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".

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Richard Dawkins: We need a new party - the European Party

I was unqualified to vote in the EU referendum. So at least now we should hear from experts. 

It is just conceivable that Brexit will eventually turn out to be a good thing. I gravely doubt it, but I’m not qualified to judge. And that is the point. I wasn’t qualified to vote in the referendum. Nor were you, unless you have a PhD in economics or are an expert in a relevant field such as history. It’s grotesque that David Cameron, with the squalidly parochial aim of silencing the Ukip-leaning wing of his party, gambled away our future and handed it over to a rabble of ignorant voters like me.

I voted – under protest, because I never should have been asked to vote, but I did. In line with the precautionary principle, I knew enough to understand that such a significant, complex and intricate change as Brexit would drive a clumsy bull through hundreds of delicate china shops painstakingly stocked up over decades of European co-operation: financial agreements, manufacturing partnerships, international scholarships, research grants, cultural and edu­cational exchanges.

I voted Remain, too, because, though ­ignorant of the details, I could at least spot that the Leave arguments were visceral, emotional and often downright xenophobic. And I could see that the Remain arguments were predominantly rational and ­evidence-based. They were derided as “Project Fear”, but fear can be rational. The fear of a man stalked by a hungry polar bear is entirely different from the fear of a man who thinks that he has seen a ghost. The trick is to distinguish justified fear from irrational fear. Those who scorned Project Fear made not the slightest attempt to do so.

The single most shocking message conveyed during the referendum campaign was: “Don’t trust experts.” The British people are fed up with them, we were told. You, the voter, are the expert here. Despicable though the sentiment was, it unfortunately was true. Cameron made it true. By his unspeakable folly in calling the referendum, he promoted everyone to the rank of expert. You might as well call a nationwide plebiscite to decide whether Einstein got his algebra right, or let passengers vote on which runway the pilot should land on.

Scientists are experts only in their own limited field. I can’t judge the details of physics papers in the journal Nature, but I know that they’ve been refereed rigorously by experts chosen by an expert editor. Scientists who lie about their research results (and regrettably there are a few) face the likelihood that they’ll be rumbled when their experiments are repeated. In the world of science, faking your data is the cardinal sin. Do so and you’ll be drummed out of the profession without mercy and for ever.

A politician who lies will theoretically get payback at the next election. The trouble with Brexit is that there is no next election. Brexit is for keeps. Everyone now knows that the £350m slogan on the Brexit bus was a barefaced lie, but it’s too late. Even if the liars lose their seats at the next election (and they probably won’t), Brexit still means Brexit, and Brexit is irreversible. Long after the old people who voted Leave are dead and forgotten, the young who couldn’t be bothered to vote and now regret it will be reaping the consequences.

A slender majority of the British people, on one particular day in June last year when the polls had been going up and down like a Yo-Yo, gave their ill-informed and actively misled opinion. They were not asked what they wanted to get into, only what they wanted to get out of. They might have thought “Take back control” meant “Give control back to our sovereign parliament, which will decide the details”. Yes, well, look how that’s working out!

“The British people have spoken” has become an article of zealous faith. Even to suggest that parliament should have a little bitty say in the details is hysterically condemned as heresy, defying “the people”. British politics has become toxic. There is poison in the air. We thought that we had grown out of xenophobic bigotry and nationalistic jingoism. Or, at least, we thought it had been tamed, shamed into shutting its oafish mouth. The Brexit vote signalled an immediate rise in attacks on decent, hard-working Poles and others. Bigots have been handed a new licence. Senior judges who upheld the law were damned as “enemies of the people” and physically threatened.

Am I being elitist? Of course. What’s wrong with that? We want elite surgeons who know their anatomy, elite pilots who know how to fly, elite engineers to build safe bridges, elite athletes to win at the Olympics for Team GB, elite architects to design beautiful buildings, elite teachers and professors to educate the next generation and help them join the elite. In the same way, to decide the affairs of state, as we live in a representative democracy, we can at least hope to elect elite parliamentarians, guided and advised by elite, highly educated civil servants. Not politicians who abdicate their democratic responsibility and hand important decisions over to people like me.

What is to be done? Labour, the so-called opposition, has caved in to the doctrine of “the British people have spoken”. Only the Lib Dems and SNP are left standing. Unfortunately, the Lib Dem brand is tarnished by association with Cameron in the coalition.

Any good PR expert would prescribe a big makeover, a change of name. The “Euro­pean Party” would attract Labour voters and Labour MPs disillusioned with Jeremy Corbyn. The European Party would attract Europhile Tory MPs – and there are plenty of them. The European Party would attract a high proportion of the 48 per cent of us who voted Remain. The European Party would attract big donations. The European Party might not win the next election, but it would stand a better chance than Labour or the Lib Dems under their present name. And it would provide the proper opposition that we so sorely need.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition