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Disabled people have never had it so bad

Media rhetoric and verbal abuse in public places.

New Statesman
Photograph: Getty Images

Many people have been shocked by a story which appeared on Twitter yesterday. Alex has collated the tweets here. To put this in context, the poster Thomas Hemingford’s twitter profile reads: "Man. Married, disabled wife. 3 Children, 1 disabled." Now read on:

"A good friend took me & my wife out last night to a restaurant, it was a really nice gesture, until this guy came up to our table, shouting....  He went on, for ages, saying how he supported David Cameron and how he's "putting disabled people in their place".....He went on at us for about 15 minutes, it was very difficult and we were made to feel worthless.... My friend had to restrain himself, we thought he'd done, then he started making out all disabled people don't work & get £500 a week....This idiot had been drinking, but he was well spoken, it's alarming people can think like this and say such things. ...What was bad too, there were others in the place agreeing with him. It's very alarming, this Govt have created this mentality...I've felt attitudes have changed over past 2 years, I've never experienced so much abuse and discrimination. It's both Govt and media."

This is not an isolated incident. There is growing concern about the number of well-documented cases of disabled people being subjected to verbal abuse and worse in public places, and the belief that these incidents are driven by political and media rhetoric on welfare reform is widespread.

Of course it is very difficult to show either that the number of incidents is increasing (people may be more likely to report them) or that there is a causal link to what the media and politicians are saying.  But it is possible to look at whether the vocabulary and content of media and political discourse has grown more or less negative over time: the results show that whether or not they are contributing to the problem, it is very unlikely they are helping.

The figures here come from analysis of a large dataset of articles on welfare published in UK national newspapers between 1995 and 2011. We assembled the dataset as part of a project on benefits stigma commissioned by the charity Turn2Us last year. (You can read the report here). The report wasn’t specifically about disability benefits, and there wasn’t room to include all the analysis we would have liked, so these are new figures.

We analysed the content of articles using a set of "themes" which occur in a lot of coverage of benefits: the most important of these were need, fraud, ‘scrounging’ – people claiming who shouldn’t be for reasons other than fraud- compulsion to take up work or training, claimants being better off on benefits, large families on benefits and anti-social behaviour.  Only articles where these themes made a substantive contribution to the content are included- these are not articles that make glancing reference to  need or fraud, for example.

The headline results for articles dealing with disability and benefits are shown in the chart. We’ve divided the entire period covered by the data into two sub-periods of equal length, breaking in June 2003. In the first period, up to June 2003, 42 per cent of articles dealt with need compared to 29 per cent using one or more of the negative themes. In the second period, some 58 per cent of articles used negative themes to only 27 per cent of articles in which need was a theme. So the sense that newspaper coverage has grown more negative over time seems fully justified. There has been both growth in articles with negative content and a fall in articles with more sympathetic content. (There is an overlap between these two categories, with some articles combining negative and sympathetic themes: this overlap has also reduced, with more articles containing only negative themes.)

Source: Consistent 1995-2011 dataset, Turn2Us benefit stigma project. Titles included: Mirror Mail Times Independent Guardian

In fairness, we should point out that one of our ‘negative’ themes is ‘compulsion’- articles which refer to measures to oblige claimants to take up work or training. This plays an important role in the growth of negative coverage, reflecting both the previous and current  governments’ emphasis on benefit conditionality.  While the prominence of compulsion in public debate may be a driver of broader negativity towards claimants, it would be unfair to blame the media for simply reporting government policy. But when we exclude articles in which compulsion is the only negative theme, while the growth in negative content is reduced, we still find a doubling of the percentage of negative articles (from 20% to 41%).  So straightforward reporting of government policy isn’t the main driver of increased negativity.

We also looked at the vocabulary used in articles about incapacity benefit (and its predecessors and successors). For this, we used word-lists intended to capture specific types of negative associations: the most important were fraud (words like cheat, fiddle), non-reciprocity (handouts, scrounger, feckless, idle)and dependency (e.g. languishing on benefits). As can be seen, there was a huge growth in the number of articles on these benefits from 2003, and an increase in negativity. Both the total number of articles and the number of negative articles peaked in 2010. However there is also an important peak in 2008, coinciding with Labour’s incapacity benefit reforms- while there were more articles in 2010, the share of negative articles is similar in 2008.

Source:  Main 1995-2011 dataset, Turn2Us benefit stigma project. Titles included: Mirror Mail Times Independent Guardian Telegraph Sun Express

Does negative media coverage affect public attitudes? Almost certainly: in our report we showed that the level of negativity in the newspapers people read had an effect on their perceptions of benefit fraud, even controlling for other factors that influence attitudes. Media coverage is not the only factor, and probably not the most important factor, but it serves to reinforce suspicions and ill-founded grievances against all people of working age on benefits, including disabled claimants. The extreme views of people like the idiot who ruined Thomas Hemingford, his wife and friends’ evening are hopefully confined to a tiny minority, but you wouldn’t know it from reading the biggest selling UK newspapers: media coverage helps form a public environment in which people can think this sort of behaviour is socially acceptable. And as we showed in our report, politics is the big driver of negative coverage, with Conservative, Labour and the coalition governments all playing a role.