Hitchens archive: The Daily Mail does it again

In this article from 2 February 1979, Hitchens excoriates the Daily Mail and the right-wing press in

It takes so little time to check a story that reveals the reporting standards of the Conservative press that it's almost a surprise to find they don't do it themselves. In last week's NS, Anna Coote referred to the Daily Mail and the 'picket violence' that never was. Their report had all the trimmings - a front-page splash, with photograph, evoking strong comparisons with Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters in the bad old days. Under the heading 'M-way pickets attack driver', with a smaller headline, 'Police guard for victim of violence', came the following first paragraph: 'A lorry driver was hauled from his cab and beaten up with wooden clubs yesterday by four mobile motorway pickets who had followed him for 100 miles. As they shouted 'scab bastard', he fought them off with an iron bar from his cab. Last night, a 24-hour police guard was mounted on 26-year-old David Field's home in Twickenham, Middlesex.'

The New Statesman has spoken to Mr Field and to the police officers concerned in the case. We can reveal, as the Mail would put it, that the only accurate and reliable thing on the front page of that day's Mail was the date. The sixty words quoted above contain eight direct misstatements of fact, a high density even by Fleet Street standards.

First, Field was not 'hauled from his cab'. Second, he was not 'beaten up', though he did collect a blow on the shoulder from a piece of wood. Third, he was only molested by one man. Fourth, the words 'scab bastard' were never uttered. Five, he says his swing with the jackhandle was a reflex and he was never 'fighting'. Six, there is nothing to identify these men as pickets, striking lorry drivers, or members of any trade union. Seven, there is no evidence that Field had been followed - indeed all the evidence points the other way. Eight, the police did not guard Field's home and have no evidence whatever that the incident was connected with the strike - although that was the clear implication of the Daily Mail's story.

Field tells us that he doesn't think the men were lorry drivers at all, let alone pickets. He is not himself a union member, and his job is in any case not affected by the strike. He thinks the men, with whom he had the briefest of encounters, spoke in Midlands accents and he did not say, as reported, that their van took off for London after the attack. Continuing more or less at random (there is a whopper in almost every sentence), Field does not recall being punched in the mouth (as alleged), he did not go to hospital because he did not (as alleged) 'need hospital treatment'. He disowns every single quote about the incident which the Daily Mail attributes to him.

Detective Inspector Cook of the Stechford police states that they have no evidence of the lorry having been followed, and no leads about the character or identity of the attackers. Therefore, not only was the story wrong in all the detailed respects mentioned, it is also a general smear fabrication connecting a small incident with the wider issue of the dispute.

As a final coda to this astonishing piece of yellow journalism, it appears that the man who signed the story was not the man who 'interviewed' Mr Field. None of these deficiencies on the part of the Mail prevented other rags, notably the Daily Express, from repeating or duplicating it. We hear a great deal about 'circulation wars' in the street but when it comes to reporting the trade unions, there is virtual uniformity of comment and a great similarity in methods of 'coverage'.

The Daily Mail has long been famous for two things: its bitter and hysterical hatred of the Labour movement and its abysmal failure as a newspaper to get at the truth. Sometimes, as in the celebrated case of the Zinoviev letter, the political bias and the rank dishonesty merge in the same story. Sometimes, as in the case of the Leyland slush fund forgery, it is simply that the editor and his staff have difficulty telling fact from fiction. In this little episode, worth anatomising in some detail, the conclusion seems to be that Toryism and honest journalism just don't mix.

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was an author and journalist. He joined the New Statesman in 1973.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.