Newsnight’s Political Editor Encourages Dismantling Social Security

by richardhutton

A Newsnight segment ‘Hardening public attitudes to those on welfare benefits’, hosted by the same Allegra Stratton who previously broke basic ethics of journalism when interviewing a working mother in receipt of housing benefit – discusses the nature of public attitudes towards social security, and attempts to offer a rationale for this.

20 seconds in, and the programme is already gratingly rhetorical: the lead-in is a quote from George Osborne about curtains being closed – while some go out to work, others are freeloading. Newsnight were too lazy to quote Osborne accurately. What he actually said was:

“it’s unfair that when that person leaves their home early in the morning, they pull the door behind them, they’re going off to do their job, they’re looking at their next-door neighbour, the blinds are down, and that family is living a life on benefits”.

In reality, not that it’s mentioned by Stratton, but most benefits are payable to people who work. This was the rhetoric Osborne used to mislead the public into supporting economic policies which were set to impact adversely on people who work, during October 2012. The point is as devoid coming from Newsnight as it was from the government: quite aside from the obvious fact of shift-work, and people working nights, or part-time – there are a huge number of people who provide unpaid care to children or relatives who have complex health needs; and who work tirelessly throughout the night. It is also hardly a person’s fault that they live in an area of high unemployment. Accrington is based in East Lancashire, which has approximately 18,400 people unemployed.  There is no in-depth discussion of how badly people are affected by unemployment in the Newsnight programme. Nobody is asked about their financial circumstances, or how much effort they expend on seeking work.

Newsnight move on to quote an Ipsos Mori poll from 2011 – one that was used as the basis for another BBC programme misinforming people about the nature of social security – which did nothing other than demonstrate how uninformed public attitudes towards social security are. This was a poll which revealed that most people believe social security should exist; but also believed that it should be reduced – specifically to immigrants, who are seldom eligible for social security, and claim a disproporionately low rate; who also believed that social security should be reduced for people who are long-term unemployed – quite how people already at subsistence-level living standards are supposed to cope was not asked by Ipsos Mori; and who believed that incapacity assessments should be “stricter” – these being the assessments which have been used since 2008, and are purposely designed to deny that somebody is sick, ill, or disabled – resulting in massive amounts of poverty and misery for people falsely declared healthy.

Newsnight feature several people offering opinions on welfare – who in one case merely repeats myths that the DWP have encouraged: specifically that cultures of worklessness between generations in the same family, and high-rates of drug/alcohol abuse, result in unemployment. Neither of these claims reflect reality. It is a myth that a culture of worklessness exists among families, as was reported by the JRF in December 2012. There are approximately 3.3 million people currently unemployed in Britain: the government’s own data puts the total number of people incapacitated by drug/alcohol addiction at 79,840 people.

Stratton’s film moves on to discussion of the Bedroom Tax, and mentions an unspecified government pledge to support those most severely affected – this can only really be the hardship fund of £30 million, which has to offset the loss of £306 million to 420,000 of the 660,000 people affected by the changes, who are disabled. Stratton makes no reference to any of the major flaws behind this tax; or the fact that approximately two-thirds of people affected will be disabled, and already have high-living costs; nor is there any mention of the likelihood that many people will be left homeless, because they are unable to meet their rental costs. Newsnight also ignore the fact that this is actually likely to increase public costs: following the benefit cap in London, similar circumstances have resulted in Westminster Council spending 25 times as much rehousing families as the original housing benefit cost.

Possibly the most insidious aspect of the programme however is the segment on a proposal for social security to reflect contribution. Quite where this would lead young people unable to secure employment, or people who have provided long-term unpaid care for relatives – such as parents providing round-the-clock care to severely disabled children – is not considered. It also ignores the fact that contribution-based unemployment support already exists.

There is no wonder public attitudes to social security have hardened when a supposedly neutral broadcaster misrepresents reality so assiduously. This programme raises serious questions about how the media and politicians misrepresent poverty, unemployment, and benefit claimants – and welfare itself. It does little else but perpetuate myths, and reinforce seriously misinformed public attitudes.

Update: Stratton has since written an article in which she outlines a case for dismantling social security: ‘Budget Sacred cows Under Threat In Welfare Row‘. Having read this through several times, I can’t see any other valid inference – not least of all because there is no counterpoint considered by the author at all. The argument Stratton puts forward complains about red-tape – that is, vital points of law, which protect people and put a check on government power –  after which she notes “You can see why many increasingly think they have to do a structural rethink. They want the ring fences protecting departments and various bits of government spending torn down”. The focus here is purely upon social security. Really, structural reform in this context can only mean the removal or replacement of social security.

Also, rewatching the Newsnight video, there is a short section on Foodbanks which seems to suggest that they are an alternative to state-provision of social security; and which fails to mention that they exist to support people in short-term crisis: the incidence of which has risen markedly precisely because of cuts to social security, and the huge surge in sanctions on people who are seeking work. With all this in mind, it’s worth considering the fact that Stratton is Newsnight’s Political Editor.