Think before you retweet: why the "scrounger spike" is illusory

What happened between 2004 and 2010 is more people started writing about welfare.

This chart seems to have quickly acquired mythological status on Twitter:

It appears to show the number of times the word "scrounger" appeared in the UK press from 1994 to the present, with a huge unprecedented rise coinciding with the arrival of the coalition in power.

It’s easy to see why people have seized on it, given the sustained campaign against benefit claimants in parts of the print media and the government's willingness to stoke the flames by selective, and in some cases deceptive use of official data. But the picture it gives of trends over time is almost certainly exaggerated.

The underlying data in the chart comes from a database called LexisNexis. This is an indispensable resource for looking at media coverage over extended periods, but as any researcher who has worked with it will tell you, it needs to be treated with caution, and especially when trying to construct a time series.

The main reason is that titles appear in the database at different times: if you're looking at the mid-1990's, the only titles included are the Mirror, Mail, Times, Guardian and Independent. By the time you reach 2013, the Sun and Express are included, as well as the Telegraph. That is hardly a minor difference when you're doing searches on words like "scrounger".

When Kate Bell, Ben Baumberg, Dan Sage and I looked at media coverage of benefits last year for the charity Turn2Us, we commissioned a purpose-built database to iron out data problems, as well as manually cleaning the articles we'd sourced from LexisNexis to remove irrelevant material. Analysis of media coverage over time is a demanding task. Even with a customised database, producing and coding a series from 1995 to 2011 represented several weeks work.

We didn't just look for the word "scrounger", we constructed a set of word-lists intended to capture broad categories of negative vocabulary such as fraud and dependency. "Scounger(s)" was included in a word-list we called "non-reciprocity", along with terms like "handout(s)", "shirker(s)" and "something for nothing". The chart shows some of the results for a consistent set of titles from 1995 to 2011:

So has there been an unprecedented rise in the use of "scrounger" and related terms? Yes – see the purple curve on the chart – but it's on quite a different scale to that shown in the other chart.

The difference is, I presume, mainly to do with our use of a consistent set of titles. We just don't have data for the Sun and Express for the 1990's, and these are by far the most virulent titles when it comes to coverage of benefits.

What is perhaps of more interest is that overall use of negative vocabularies is very similar in 2010-11 and 1998-9 (the dotted red curve). But there has been a pronounced shift in the language used to convey negative messages away from fraud (although this remains very important) and towards non-reciprocity: from "cheats" to "scroungers".

Using consistent data which has been checked and cleaned makes for a less striking chart, but it allows us to put recent coverage into a longer-term context. On this evidence, negativity in press coverage of benefits has not been at unprecedented levels: the first years of New Labour's period in office were very similar to the coalition's first years in this respect.

The reason is that media coverage is strongly skewed towards negativity in all periods, and in both these periods there was simply a lot of coverage.

But since 2008, negativity has increasingly taken the form of accusations of "scrounging", while in New Labour's first years in office the focus was on fraud, largely because this was a theme the government chose to highlight.

It's widely argued that there has been a shift in public attitudes towards benefit claimants over recent decades, with no signs of an increase in sympathy when unemployment rose in 2008/9, in contrast to earlier periods. And it's tempting to see negative media coverage as the culprit here. Our report did find evidence that attitudes are influenced by which newspaper people read, but when it comes to explaining shifts in attitudes over the longer term, increased negativity in the press seems an unlikely candidate, just because UK media coverage of benefits has been strongly negative for as far back as we can go using this data.

It may be that the press and the political right have become more efficient in tapping into public anxieties and grievances – maybe "scroungers" is a stronger framing than "cheats". It may be that New Labour's borrowing of political vocabulary from the right ("something for nothing", "dependency culture") recast the terms of debate, so that negative attitudes which were always to some extent in play were legitimised and made respectable.

But a simple story of media manipulation, evidenced by counting occurrences of negative language, seems to be ruled out. That doesn't mean there is no manipulation of course. There is a lot, and most of it is clearly politically inspired. But this is only part of a larger story. Those worried about public attitudes to benefits and claimants need to ask why negative coverage finds such a ready audience.

An earlier version of this piece was originally posted on Declan's blog l'Art Social, and is reposted here with his permission.

Declan Gaffney is a policy consultant specialising in social security, labour markets and equality. He blogs at l'Art Social

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Brexit will hike energy prices - progressive campaigners should seize the opportunity

Winter is Coming. 

Friday 24th June 2016 was a beautiful day. Blue sky and highs of 22 degrees greeted Londoners as they awoke to the news that Britain had voted to leave the EU.  

Yet the sunny weather was at odds with the mood of the capital, which was largely in favour of Remain. And even more so with the prospect of an expensive, uncertain and potentially dirty energy future. 

For not only are prominent members of the Leave leadership well known climate sceptics - with Boris Johnson playing down human impact upon the weather, Nigel Farage admitting he doesn’t “have a clue” about global warming, and Owen Paterson advocating scrapping the Climate Change Act altogether - but Brexit looks set to harm more than just our plans to reduce emissions.

Far from delivering the Leave campaign’s promise of a cheaper and more secure energy supply, it is likely that the referendum’s outcome will cause bills to rise and investment in new infrastructure to delay -  regardless of whether or not we opt to stay within Europe’s internal energy market.

Here’s why: 

1. Rising cost of imports

With the UK importing around 50% of our gas supply, any fall in the value of sterling are likely to push up the wholesale price of fuel and drive up charges - offsetting Boris Johnson’s promise to remove VAT on energy bills.

2. Less funding for energy development

Pulling out of the EU will also require us to give up valuable funding. According to a Chatham House report, not only was the UK set to receive €1.9bn for climate change adaptation and risk prevention, but €1.6bn had also been earmarked to support the transition to a low carbon economy.

3.  Investment uncertainty & capital flight

EU countries currently account for over half of all foreign direct investment in UK energy infrastructure. And while the chairman of EDF energy, the French state giant that is building the planned nuclear plant at Hinkley Point, has said Brexit would have “no impact” on the project’s future, Angus Brendan MacNeil, chair of the energy and climate select committee, believes last week’s vote undermines all such certainty; “anything could happen”, he says.

4. Compromised security

According to a report by the Institute for European Environmental Policy (the IEEP), an independent UK stands less chance of securing favourable bilateral deals with non-EU countries. A situation that carries particular weight with regard to Russia, from whom the UK receives 16% of its energy imports.

5. A divided energy supply

Brexiteers have argued that leaving the EU will strengthen our indigenous energy sources. And is a belief supported by some industry officials: “leaving the EU could ultimately signal a more prosperous future for the UK North Sea”, said Peter Searle of Airswift, the global energy workforce provider, last Friday.

However, not only is North Sea oil and gas already a mature energy arena, but the renewed prospect of Scottish independence could yet throw the above optimism into free fall, with Scotland expected to secure the lion’s share of UK offshore reserves. On top of this, the prospect for protecting the UK’s nascent renewable industry is also looking rocky. “Dreadful” was the word Natalie Bennett used to describe the Conservative’s current record on green policy, while a special government audit committee agreed that UK environment policy was likely to be better off within the EU than without.

The Brexiteer’s promise to deliver, in Andrea Leadsom’s words, the “freedom to keep bills down”, thus looks likely to inflict financial pain on those least able to pay. And consumers could start to feel the effects by the Autumn, when the cold weather closes in and the Conservatives, perhaps appropriately, plan to begin Brexit negotiations in earnest.

Those pressing for full withdrawal from EU ties and trade, may write off price hikes as short term pain for long term gain. While those wishing to protect our place within EU markets may seize on them, as they did during referendum campaign, as an argument to maintain the status quo. Conservative secretary of state for energy and climate change, Amber Rudd, has already warned that leaving the internal energy market could cause energy costs “to rocket by at least half a billion pounds a year”.

But progressive forces might be able to use arguments on energy to do even more than this - to set out the case for an approach to energy policy in which economics is not automatically set against ideals.

Technological innovation could help. HSBC has predicted that plans for additional interconnectors to the continent and Ireland could lower the wholesale market price for baseload electricity by as much as 7% - a physical example of just how linked our international interests are. 

Closer to home, projects that prioritise reducing emission through tackling energy poverty -  from energy efficiency schemes to campaigns for publicly owned energy companies - may provide a means of helping heal the some of the deeper divides that the referendum campaign has exposed.

If the failure of Remain shows anything, it’s that economic arguments alone will not always win the day and that a sense of justice – or injustice – is still equally powerful. Luckily, if played right, the debate over energy and the environment might yet be able to win on both.

 

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.