If that sounds bizarre, bare in mind that he's now not able to back out of indulging in some Daily Mail pontificating where he unwittingly implicated himself in being 'workshy' so he now has to simply mitigate. The audience will be left with the impression that the presenter just keeps finding these people. Virtually every claimant featured in the programme conforms to a tabloid stereotype of benefit claimants.

Notes: The producers said they disagree with my characterisation of participants as "either a local or national government employee, non-UK resident or a comical stereotype", but didn't cite any example of someone who wasn't one of those. Given how some parts of the programme featuring those I'd call 'comical stereotypes' are edited, I'd say they were fully aware of the comic potential and their disagreement is ingenuine. 


22. The presenter repeats the word-twisting with Paula Mort. Neither of the interviewees have actually revealed much about themselves or given informative information about benefits but this doesn't appear to be the presenter's goal; which seems to be to keep re-affirming the angle he's selling.

Notes: Not at all concerned with the family's welfare however, the programme has compromised Steve Brown's benefits if he was claiming JSA, which requires him to be actively seeking work. By stating on-camera that he is avoiding work(even if he wants to work), he is in breach of JSA conditionality. If he is not claiming JSA, then the programme has misled the audience about his status. I'm assuming he is on JSA and the producers decided to jettison professional ethics and include Brown's compromising statements in the broadcast. Brown was clearly unaware about what he unwittingly did and this puts a responsibility on John Humphrys and the producers to check again if the ethical boundaries on informed consent are safe.


23. The presenter claims in a voice-over that Steve Brown has made a straightforward calculation. The calculation and figures involved are not shown. But it's unlikely Steven actually knows enough about the benefits system to make such a calculation, especially as the presenter has made no effort himself to try it. I should note that last year the welfare to work provider A4e tried to sub-contract the Citizens Advice Bureau for the Work Programme and they specifically wanted CAB to do benefit calculations like this. They wanted CAB for this because the maths is actually rather complicated and CAB owns licenses for specialist software; A4e knew that it would be cheaper to contract CAB to do it than to fork out for the software themselves and then hire people qualified to use it. The presenter having failed at any point to actually work out the figures himself is now impressing on the audience that an uneducated unemployed Middlesbrough man easily led on was able to do this with a 'straightforward' calculation.

Notes: Steve Brown begins by saying he was sat down, presumably at the Jobcentre and worked the figures out with them. So basically, they told him he was better off not-working. Brown might not be aware of the seriousness of the allergation he is making, but John Humphrys and the producers certainly should and should have investigated.


24. The presenter concludes from what he has seen/twisted/cherry-picked thus far that the problem is distinguishing between those who can't work(even though he has not acknowledged anyone he has spoken to fits this category) and those who won't. He then equivocates this with 'from Beveridge's time' the concept of the 'deserving and undeserving poor'. He does so in such a way that actually makes the concept palatable and in doing so misleads the audience about history. The deserving and undeserving poor had nothing to do with willingness to work and everything to do with the prejudices of the workhouse owners, 'guardians' and committees that the poor had to beg in front of for relief. Beveridge and his collegues called it 'evil'. The worst the presenter manages to describe it is 'highly controversial'.

Notes: I would not have included this if not for the context. The programme does not exist in a vacuum and the audience will interpret it through the lens of what they are familiar with and what they are familiar with is what most of the media have said about the concept of 'the deserving and undeserving poor'. They are in fact mostly uninformed about it and this is not helped by the presenter's clumsy misuse. The 1909 Minority Report on the Poor Laws by Beatrice and Sidney Webb and to which William Beveridge contributed is widely reported and corroberated by what preserved text there is to be very critical of the concept.


25. Following a segment at a job club, Gavin Poole from the Centre For Social Justice is shown stating that since 1997, the number of workless households has doubled. This figure is not challenged. It's down to a demographic shift because the main benefits it would cover did not rise over that period: it's simply that around the same number of benefit claimants live in more households. The audience is left with the impression that unemployment, particularly due to 'workshyness' had been rising.

Notes: On the non-factual level, it's incredible that this blatantly partisan-political claim which specifies 1997 as its starting point is left in the programme.

26. Gavin Poole is allowed to repeat the claim that it is better for many people to be out of work living on benefits. This is not challenged, nor is he asked to provide any evidence. Mr Poole says the Institute for Social Justice didn't make a call on 'benefits being too low', he is 'corrected' by Mr Humphrys and his response is that benefits are 'complicated'. The rest of the conversation between Poole and the presenter is rambling and goes nowhere, essentially agreeing that sanctions are needed.

Notes: It's not that the presenter doesn't challenge interviewees in the programme, it's just that he manages to only challenge them in a single partisan direction for almost the entire time.


27. The presenter states that the reason why some eastern Europeans come to Britain is because back home the out of work benefits are so low that you can not afford to live on them. No evidence is provided, but the presenter interviews two Polish men.

Notes: The average Polish person is no more likely to understand how the Polish benefit system works than the average British person understands Britain's benefit system.


28. The men make unqualified statements that are never clarified. First it's asserted that in Poland a jobless benefit claimant would get £150 a month but it's not stated if this is the equivalent of £150 a month or something actually comparable to £150 nominally. This is never resolved but the presenter chips in...


29. "..where as here you might get £150 a week." No single out-of-work benefit in Britain pays £150 a week. You'd have to claim multiple benefits but the presenter fails to investigate and establish just how far Poland's social security actually goes. OECD figures show Poland spends around the same proportion of its GDP on it as Britain does. Poland was previously generous enough with social security that means-testing only for families was only introduced relatively recently, whilst Britain has means-tested for almost the entire time for most benefits.


30. The presenter asserts it as fact that our benefits system is more generous than Poland's, on the basis of a chat with two guys who answered no specific detailed questions.

Notes: The total public spending figures are often used to claim that Britain's welfare system is 'generous', but this doesn't relate at all to how generous the benefits are; how much claimants actually get. There are a number of possible reasons why Britain's public expenditure is higher than average, but generous benefits is not one of them. The OECD publishes data on 'net income replacement' provided by each country's benefit system and depending on how the data is compared the UK can be 18th out of 24 countries or 24th out of 24. Without outright distorting the OECD figures, there is no way the UK comes out ahead of most countries. The data is at this URL: http://www.oecd.org/document/28/0,3746,en_2649_33729_50404572_1_1_1_1,00.html


31. The presenter moves onto the topic of US welfare reforms during the 90s. In doing so he takes a vastly complicated issue that is the culmination of decades of social change and simplifies it into the US 'facing a rising welfare bill' and 'politicians fearing a sense of entitlement producing a dependency culture'. Federal funding for the benefits affected by the US welfare reforms stopped keeping up with inflation after 1970, something which would have disproportionately affected poor black families. It can be interpreted that this was an intentional racialist response to the rise of the Civil Rights Movement. Between 1970 and 1994 the benefits for a family of three fell by 47% according to the National Coalition For The Homeless.


32. The presenter compounds this by allowing a comment from New York welfare commissioner Robert Doar to pass without correction: "Well, I think our system had developed a sense of entitlement in people that came to the government seeking assistance, that they would do something without having to do anything, or do some cash benefit without them having to do anything in return. The benefits of receiving a benefit without working were greater than the benefits of going to work." Whilst northern states like New York generally had higher benefits than in the south, the truth is that when the US 'Personal Responsibility And Work Opportunity Act' became law in 1996, the average monthly benefit paid per recipient had fallen to $160 dollars down from $238(both figures at 2006 prices) in 1975. It is ridiculous to suggest that generally anyone was ever better off on welfare than in full-time work.

It is also completely unmentioned that the 90s welfare reforms specifically targeted families with children. Social security payments for individuals had been relentlessly curbed for decades already.

Both of these(31 and 32) address the US welfare issue in a cavalier and partisan way that would mislead the audience into believing the reasons for reforms were innocent and social security was too generous. It's hugely complicated so the programme can't be expected to cover it in detail, but the the makers elected to include this slanted and simplistic take on the issue seemingly because it lined up with the presenter's previous assertions of benefits being too generous and an entitlement culture creating welfare dependency.


33. The presenter speaks with Professor Larry Mead, a central figure in US welfare reform. They have an initial conversation in a New York job centre that asserts a supposed difference between the New York and UK job centres; namely that in New York a claimant is expected to already be looking for work when they make their application for assistance. This misleads the audience into believing this is in fact not the case in the UK. A jobseeker interview each new claimant for Jobseekers Allowance must have includes the question of what the person has done already to look for work and this will weigh on the decision of whether they are eligible. Jobseekers Allowance was introduced in 1996 to replace Income Support for jobseekers, apparently influenced by what was happening in the US, hence it's not enough to be unemployed: it specifically requires a claimant to be seeking work at the time they make a claim.


34. The presenter speaks with the job centre manager and poses the question "what if people say 'I don't want a job' flat out, no? Eventually, what happens to that person?" The manager tells him the conditionality requires them to so they would be refused assistance. The presenter goes on "Do people often say, 'well, hold on a minute, it is my right, my entitlement, to have this benefit'?" and the reply from the manager is that they used to but not any more. The presenter appears to be deliberately trying to reinforce his assertion of there being a cartoonish entitlement culture in the UK, which used to exist in the US but then their reforms got rid of it. The presenter did not ask the UK job centre staff the same question earlier in the programme, where he would have got a virtually identical response to the one in the US. Every UK unemployment benefit has conditionality which if not conformed to means the cessation of that benefit. Any claimant deemed fit to work who says they don't want to does not meet the conditionality requirements. Signing a jobseekers agreement is mandatory to claim Jobseekers Allowance and the agreement is legally binding. The presenter continues to misrepresent what 'entitlement' means in relation to benefits.


35. The presenter asserts that in one US state the number of welfare claims dropped by 80% and in New York it was 26%. The presenter opted to not give the name of that first state and I think it's because that state is Wisconsin; the state where Larry Mead's ideas were most embraced. The problem with linking the 80% reduction in that 'one state' to the nationwide reforms is that the audience gets the impression that the gains of welfare reform in Britain could be anywhere between a 26% and 80% reduction. But New York isn't an example of what could happen with reforms; despite what the presenter has tried getting the audience to believe, Britain and New York in this regard are quite similar. Reforms in the US helped make New York's welfare programme as it is now, just as reforms in Britain around the same time and influenced by the same ideas meant Britain followed in step. Individual states manage their own welfare programmes and Wisconsin went further than Larry Mead expected or wanted them to. In essence the presenter is leading the audience into believing reform will make Britain's welfare regime more like New York, even though it already is. The outcome could be compared more with Wisconsin. A number of changes made by the previous Labour government, such as the replacing of Incapacity Benefit with Employment Support Allowance, have removed far more claimants than was intended. The current Coalition are committed to going even further.


36. The polling figures the programme commissioned by Ipsos Mori is the only confirmed research that appears to have happened in the programme, even if the questions asked were mostly unhelpful. After the initial figures are introduced and it's revealed 63 percent of the public don't think the benefit system is working effectively, the presenter asks the rhetorical question of what the government is doing to reform the system and cut the welfare budget. Then the presenter asserts that David Cameron says it will be cut by £5.5 billion. No context is given, it is not said if this is in total or over a timescale or even if Cameron's claim about the amount intended to be cut is even true. It isn't. In his budget speech on the 22nd of June 2010 the Chancellor George Osborne declared that if any additional savings could be made to the social security budget, then they would offset planned cuts to other departments. So whilst each department was given the ballpark figure of a 25 percent reduction in their budgets, some departments would have lower reductions, paid for by cuts to benefits. When it came to detailing the planned cuts to social security, the Chancellor announced that by changing the measure by which benefits are up-rated using the Retail Price Index to use the Consumer Price Index instead would save £6 billion a year by the end of the current Parliament. Taken as it is, this measure alone somewhat contradicts what the Prime Minister has said before the other budget cuts are even considered. Simply reporting what David Cameron has said is insufficient for the programme, as the audience will trust that the only reason why the presenter is using what David Cameron has said is because it must be true. Leaving it 'hanging in the air' is irresponsible; there is a journalistic obligation on John Humphrys to confirm, contextualise or refute claims such as this rather than just propagate them.


At the end of his budget speech, George Osborne costed all the measures he had announced as saving £11 billion by 2014-15. Later that same year he announced in the October spending review that the cuts to the benefit budget would be even higher and revised the figure to £18 billion. The programme had plenty of accurate public domain source material for this, why it was decided to go with a context-free figure attributed to the Prime Minister is bizarre. I decided to go look for where and when Cameron has mentioned this figure. It's from a speech featured in the programme where Cameron announced the Welfare Reform Bill in February 2011. This speech includes the misleading claim about how much the benefit bill has risen, where Cameron falsely states the figure to be in 'real terms' rather than nominal.


37. The Work Programme is mentioned and asserted to be additional conditionality attached to benefits. It is stated to be 'one of the first things' the government did. The audience can be misled into believing the Work Programme is something new. What is not mentioned is that it replaces the Flexible New Deal and various other work programmes initiated by the previous government. This is not additional conditionality, it was one of the reforms made back in the 90s in-step with what most of the United States were doing.

Notes: For the past fifteen years at least, it has been standard for politicians wishing to appear 'tough' on benefit claimants to announce policies or ideas which are already in place. Never the less, the public fuelled by certain newspapers will believe they haven't happened or won't happen, which allows ministers to go even further. For those looking for an easy budget cut, to be accused of not cutting benefits enough is welcome. So whilst the majority of the public support the welfare state, they are steered into fighting against it. The programme has contributed towards this.


38. The presenter speaks with the centre manager Julie Gillam and suggests that the jobs might not be there. The response is that the jobs are there and that there were 500,000 in April but that matching people to the vacancy and getting them to 'be realistic' was the issue. This is not challenged, it is not highlighted that there were about two million people looking for a job at that time and the audience might be misled into thinking that these were 500,000 new jobs created in April rather than being the total available. The Work and Pensions Secretary has repeatedly used this confusion to advance welfare policy by claiming that the total number of jobs are newly created each month(and sometimes each week). Certain organisations which benefit from those policies take these messages to heart and spread them. There is a journalistic duty to not allow claims such as these to spread unchallenged.


39. A Work Programme client claims they are no longer classed as unemployed and it's the government manipulating the figures. This is left in the programme without any clarification if it is true or not.


40. It is reiterated and yet again that the conditionality for jobseekers is something new, rather than being something in place since the introduction of Jobseekers Allowance in 1996.

Notes: This repeated point is included because of the context. John Humphrys' comments on jobseekers up to this point have only ever reinforced an idea that if there is any conditionality, then it is very soft and discrete rather than a frightening legally-binding contract a claimant can't say no to and has very little protection against, as demonstrated by the imposition of mandatory work activity by the current and previous government. Since 1996, the Secretary of State has not ever required a change to primary legislation in order to impose these harsher conditions for jobseekers.


41. The presenter speaks with a GP in Tower Hamlets, Dr Sharon Fisher. Dr Fisher is not asked for an opinion in her area of expertise, but an opinion on statistics. As far as I am aware, Dr Fisher is not a statistician. Both John Humphrys and Dr Fisher talk as if Incapacity Benefit is purely a sickness benefit. When disability is considered, it is not inexplicable that there are 2.6 million claimants(about 1.6 million for IB and 1 million for ESA). Dr Fisher expresses her belief that the benefit system is exploited and that she tells patients that it is not in their best interests for them to be 'off sick'. She reveals she is not a statistician and certainly not one familiar with this topic when she incorrectly confuses correlation with causation by stating that the longer someone is 'off sick' the lower their chance of returning to work. Her error is not mentioned, challenged or investigated. The audience will be misled into believing in it because of this and because she is a GP, even though she is not a statistician.

Notes: The producers said Dr Fisher was not providing a statistical analysis nor was she presented as such. Given their amnesia over what actually happened in this scene and what she was asked, I checked again and along with her appearence in the opening sequence, her main contribution to the programme is to make statements of fact about figures. Dr Fisher is never asked a medical question and her comments are not simply limited to her own experience at her practice. The way it is presented strongly implies to the audience that Dr Fisher had the power to award Incapacity Benefit, that she could refuse or grant claims or had any say at all in them being awarded, which seems to deliberately confuse IB with Statutory Sickness Benefit.


42. Following his interview with Sharon Fisher, John Humphrys makes a claim that is only explained by attributing blatant dishonesty to him. He asserts that 'your local doctor no longer has final say'. This feeds into a tabloid myth about 'sicknote culture' causing Incapacity Benefit claims to be high. The impression the audience will get is that doctors ever did have the final say on whether IB would be awarded or not. A doctor can write a sicknote, which an employer can insist on if an employee has been off-work because of illness for more than a period of time prescribed by law. During that time the employer must pay Statutory Sick Pay for as long as an up-to-date sicknote is provided. Sicknotes have no statutory effect on Incapacity Benefit, which is awarded once the period for sick pay is up and the employer's obligation to pay it ends. The most a sick note can do then is be used as evidence to be considered by a DWP decision maker- it is they who have the final say and it has been for as long as there has been Incapacity Benefit. The myth is a remnant of when Statutory Sick Pay was paid by the benefits system rather than employers, that is when it was 'sickness benefit' but after responsibility was transferred to employers in the 80s, the label was misused by the press and politicians to describe Invalidity Benefit and then Incapacity Benefit.

The word of a doctor has never been enough to ensure the payment of Incapacity Benefit as John Humphrys misleads the audience into thinking. 


43. The programme compounds this falsehood by showing a vox pop featuring Professor Steve Fothergill from Sheffield Hallam University claiming it is the reason why 'the Incapacity Benefit bill rocketed upwards over the past couple of decades'. Incapacity Benefit was introduced in 1995. Over the period it existed from 1995 to 2008, it did not rise. There was a slight rise until 2004 when it began falling again and by 2008 when it ceased taking new claimants it was almost back at what it was ten years earlier. The professor asserts the myth that 'Incapacity Benefit' was used to hide unemployment, giving the timescale of '20 to 25 years ago'. No research or documentary evidence is provided for this well-worn but unsupported myth. In truth the predecessor Invalidity Benefit and Invalidity Pension rose enormously prior to 1995 but AFTER the 1985-1990 timescale Steve Fothergill gives. The most likely explanation is not high unemployment, but the Care In The Community policy that meant former residents of care homes and psychiatric hospitals now needed support. Savings were made from closing the residential units and some of those savings were re-directed towards additional benefit spending concentrating on the disabled and mentally ill. Disability Living Allowance was introduced in 1992 to replace Mobility Allowance and working-age Attendance Allowance, which further drove the expansion in claims for IVB. Far from being inexplicable, this was intended and there were worries at the time that DLA was being under-claimed and a large publicity campaign for it followed. This only changed when the obsession for benefit cutting was imported from the United States. But the major rise in claimants did not happen 'over decades' but in a short period just before 1995.

Notes: What happens here in the programme also fails to take into account how the demographics and general diagnoses of claimants has changed since Care in the Community. With the decline in heavy industry, the number of physically disabled claimants for both IB and DLA has decreased due to reduced on-flows but the number of mentally disabled has gone up. The single largest group of claimants for either and both IB and DLA is adults with learning difficulties.


44. The presenter asserts that 'more stringent tests have been brought in to flush out people claiming on health grounds when they shouldn't be'. No evidence is presented to support that the Work Capability Assessment for Employment Support Allowance is 'more stringent' nor is it explained what that is supposed to mean. The Personal Capability Assessment for Incapacity Benefit that it replaced was ranked as the 'toughest' test for a benefit of its kind in the whole of the OECD in that it rejected more claimants than any other. The audience is not told whether 'stringent' means it is thorough or more accurate or simply that it just rejects more claimants who apply.

Notes: The presenter claims in the programme that repeated requests were made to Atos to observe a Work Capability Assessment. Atos would always flat refuse to do this. It is not said whether a claimant was asked if the presenter and crew could come with them, in which case the chances are much higher because claimants are allowed to bring people and to record their assessment. The producers don't appear to know how this works nor do they actually want to know.


45. The presenter asserts that 'figures show three quarters of new claimants who've been tested were deemed not to merit the benefit at all'. No supporting evidence is provided for this claim. It is untrue and can be sourced to a DWP press release that lumps those put into the 'Work Related Activity Group' and those actually found 'Fit For Work'. Those in the WRAG can not be described as not 'meriting the benefit at all'. They are not fit for work, they are those claimants deemed to be able to work eventually with the right support- they have not been rejected for their ESA claim nor would they be rejected for an Incapacity Benefit claim if it were still available. The presenter conveniently does not mention the number of claimants who appeal and those who are successful, or that this is an ever-lasting cycle where half of all ESA claimants are in the Assessment Phase which is perverse considering how the presenter remarks "But it's political dynamite. You can imagine the headlines if it goes wrong." It is going wrong but as there has been a complete abandonment of ethics from journalists like Mr Humphrys, there are no headlines.

Notes: In the interview with ESA claimant Yvonne Power in this segment, it is not mentioned what type of ESA she was awarded after her appeal; whether she is in the Support Group or Work-Related Activity Group. In the WRAG the decision is that the claimant can not currently work but might be able to work in the future or with the right support. If the presenter had explored this then he would have noted that whilst it is reasonable that those in the WRAG should be re-assessed if their condition is likely to improve, there is utterly no reason why the Support Group also gets called for re-assessment regularly.


46. The presenter continues using figures that originate with government ministers without actually checking them when he claims '11,000' claimants are assessed per week. The figure is wrong, even if IB-ESA migration claims are added on top of the new ESA claims.

Notes: The producers said the figure was a quote of Chris Grayling they found on Hansard. They were apparently oblivious that simply stating what their(unreliable) source was does not address the question of its veracity. They acknowledged no problem at all. Grayling's figure was an over-optomistic forecast, not a statistic, which was based on apparently nothing.


47. Moving onto Housing Benefit, a segment from that speech by David Cameron is shown where he links the cost of Housing Benefit with the government 'paying for people to live in some of the most expensive real-estate in London', which in fact makes up for a very tiny amount of the expenditure. Rather than challenging this, the programme and presenter support it and the audience is misled into believing it as a result.



48. The presenter uses a very unfortunate choice of words when talking about how Housing Benefit is used. He begins by sensibly talking about the lack of social housing in Islington which means the council has to house people with private landlords, but he describes those people as being 'on benefit'. Given the context of the programme up to this point and the general nature of what constitutes the welfare debate in Britain, the audience link people 'on benefit' with 'unemployed'. It is not mentioned that the recent rise in Housing Benefit is almost entirely from people in-work, that only one in eight claimants are on a benefit where they are expected to seek work and most claimants are lone parents, pensioners, the disabled and full-time carers. Considering the purpose of Housing Benefit, the argument against paying it to people in expensive private rental accommodation is not simply about why the employed should pay for the unemployed to be housed, but an argument against Housing Benefit entirely which misunderstands what it is for and who receives it.

Notes: The focus here is that the programme and presenter mislead the audience into thinking the high expenditure on Housing Benefit is because of a few expensive cases.


49. In an interview with Eduardo Celleri and his family, John Humphrys is told through a translator that most of the rent on their home is paid through Housing Benefit. Their monthly rent is £2,300. After making them thoroughly uncomfortable and feeling unwelcome, the presenter leaves the questions that would actually enlighten the audience unaddressed. The main one would be how much Housing Benefit they actually receive. The presenter left the impression that a substantial amount of that monthly fee was paid with it but this isn't confirmed and the actual national picture for families like Eduardo's suggests it is unlikely but because of the need for a translator it isn't clarified and Eduardo is not able to confidently confront Humphrys on the way he is being treated, although he responds admirably, accurately and with dignity. I doubt the presenter would have been as nice about the Celleri family to the camera after the segment had Eduardo Celleri had not cottoned on and been assertive in a way that many claimants up to this point had been too nervous to do.

Notes: My main issue with this is the audience is in the dark about how much the family themselves must pay for the rent. The presenter almost gets away with portraying them as freeloaders. Unlike every other benefit claiming interviewee in the programme, the Celleri's put on their best clothes to be treated like this.


50. The programme comes back to the Ipsos Mori polling. Whilst the other questions were just uselessly vague, this one actually misleads both those being polled and the audience: "People who receive higher housing benefit because they live in expensive areas should be forced to move into cheaper housing to bring down the benefit bill." The problem with this question is that it implies it was not already the case. Local authorities ration their housing and limit where claimants of Housing Benefit may live. This is never mentioned in the programme and this question implies Housing Benefit is a free-for-all with no restrictions of this nature.


51. The presenter omits the vast social change that has happened in recent decades and instead the programme shows a vox pop featuring Professor Paul Gregg talking about cash payments for having children. The audience is mislead into thinking that rather than the rise of single parenthood being caused by social changes, it is instead implied that benefit payments for those with children have done this. In fact those benefit changes came after the social changes. Paul Gregg does give a timescale for this as being in the past 20 years, which is long after Beveridge's time. The general public though are less likely to spot that this doesn't support the angle the presenter is trying to advance, nor will they know that since those benefits were introduced the claims for Income Support have dropped and have dropped fastest among lone parents. When demographic changes are factored in, the rise in benefits paid to families with children is driven by families with two parents. The presenter persists in linking the rise in child benefits with single parenthood into the next scene.


52. The presenter goes to Knowsley in Merseyside. In the introduction to this scene he claims that the number of one-parent families in Knowsley is twice the national average. Given the context the programme and presenter have set up for this issue, the audience is likely to be mislead into thinking Knowsley has a problem with single mothers having children because of a supposed incentive to avoid work. A look at the Labour Force Survey reveals that the town has roughly 33,900 households, of which 20,700 have children. This is about 50% higher than the national average. But does it have anything to do with worklessness? There are 6,600 households with a child and no working adult in Knowsley, but 14,000 which have an adult in work. The households divided into working, mixed and workless show that proportionally, households with an adult in work are more likely to have a child, not less. No matter how many of them might be single parents, the programme is wrong to link Knowsley's high number of households with children with worklessness.The presenter still persists with it throughout the segment.


53. The programme returns to New York and the Deputy Welfare Commissioner Lisa Fitzpatrick is asked what would happen to a mother who made an application for cash assistance but said she didn't want to work. Lisa Fitzpatrick explains that the application is likely to be rejected unless the mother otherwise qualifies for exemptions. The presenter makes no enquiry into what these exemptions are, so the audience is left with the impression that New York is very different to the United Kingdom. Whilst in the UK single parents are paid Income Support and not expected to look for work, they are expected to look after their children, that is part of the conditionality for the benefit. But the way the programme presents this is as if the provision in New York is absent rather than different, that the government is not spending money because of the policy to make single parents go to work. Whilst in the United Kingdom childcare is expensive, New York subsidises it heavily for low-income families and has an Office of Children and Family services that find childcare providers for parents. Prior to the recession, there were steps in the United Kingdom to move more towards this model as Income Support claims by lone parents were falling anyway and any future planned changes to it would have less harmful impact. But now policy in Britain is aimed at cutting both the embryonic childcare infrastructure and benefits that support families with children, this does not bring us closer to New York.

Notes: The focus here is the presenter not checking with the commissioner to see what the differences and similarities are between New York and the UK. The presenter has not justified the characterisation the programme gives of those differences.

54. For the last ten minutes of the programme, the presenter attempts a facade of being balanced after almost fifty minutes of terribly misleading questions, comments, assertions and framing devices. He takes a visit to a New York food bank or soup kitchen. He talks to director Aine Duggan and begins immediately with an outright falsehood: "We in Britain, have unemployment, we don't have soup kitchens." We call them food banks here. They exist, have always existed and have been on the rise for some years. I'm having trouble believing the presenter did not already know during filming that they did because it was reported nationwide that Westminster Council were attempting to pass a by-law banning food banks from distributing free food around that time. It's estimated that around 128,000 people had to go to a food bank last year and it's estimated to be double this year. The Trussel Trust alone has 200 food banks in the UK and are opening a new one on average every week. This not only misleads the audience but even Aine Duggan is misled by the presenter's claim, concluding reasonably that the only explanation is that the UK has not 'encountered the atrocity of welfare reform yet'. That is the conclusion the audience will also draw, not knowing that Britain followed New York's example in the 90s. Jobseekers Allowance was introduced to replace Income Support for the unemployed and immediately started falling, anti-fraud measures were ramped up, reviews were commissioned for Disability Living Allowance and Incapacity Benefit. The Trussel Trust opened their first food bank in 2000.


55. A minor issue on the surface, but given the number of claims asserted by the presenter up to this point as if they were certain, it is a problem. The presenter cites the figure for how many Workfare recipients as a percentage simply disappeared and never followed up on: "One estimate says that 40% of recipients of the Workfare scheme have fallen through the safety net." Unlike almost any other factoid or statement in the programme, he qualifies this one by referring to it as 'one estimate'. It is a statistic which not even Laurence Mead disputes, but the presenter phrases it in a way that allows for doubt. This wouldn't be a problem if not for the way the language he used for the rest of the programme, which ends up implying a low credibility value for this one when it is in fact one of the few claims asserted by the programme that is evidence-based.

 

3 comments:

  1. Money isn't real28 August 2012 at 18:39

    Well done Mason, a tour-de-force!

    I hope that the people involved in this deception are ashamed, but I doubt it.

    They have broken standards of any code of journalism ethics that I have ever read.

    The fact that an informed citizen has had to produce this work is an indictment of the media climate that has allowed this sort of mis-information to flourish.

    On a personal note, as a benefit recipient, I thank you for taking a stand for me and many others, and wish you all the best in the future.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Seconded.Forensic and relentless pursuit of truth

    ReplyDelete
  3. Please try and look after yourself.regards

    ReplyDelete