How Newsnight humiliated single mother Shanene Thorpe

Young mother asks for an apology after being misrepresented as "benefit scrounger".

We all know that single mothers are immoral scroungers, right? That impression was cemented by last Wednesday’s Newsnight, when Allegra Stratton interviewed young single mother Shanene Thorpe.

Stratton demands to know why Thorpe has chosen to move out of her mother’s two-bedroom flat, since she required housing benefit to do so. Here is a clip of the rather aggressive conversation:

After the interview, Stratton says directly to camera: “The government is thinking of saying to young people: if you don’t have work, don’t leave home.”

Except, Thorpe is not unemployed. As you may have read by now, she works full time for Tower Hamlets council, but claims housing benefits to help cover the cost of rent. In a series of statements on Twitter (collated by Liberal Conspiracy), Thorpe attempted to tackle the inaccurate portrayal of her situation: “To set the record straight, I work for tower hamlets council, I’ve worked since 16 and I only get help towards my rent because it is so high.”

She has also started an online petition, which at the time of writing has over 16,000 signatures. On this, she writes:

I was approached by the BBC to be interviewed on Newsnight to talk about what it's like being a working mum struggling to pay rent and housing costs. Of course I was happy to do it, being a working mum is something I’m proud of. It hasn't always been plain sailing. But I did not expect to be personally scrutinised, have judgements made about my choices and asked why I chose to have my child - a beautiful, sociable and happy three year old girl. I have done my best for her and wanted to bring her up independently. But the BBC has humiliated me and I want them to apologise for portraying me and my family in this way.

It is difficult to see how the BBC – which has yet to comment – will justify the coverage. It breaks basic journalistic tenets of accuracy and fairness, by heavily implying that Thorpe is unemployed when she is not.

More widely, it raises some troubling questions about the way that the media and politicians talk about poverty and benefit claimants. While outrage has, rightly, been focused on the fact that Thorpe was misrepresented since she is not unemployed, that is not the only problem with the interview. It perpetrates lazy assumptions about single mothers: scroungers who should hide themselves away and not ask for anything. On Twitter, Thorpe says that in the full interview, Stratton asked her why she chose to keep her child. Is that ever an acceptable question to ask someone, particularly when the reasoning behind it is so clearly class-based? Stratton is clearly pushing an agenda, and has no interest in the fact that in this case, the issue is the extortionate rents charged by private landlords. Lenin's Tomb has some interesting thoughts about stigma, responsibility, and ideology.

This was a regrettable incident. The BBC should lose no time in apologising for humiliating and misrepresenting Thorpe. In the long-term, it – and other elements of the media – should look seriously at how they portray welfare claimants and single mothers, employed or otherwise. Crudely stereotyped portrayals that do not challenge the (frequently inaccurate) consensus do no good for anyone.

UPDATE 30th May (9.45am):

I've just been contacted by the BBC who gave me this statement:

Newsnight was sorry to hear Shanene Thorpe was unhappy following her interview. While the BBC is still yet to receive a formal complaint, Newsnight contacted Shanene to hear her concerns. We are happy to accept her contention that her current situation was not made clear and have apologised.

A residential street in England. The high cost of private rent is the real issue here. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Cameron shows how the Tories aim to take advantage of Labour

The PM plans to exploit Corbyn’s perceived weaknesses while neutralising his party’s.

“Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake,” Napoleon remarked. It is advice the Tories heeded this summer as they fell silent, content to allow Labour's infighting to monopolise the news agenda. But as the new political season begins, normal hostilities have resumed.

George Osborne yesterday warned that Jeremy Corbyn's nuclear unilateralism represented “a threat to our future national security and to our economic security”. That the Chancellor and likely next Conservative leader is attacking the frontrunner is evidence that he believes Corbyn has already won, or that his rebuke will only aid the left-winger (by confirming to the Labour selectorate that he's on the right side). 

In today's Times, David Cameron joins the offensive, writing that “Listening to some of the anti-Nato, anti-American, profoundly anti-business and anti-enterprise debates is like Groundhog Day. Labour aren’t learning. They’re slaves to a failed dogma that has always left working people paying the price.” The Tories’ focus on Corbyn's foreign policy and defence stances shows that they regard these as his greatest weaknesses. By framing the left-winger as a threat to Britain's national security they believe they can quickly persuade the electorate to barricade the road to Downing Street. 

But rather than merely exploiting Labour's perceived weaknesses, the Tories aim to neutralise their own. Aware that his party is still viewed as that of the privileged, Cameron continues his mission to rebrand it as “the true party of working people”. He vows that fines for non-payment of the new £9 “living wage” will be doubled to 200 per cent of upaid wages (up to a maximum of £20,000) and that bosses who fail to pay will be disqualifed as company directors for up to 15 years. Having originally opposed the introduction of the minimum wage, the Tories' aim is to show that they have unambiguously changed. 

In response, Labour will point out that forthcoming cuts to in-work benefits will cost three million families an average of £1,000 a year. Tax cuts and a higher minimum wage will not compensate the many losers. The test for Corbyn will be whether this message is heard over the cacophony of attacks on him. As Ed Miliband learned to his cost, leaders of the opposition have only a narrow window within which to define themselves. Corbyn will have to use his time wisely. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.