Scroungers, fraudsters and parasites: how media coverage affects our view of benefit claimants

The public discourse of welfare in the UK seems to be caught in a vicious circle, where the media, politicians and public feed into each other.

In 1942 Beveridge set out a plan for a system of social security which would be free of the stigma associated with earlier forms of public assistance.

Seventy years later, it would be hard to argue that benefit stigma has disappeared. On the contrary, outlandish slurs against benefit claimants as a group have become an accepted part of the political language, and the default setting for public attitudes is widely seen as one of suspicion and resentment. As one disabled claimant described it:  

There’s that awful feeling that people are watching you… even just your neighbours, because there is just this feeling of just, sort of unpleasantness.

An unemployed claimant sums up the dominant public view of people on benefits:

Parasites, skivers, work-shy, lazy, stupid, feckless…                                                                                          

Those quotations come from focus groups we conducted alongside a specially commissioned poll and analysis of media coverage for our report "Benefits stigma in Britain", commissioned by the charity Elizabeth Finn Care. Our aim was to provide a map of stigma as it exists today and to understand the factors behind it.

One of the key findings from the survey is that British people do not generally believe that claiming benefits is something that people should be ashamed of – only a small minority agree strongly when asked, "would you yourself be ashamed to claim benefits?" (About 10 per cent). It is not benefit receipt itself which attracts stigma, but beliefs about how "deserving" claimants are – how great their need is, how responsible they are for their situation, whether they have worked in the past or will work in the future.

But how do members of the public, including benefit claimants themselves, arrive at opinions about how deserving claimants are in general? It is sometimes assumed that views are a transparent expression of personal experience – as when politicians uncritically retail grievances against claimants they have heard on the doorstep. Alternatively, negative attitudes are sometimes written off as an expression of pure prejudice or ideology. Both of these approaches ignore the role that second-hand information is likely to play when people make judgements about how deserving claimants are.

To see how important secondary sources of information such as the media can be, consider this finding from our survey. We asked claimants of sickness and disability benefits how visible their conditions were in a range of social contexts – being seen in the street, meeting someone properly, knowing someone quite well and so on. Only 21 per cent of claimants said that their condition would be obvious to someone in the street.  

This indicates just how thin the information available to assess deservingness can be, which will tend to make information from other sources more important. So what sort of information about claimants do people receive from the media? Using a database of 6,600 national press articles between 1995-2011, we quantified the use of language about such aspects as "fraud" or "need", and the appearance of specific themes such as "never worked/hasn't worked for very long time", "better off on benefits" and so on. 

Perhaps the most striking finding was an extraordinarily disproportionate focus on benefit fraud: some 29 per cent of news stories across all titles referenced fraud over the period. Bear in mind that DWP’s estimate of fraud across all benefits is 0.7 per cent. We also looked at the sort of stories which referenced fraud: not surprisingly a large share were tabloid stories based on individual cases, but perhaps more surprisingly, a large majority originated in the Westminster policy process – stories based on statements by ministers and MP's, select committee reports, statements from think-tanks and pressure groups and so on. If the UK media seems to have a strange obsession with benefit fraud, this reflects the obsessions of the political class.

It seems that the disproportionate focus on fraud in the press affects the public’s perceptions of deservingness, because people supplement the limited information from direct experience with information derived from the media. In our survey we asked respondents to estimate how many claims were outright fraudulent. This showed the British public believes that one in four out of work claimants is committing fraud – and this seems highly consistent with the level of media coverage of benefits. There is also a striking relationship between the amount of news coverage of fraud in particular titles and the estimated fraud levels among readers of those titles, illustrated in the chart below.

Sources: Mori survey for Elizabeth Finn Care report; 20 per cent sample of articles in media database for Elizabeth Finn Care report. Click for big

This brings us back to our starting point: it is perceived deservingness which drives benefit stigma, and public discourse around social security in the UK seems almost to be designed to make claimants seem undeserving. This is not just about fraud, but also about other sources of "undeservingness". In fact, over recent years fraud has become less dominant in critical coverage of benefits, yielding to a language of "non-reciprocity" or "scrounging" (terms such as "handout", "feckless", "something for nothing"). We find similar trends in the content of articles: in more recent years (post-2003) the press has devoted somewhat less space to fraud and a lot more to people who (it is held) shouldn’t be claiming for reasons other than fraud. We also see significant increases in the use of such well-worn stigmatising themes as large families, anti-social behaviour and claimants who have never worked.

Source: Consistent set of UK national titles (Times, Guardian, Independent, Mail, Mirror) from media database for Elizabeth Finn Care report.

We believe the report offers strong evidence that the public discourse about welfare has an impact on the public’s beliefs about benefit claimants – including the beliefs of claimants themselves, who in our focus groups were keen to distance themselves from "scroungers". And in the case of benefit fraud, the evidence suggests that it is the politics of welfare which drives disproportionate press coverage.

A particularly worrying aspect is that there now seems to be a feedback loop between politics, media coverage and public attitudes: over the last three years politicians of all parties have sought to calibrate their statements to reflect what they say members of the public have told them (call it the "Gillian Duffy effect").

In other words, the public discourse of welfare in the UK seems to be caught in a vicious circle. That was an eventuality Beveridge never anticipated when he set out his plan for a stigma-free social security system.  

Only 21% of disability benefit claimants describe their condition as visible. Photograph: Getty Images

Ben Baumberg is a Lecturer at the University of Kent and co-editor of the collaborative blog Inequalities, Kate Bell works mainly at Child Poverty Action Group, and Declan Gaffney is a policy consultant specialising in social security, labour markets and equality. Together they published "Benefits stigma in Britain".

Getty
Show Hide image

Why is it called Storm Doris? The psychological impact of naming a storm

“Homes being destroyed and lives being lost shouldn’t be named after any person.”

“Oh, piss off Doris,” cried the nation in unison this morning. No, it wasn't that everyone's local cantankerous old lady had thwacked our ankles with her stick. This is a different, more aggressive Doris. Less Werther’s, more extreme weathers. Less bridge club, more bridge collapse.

This is Storm Doris.

A storm that has brought snow, rain, and furious winds up to 94mph to parts of the UK. There are severe weather warnings of wind, snow and ice across the entire country.

But the real question here is: why is it called that? And what impact does the new Met Office policy of naming storms have on us?

Why do we name storms?

Storm Doris is the latest protagonist in the Met Office’s decision to name storms, a pilot scheme introduced in winter 2015/16 now in its second year.

The scheme was introduced to draw attention to severe weather conditions in Britain, and raise awareness of how to prepare for them.

How do we name storms?

The Name our Storms initiative invites the public to suggest names for storms. You can do this by tweeting the @metoffice using the #nameourstorms hashtag and your suggestion, through its Facebook page, or by emailing them.

These names are collated along with suggestions from Met Éireann and compiled into a list. These are whittled down into 21 names, according to which were most suggested – in alphabetical order and alternating between male and female names. This is done according to the US National Hurricane Naming convention, which excludes the letters Q, U, X, Y and Z because there are thought to be too few common names beginning with these letters.

They have to be human names, which is why suggestions in this list revealed by Wired – including Apocalypse, Gnasher, Megatron, In A Teacup (or Ena Tee Cup) – were rejected. The Met Office received 10,000 submissions for the 2016/17 season. According to a spokesperson, a lot of people submit their own names.

Only storms that could have a “medium” or “high” wind impact in the UK and Ireland are named. If there are more than 21 storms in a year, then the naming system starts from Alpha and goes through the Greek alphabet.

The names for this year are: Angus (19-20 Nov ’16), Barbara (23-24 Dec 2016), Conor (25-26 Dec 2016), Doris (now), Ewan, Fleur, Gabriel, Holly, Ivor, Jacqui, Kamil, Louise, Malcolm, Natalie, Oisín, Penelope, Robert, Susan, Thomas, Valerie and Wilbert.

Why does this violent storm have the name of an elderly lady?

Doris is an incongruous name for this storm, so why was it chosen? A Met Office spokesperson says they were just at that stage in their list of names, and there’s no link between the nature of the storm and its name.

But do people send cosy names for violent weather conditions on purpose? “There’s all sorts in there,” a spokesperson tells me. “People don’t try and use cosy names as such.”

What psychological impact does naming storms have on us?

We know that giving names to objects and animals immediately gives us a human connection with them. That’s why we name things we feel close to: a pet owner names their cat, a sailor names their boat, a bore names their car. We even name our virtual assistants –from Microsoft’s Clippy to Amazon’s Alexa.

This gives us a connection beyond practicality with the thing we’ve named.

Remember the response of Walter Palmer, the guy who killed Cecil the Lion? “If I had known this lion had a name and was important to the country or a study, obviously I wouldn’t have taken it,” he said. “Nobody in our hunting party knew before or after the name of this lion.”

So how does giving a storm a name change our attitude towards it?

Evidence suggests that we take it more seriously – or at least pay closer attention. A YouGov survey following the first seven named storms in the Met Office’s scheme shows that 55 per cent of the people polled took measures to prepare for wild weather after hearing that the oncoming storm had been named.

“There was an immediate acceptance of the storm names through all media,” said Gerald Fleming, Head of Forecasting at Met Éireann, the Irish metereological service. “The severe weather messages were more clearly communicated.”

But personalising a storm can backfire. A controversial US study in 2014 by PNAC (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) claimed that hurricanes with female names lead to higher death tolls – the more “feminine” the name, like Belle or Cindy, the higher the death toll. This is not because female names are attached to more severe storms; it is reportedly because people take fewer steps to prepare for storms with names they perceive to be unintimidating or weak.

“In judging the intensity of a storm, people appear to be applying their beliefs about how men and women behave,” Sharon Shavitt, a co-author of the study, told the FT at the time. “This makes a female-named hurricane . . . seem gentler and less violent.”

Names have social connotations, and affect our subconscious. Naming a storm can raise awareness of it, but it can also affect our behaviour towards it.

What’s it like sharing a name with a deadly storm?

We should also spare a thought for the impact sharing a name with a notorious weather event can have on a person. Katrina Nicholson, a nurse who lives in Glasgow, says it was “horrible” when the 2005 hurricane – one of the fifth deadliest ever in the US – was given her name.

“It was horrible having something so destructive associated with my name. Homes being destroyed and lives being lost shouldn’t be named after any person,” she tells me over email. “I actually remember at the time meeting an American tourist on a boat trip in Skye and when he heard my name he immediately linked it to the storm – although he quickly felt guilty and then said it was a lovely name! I think to this day there will be many Americans who hate my name because of it.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.