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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What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war