How newspapers can put a slant on disability fraud convictions.
The incidence of disability benefit fraud has long been very low, but consistently exaggerated by both newspapers and politicians. The actual estimate is 0.5% – that is, 1 in 200 people; or 5 in every 1000 recipients. The histrionic media portrayal has been criticised by a number of campaigners and benefit advisors precisely because it generates vivid, false impressions of fraud being at a high level.
But what about news reporting on people actually convicted of disability benefit fraud? Is media coverage of these cases fair and accurate? What follows is an experiment, not an evaluation, of how the coverage of these instances can be framed to create very simplistic commentaries.
On 19th March 2013, the Daily Post published an article: ‘Disabled woman filmed shopping and walking the dog’. The woman in question was convicted of fraud in a court of law, on the basis of evidence provided by a private detective; and had her support stopped by the Department for Work and Pensions. The rights and wrongs of the case are not the issue here – instead, what I’ve done is rearrange the order of the article’s content, to see if it complicates the overall impression of clear-cut fraud (obviously, this leaves the grammar imperfect):
“A FORMER nurse who was overpaid £8,000 in benefits after claiming she was severely disabled was filmed walking the dog, shopping and taking her child to school. Gillian Gardiner of Ffordd Pentre in Mold, was awarded the highest level of disability living allowance after giving the impression of a severely disabled woman in constant pain. She also told DWP officials she could only walk in the house by holding onto furniture, and that outside she either needed the help of her husband or she would have to grab her car or the fence for support to get up the drive.
But Flintshire magistrates’ court at Mold heard today that the 43-year-old mother of five was filmed walking a child to school, taking the dog for a walk, shopping and carrying her shopping from the boot of her car into her home in Mold, North Wales, completely unaided. An official told how the film showed her walking up and down pavement kerbs and bending over.
Gardiner had been employed as an ambulance driver but that came to an end when she was said to have slipped on oil at work, and hurt her back, while cleaning the vehicle at end of the shift. Gardiner said that she was in constant pain but there were good days and bad days. No two days were the same. Sometimes it did affect her seven days a week. “I am in considerable pain and I always have been,” she explained. She took medication and constant pain killers, was receiving treatment, and the more they burned of her nerve endings then the less the pain. Gardiner stressed that she had been advised by the DWP to fill the claim form in on the basis of her worst days, not her best days.
Gary Harvey, defending, whose earlier application for an adjournment for a medical report to be prepared was refused, said it was her case that her condition had not changed. The DWP staff were not medically trained and had made their decision purely based on the film, which was taken on a “good or manageable day” but it was not known if the film had been edited or if other film would have shown her in a different condition.
If the DWP wanted to remove her benefit then they should have obtained medical evidence, he said. She was a woman of good character who it was accepted had a serious back condition and when she had bad days she could not get up, clothe herself, or do anything for herself. It was only on some days she could walk. The defendant had a good work ethic and was not a scrounger. She had trained as a mental health nurse, ran a play school, had children and became an ambulance driver. She was training to be a paramedic when the works accident meant she lost her career. She was still receiving treatment for the back injury, nerves were being fused in her spine and there were continuing problems.
The defendant was going through an acrimonious divorce but was due to start life afresh in Toulouse with her new partner, an Airbus worker. She had two children at home, the remainder being in university.
District Judge Nick Saunders, who heard that she had been overpaid £8,000, said that other punishments were not appropriate due to on-going back problems. The court heard that she had been allowed an industrial injuries benefit on the basis of a 20 per cent disablement but the way she filled in the form for disability living allowance meant that she had been granted the highest rate available.
The film footage had been taken by private investigators engaged by a firm of solicitors involved in a civil case she brought against her then employers and was then handed over to the DWP. Once they saw the footage her benefit was stopped. Gardiner denied a charge of failing to notify a change in her circumstances, claiming that there had been no change her in condition but that she had good days and bad days. She said that she had been advised to fill the form in on the basis of a bad day, but had clearly been filmed on one of her good days. But she was convicted and today at court she was fined £250 with £115 costs.
“Gardiner had told in her claim form how she needed help to sit in a chair and get back up, to dress and to get into bed and into the bath. We were told time and again that this occurred all the time. “She gave us the picture that she was a severely disabled woman who could only walk ten metres in three to five minutes which is exceptionally slow,” he explained. “But the film showed a completely different picture,” he said. The person in the film is in no way entitled to disability living allowance and I disallowed it. He described the video evidence as “so compelling.”
She had to confidence to walk and talk on her mobile phone at the same time, was filmed walking a dog in a field and was seen to pull the dog back, and she could clearly lift her shopping bags, Stephen Gowrie said”.
It’s clear that the overall impression is drastically different, merely by putting the aspect of disability in the foreground, and the allegations of fraud to the end. It creates the picture of a woman with a fluctuating disability, taken to court, and denied the opportunity to present medical testimony. The only evidence against her was an amateur video made by somebody working on behalf of an insurance company, which plainly had a vested interest in denying that the woman was suffering long-term adverse effects of an industrial accident. The DWP stopped her disability support on the basis of a video, filmed during one day, which may have been edited – and which showed nothing more than her using a cellphone, walking a dog, and lifting shopping bags. This was the basis for the court and the DWP’s decisions that the woman was not disabled. Neither saw medical evidence as important. Suddenly, it’s not so clear that fraud really occurred.
I haven’t omitted any material from the original article. Unfortunately, another publication did. Wales Online duplicated content from the Daily Post’s article, but added a more sensational title: ‘Benefits cheat said to be unable to walk caught walking dog’; and removed several paragraphs from the original:
“No two days were the same. Sometimes it did affect her seven days a week.
“I am in considerable pain and I always have been,” she explained. She took medication and constant pain killers, was receiving treatment, and the more they burned of her nerve endings then the less the pain. Gardiner stressed that she had been advised by the DWP to fill the claim form in on the basis of her worst days, not her best days”
“The DWP staff were not medically trained and had made their decision purely based on the film, which was taken on a “good or manageable day” but it was not known if the film had been edited or if other film would have shown her in a different condition. If the DWP wanted to remove her benefit then they should have obtained medical evidence, he said”.
Were all left out. So readers of Wales Online’s articles would be left with an even more simplistic impression than readers of the original piece.
This is obviously a very basic experiment, but it makes plain that even convictions of disability benefit fraud can be framed in a highly misleading and simplistic fashion, which glosses over the complexities of disability; and flatters the very lazy and simple-minded decision-making processes of disability assessment by the Department for Work and Pensions, along with private insurance companies.
And also that some publications leave inconvenient details out of reports, of course.
 For example, see ‘Bad News For Disabled People’ by the University of Glasgow: http://www.inclusionlondon.co.uk/domains/inclusionlondon.co.uk/local/media/downloads/bad_news_for_disabled_people_pdf.pdf
Also ‘Benefits Stigma in Britain’ by Turn2Us: http://www.turn2us.org.uk/PDF/Benefits%20Stigma%20in%20Britain.pdf
 ‘Disabled Woman Filmed Shopping and Walking the Dog’, Daily Post (19th March 2013): http://www.dailypost.co.uk/news/north-wales-news/2013/03/19/disabled-woman-filmed-shopping-and-walking-the-dog-55578-33020947/
 ‘Benefits cheat said to be unable to walk caught walking dog’ by Elwyn Roberts in Wales Online (19th March 2013): http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/2013/03/19/benefits-cheat-said-to-be-unable-to-walk-caught-walking-dog-91466-33021390/#ixzz2OHPua1Le