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".

Photo: Getty
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Labour's trajectory points to landslide defeat, but don't bet on a change at the top any time soon

The settled will among Jeremy Corbyn's critics that they need to keep quiet is unlikely to be disrupted by the result. 

Labour were able to tread water against Ukip in Stoke but sank beneath the waves in Copeland, where the Conservatives’ Trudy Harrison won the seat.

In Stoke, a two-point swing away from Labour to the Tories and to Ukip, which if replicated across the country at a general election would mean 15 Conservative gains and would give Theresa May a parliamentary majority of 40.

And in Copeland, a 6.7 per cent swing for Labour to Tory that would see the Conservatives pick up 52 seats from Labour if replicated across the country, giving them a majority of 114.
As the usual trend is for the opposition to decline from its midterm position at a general election, these are not results that indicate Labour will be back in power after the next election.. That holds for Stoke as much as for Copeland.

The last time a governing party won a by-election was 1982 – the overture to a landslide victory. It’s the biggest by-election increase in the vote share of a governing party since 1966 – the prelude to an election in which Harold Wilson increased his majority from 4 to 96.

To put the length of Labour’s dominance in Copeland into perspective: the new Conservative MP was born in 1976. The last Conservative to sit for Copeland, William Nunn, was born in 1879.

It’s a chastening set of results for Ukip, too. The question for them: if they can’t win when Labour is in such difficulties, when will they?

It’s worth noting, too, that whereas in the last parliament, Labour consistently underperformed its poll rating in local elections and by-elections, indicating that the polls were wrong, so far, the results have been in keeping with what the polls suggest. They are understating the Liberal Democrats a little, which is what you’d expect at this stage in the parliament. So anyone looking for comfort in the idea that the polls will be wrong again is going to look a long time. 

Instead, every election and every poll – including the two council elections last night – point in the same direction: the Conservatives have fixed their Ukip problem but acquired a Liberal Democrat one. Labour haven’t fixed their Ukip problem but they’ve acquired a Liberal Democrat one to match.

But that’s just the electoral reality. What about the struggle for political control inside the Labour party?

As I note in my column this week, the settled view of the bulk of Corbyn’s internal critics is that they need to keep quiet and carry on, to let Corbyn fail on its his own terms. That Labour won Stoke but lost Copeland means that consensus is likely to hold.

The group to watch are Labour MPs in what you might call “the 5000 club” – that is, MPs with majorities around the 5000 mark. An outbreak of panic in that group would mean that we were once again on course for a possible leadership bid.

But they will reassure themselves that this result suggests that their interests are better served by keeping quiet at Westminster and pointing at potholes in their constituencies.  After all, Corbyn doesn’t have a long history of opposition to the major employer in their seats.

The other thing to watch from last night: the well-advertised difficulties of the local hospital in West Cumberland were an inadequate defence for Labour in Copeland. Distrust with Labour in the nuclear industry may mean a bigger turnout than we expect from workers in the nuclear industries in the battle to lead Unite, with all the consequences that has for Labour’s future direction.

If you are marking a date in your diary for another eruption of public in-fighting, don’t forget the suggestion from John McDonnell and Diane Abbott that the polls will have turned by the end of the year – because you can be certain that Corbyn’s critics haven’t. But if you are betting on any party leader to lose his job anytime soon, put it on Nuttall, not Corbyn.

 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.