From the Work Programme to the bedroom tax, there is a lot this government has got wrong. Photo: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty
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The Disability Audit: the eight coalition policies that have hit disabled people

After looking in detail at all the changes to the benefits system in the last five years, it’s only possible to come to one conclusion: the coalition’s attitude towards disabled people has been pointlessly cruel.

Listen to the Conservatives promise the electorate £12bn of social security cuts and you have an insight into the thinking that has plagued the last five years. Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith have ended this parliament as they began: demonising disabled people and the chronically ill as expensive drains on the rest of society.

The coalition’s cuts have fallen 18 times harder on severely disabled people in poverty than on the average citizen. Disabled people are losing £28bn of support – with individuals hit by up to six different cuts.

It says something about the scale of this that what you’re about to read does not cover every measure this government has taken against disabled people – there are simply too many to list. Think disappearing respite care for families with severely disabled children, the failing Work Programme, or proposed student allowance cuts that stop young disabled adults being able to go to university.

From the “fit to work” tests to the onslaught of benefit sanctions, the last five years has witnessed the dismantling of disability care, work, and housing support. 

Here are eight coalition policies that have hit disabled people:

1. Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)

Ask a member of the public if they are aware of any of this government’s disability policies and it’s likely one name will come up: Atos. By the time last March the private firm had quit its £500m contract administrating the coalition’s now infamous “fit to work” test – the assessment used to determine if a disabled or chronically ill person is eligible for the unemployment benefit, Employment and Support Allowance – it had become the recipient of unprecedented protests by disability campaigners and an avalanche of slating media headlines: from assessors asking an amputee if his arm would grow back to judging people “fit to work” only for them to die a few weeks later.

But it would be to miss the core of the past five years to think Atos – rather than the government itself – created this crisis. Atos – and its replacement, Maximus – are the private sector monkey to the Department for Work and Pension’s (DWP) organ grinder. It was the DWP that designed the Work Capability Assessment and it’s the DWP who despite a committee of MPs calling the test not fit for purposehave continued to defend it.

Last year, it emerged that people with degenerative conditions – conditions that, by definition, are only going to get worse – were being judged by the WCA as likely to “recover” enough to look for work. A third of people with disabilities such as Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis are being denied the full version of ESA and pushed into “work-related activity” – the group expected to be well enough to work, that gets less money, and is routinely sanctioned.

This is an assessment that is now quantitatively proven to inflict damage to disabled people’s bodies and minds. Over 60 per cent of disabled people going through the work capability assessment report being in pain afterwards. Others say their condition was made worse or their recovery delayed. One claimant surveyed by Leonard Cheshire Disability, who has progressive rheumatoid arthritis, said she left her appointment “feeling absolutely awful and suffered a lot of pain in the following days”. She went on to have a stroke a few weeks later.

Keep this in mind when noting that the change the government decided to make to ESA was to reduce the support many going through the process could receive. By mid-way through the coalition’s time in government, the DWP had added “time limits” to how long some chronically ill or disabled claimants could claim benefits. This was part of a wider attempt to enact conditionality to the benefit system (see number eight). As I reported in 2013, 700,000 people with long-term sickness or disability had their ESA taken as a result. The means test brought in was only £7,500 for this change, leaving someone earning barely eight grand a year having to support themselves and their ill partner.

Asked on the election trail where the Conservatives would get their £12bn “welfare savings” from, David Cameron has pointed to “getting people off” ESA. “Part of this is continuing with a programme that we’ve had…,” he told the BBC. “We’re going to continue with that, successfully reducing welfare…” Pain, scandal, and poverty is apparently “success”.  

2. Personal Independence Payments (PIP)  

At the same time as the crisis with ESA, the government decided to scrap a second key disability benefit: Disability Living Allowance (DLA), replacing it with the “tougher” Personal Independence Payments (PIP).

As of 2012, 3.2 million disabled people were receiving DLA to help pay for their additional care or mobility needs. It does not take a genius to predict that re-testing millions of disabled people is an enormous undertaking – and one that, by nature of being a benefit that people use to feed themselves or leave the house, would need to be done carefully and competently.  

A year into the reform, parliament’s public spending watchdog was calling the government’s handling of PIP “nothing short of a fiasco” – with widespread delays and reports of claimants being hospitalised due to the stress of the process.  

The DWP have been forced to delay the national rollout (many areas of the country are still on DLA), as well increase predictions for how long people would have to wait for support or even to get an assessment. Currently, almost 200,000 disabled and chronically ill people in “reform areas” are stuck in a backlog waiting to be assessed. Guess who the government outsourced the job to for £400m? Atos (and second private firm, Capita).  

What is particularly troubling with PIP is that – due to the flaws in the assessment itself – these backlogs are essentially a long wait to nowhere. Unlike DLA, Personal Independence Payment is a points-based assessment, awarded on “descriptors” on a range of activities (such as washing and bathing, or communicating verbally) and only has two rates (DLA had three). Campaigners warned from the offset that, just like with ESA and the Work Capability Assessment, this would mean a crude, inaccurate assessment. Disabled people are now finding themselves waiting a year for help, only to be told they are not eligible for the new benefit, despite having severe – and blindingly obvious – needs.

Paula Ranking*, 61, from Runcorn, Cheshire, applied for PIP back in October 2013. She has fibromyalgia and depression, leaving her with chronic fatigue, poor memory, and severe muscle pain. It took her until June 2014 to be given an assessment and two months later, she was told she had been rejected for the benefit entirely.

After requesting a copy of her assessment report four times in order to appeal the decision, she tells me she saw it was “full of lies and omissions”.  

“I couldn’t believe what I was reading… The assessor made out I was fit and athletic,” Paula says. “She said she watched me walk 60 meters to the office with no problem but I was in absolute agony. It was early morning and my painkillers hadn’t kicked in.”

“She pointed out in her report that I crossed my leg at one point. I did because my calf muscle felt like it was having a knife twisted in it. I let out a yelp when I grabbed my leg but she didn’t mention that. I could go on and on.”

Rather than being a necessary reform, the scrapping of DLA – and introduction of PIP – was brought in on the (false) premise that vast numbers of disabled people were making unnecessary and “fraudulent claims”. Before anyone had actually been assessed, Iain Duncan Smith was announcing an estimated half a million people would lose their entitlement under PIP – making a “saving” of around 20 per cent, or £2bn, of the current scheme. Instead of an anomaly or a horrible accident, there is a lurking feeling that benefit rejections like Paula’s are exactly what was intended.

I think of this as Paula tells me she is “terrified” that she has no one to go with her to her appeal – and again, a few weeks later, when she emails me, upset to say she arrived at her appeal only to be told it was the day before. Due to the memory loss and fatigue that are symptoms of her illness, she had got the dates mixed up. There was no support in place to her help, despite the fact her illness leaves her cognitively unable to deal with the process and physically needing up to eighteen hours sleep a day.

A month later, Paula emails to tell me she’s finally been awarded the benefit – at the standard rate.

I missed out on the rest due to the poor help I received filling the form in,” she tells me. “The judge did say he had gone on my doctor’s reports and disregarded the Atos report.” 

It’s hard to imagine this is much of a reprieve. Paula’s been £190 short on her mortgage each month for the last year. 

“Don’t believe all you hear about everything getting paid for on benefits,” she says. “I could lose my home.”   

3. Bedroom tax

Even in the anti-benefits climate that has developed, the image of a disabled person being evicted does not sit well with the public. The bedroom tax – which cut the housing benefit of social tenants deemed to be “under-occupying” their home – saw what was a flagship coalition policy of “fairness” and “cost-cutting” turn into arguably the most unpopular measure of the parliament.    

Almost two thirds of the tenants hit by the policy are from households that contain someone who has a disability – that’s over 400,000. It didn’t take much to realize that a policy penalising people for needing extra space would end up hurting the disabled and chronically ill. The government’s own impact assessment told them.

Back at the start of 2013, before the policy came into force, I reported the reality of cutting benefits for having a so-called “spare room”: parents of grown disabled children losing money for storing oxygen cylinders and adult sized nappies, to wheelchair users told to leave a home with twenty years’ worth of adaptations.

What has followed in the two years since has been a lesson in how not to conduct social security. Only 6 per cent of people affected by the bedroom tax have “downsized”, largely down to the fact there was never enough smaller properties for them to move to. Local authority Discretionary Housing Payments – held up as the safety net to protect disabled tenants – have actually ended up more likely to be given to non-disabled tenants.  Savings have been nominal – and have only come off the back of pushing some of the most disadvantaged people in society into debt, rent arrears, and worsening health.

The bedroom tax has produced a sense of “hopelessness verging on desperation”, research in the Journal of Public Health found last month – that sort of widespread, every day pain that has the deepest effect.

If the policy’s architects needed something more graphic, they could perhaps look to the case in the Liverpool Echo this week: a 32 year old who had all his toes amputated after being forced to spend last winter sleeping in a tent. Mitchell Keenan, from Skelmersdale, in West Lancashire, was evicted from his four-bed house because the bedroom tax meant his family could no longer pay the rent. He was diagnosed with frostbite six weeks ago when his family noticed his toes had turned black. His 62-year-old father, Keith, also evicted, has malnourishment, scabies and dementia.

4. Council tax

The bedroom tax may have grabbed the headlines but it came at the same time as another, equally appalling hit on the ability of the so-called “vulnerable” to pay the rent. From April 2013, the government slashed funding for council tax benefit by £500m, leaving cash-strapped local authorities to decide how the remainder should be distributed. The result? 2.3m families previously exempt now have to pay at least a portion of their council tax – that’s the poorest, the disabled, and carers. 

Almost 300,000 of these people have also been affected by the bedroom tax. That’s the added kick of the coalition’s cuts: they have been arranged in a way that means disabled people have lost multiple strands of support at once.

The consequences of a policy decision like cutting council tax support are devastating and they are fast. Council tax is one of the few debts that carry a threat of prison. Miss a payment and the arrears mount quickly. Before you know it, a court summons has arrived at your home and there is talk of eviction and re-possession.

Susan Smith, 50, has council tax arrears of over £1,300. She’s lived in her flat in London for fourteen years and tells me she had never had to pay council tax before the cuts to support came in last year. Susan is an example of the sort of person the state used to protect: she has mental health problems – what she describes to me as “chronic mental and emotional fatigue” – severe enough to result in repeated hospitalisation. She was already struggling to keep a roof over her head before the month dubbed “Black April” kicked in, with rent arrears of almost £5,000 and an ongoing eviction threat. The council tax changes have piled on more debt and more psychological pressure.

“I know at times like this I’m vulnerable to episodes,” she tells me. [I’ve been] detached, incapable of going to the shop, and neglected eating properly for days, feeling the need to stay in bed and rest my brain.”  

Her council, Haringey, employed an “enforcement agency” to “remove and sell off” her goods unless she pays them £10 a week from her Disability Living Allowance – the benefit awarded to help her with the additional needs that come with her illness.  

“I’ve experienced relapses through [the] stress and anxiety [of it], where I’ve not been able to function properly,” she tells me. “[So I haven’t been able to] respond effectively to threatening letters and gather the information they require.”

Despite Susan agreeing to pay them £40 of her disability benefit a month, the council is continuing to threaten her with legal action. Susan shows me the letter she received on Monday – asking her with almost quaint politeness to “please pay £115.58 within seven days” or “legal action will be taken after a further seven days for the full amount of £1,150.38.” 

It is unclear where someone dealing with mental illness with set, low income is expected to get over a thousand pounds from in less than two weeks.

5. Independent Living Fund (ILF)  

Crucially, the coalition’s cuts have been a two-tier threat to disabled people keeping their home: not only through the ability to pay the rent but to live independently at all.

For its users, the Independent Living Fund (ILF) – the standalone fund that helps 18,000 of some of the most severely disabled people to live in their own homes – is the difference between living independently as an adult or a toss up between clock-timed care slots and going into residential care.

The government’s much-fought decision to, from June 2015, close the ILF has come to symbolise perhaps the most devastating message of austerity: disabled people’s dignity is now too costly. 

Helen Johnson, 43, has cerebral palsy – meaning she uses a wheelchair and has minimal movement – and has used ILF since she was 18.  Talking from her bungalow just outside Doncaster, she tells me that, added to her own financial contributions, the ILF has allowed her to stay in the home she grew up in. Three rotating personal assistants help her with basic care needs: going to the toilet when she wants, washing, and putting medicated cream on her fragile skin. But, like every ILF user I’ve spoken to, what’s striking is how the fund also means Helen’s been able to have what most of us would say constitutes living rather than existing: to study, work part-time when her health allowed, enjoy music festivals and go to comedy shows with friends.

Listen to a politician talk about the decision to close the ILF and they will tell you that any disabled person currently being supported by the fund will simply be transferred to local authority care provision. What they don’t tend to say is that the money won’t be ring-fenced, meaning local councils – already shredding social care (see number six) – will have no obligation to spend it on current recipients. 

It gives some insight into what is to come for Helen that she tells me that, before the decision to close the ILF was announced, she asked her local authority to “top up” her care hours (her elderly mum helps her with her nighttime care) – and was told to go back to apply to the ILF as the process “would be easier and a lot less complicated”.

Perhaps the darkest part is that none of this could be called news to the government. The DWP's own research says it's "almost certain that closure of the ILF will mean that the majority of users will face changes to the way their support is delivered, including the real possibility of a reduction to the funding they currently receive". This could mean "the loss of a carer or personal assistant".

According to a series of freedom of information requests by Disabled People Against Cuts, over half the local authorities that responded to the government's ILF consultation said the move would either result in significantly reduced care packages that would affect people's ability to enjoy any quality of life, or in more admissions to residential care homes.  

It might be worth taking a moment to imagine the reality of that.

Helen is a “group 1 ILF recipient” which means, as an original user of the fund, she has never had any involvement with social services before. She tells me that her local authority – nor anyone else – even contacted her when they started talking about closing the ILF and that communication throughout has “so far been non existent.”

“I contacted social services myself in early January, because they hadn't been in touch,” she says. “A social worker visited me but admitted that although they knew changes would happen, she did a basic assessment but then said she was due to go on a training course as the paper work was due to change… I’ve not heard anything else as yet.”

The feeling of a lack of control over her own life is evident.

“I do feel very ignored and totally in the dark regarding the future,” she adds.  

6. Social care  

It may give a hint to the government’s approach to protecting disabled citizens that the ministers pointing to social care as the solution to ILF closure are the same ones who have cut the system to the bone.

Social care has had over £3.5bn taken from its funding by the coalition over the past four years, according to Adass, directors of adult social services. The result has been councils forced to reduce the number of disabled people dubbed as eligible for it – essentially abandoning adults with severe disabilities to live without even basic help. It has made few headlines but two out of five disabled people in this country are now unable to eat, wash, dress or get out of the house due to underfunded services in their area.

Kenneth Fletcher, 23, has cerebral palsy and is partially sighted. In 2011, he moved out of his family home and into a shared bungalow with three other disabled people and what was said to be 24-hour on-site support. At the age of 19, what he says he was looking forward to are the basics of independence any of us want as we form a life: socialising with friends, maybe going on holiday with his new housemates. He says that after a few weeks in his new home, he realized “something didn’t feel right”.

“Everyone was in bed by 8.30pm. Why would you go to bed so early every night?” Kenneth explains. “It turned out my new housemates had no choice – they were being ‘put’ to bed early, even if they didn’t want to go.”

Kenneth says he remembers coming home to find one of his housemates, who he describes as a girl who uses a wheelchair, sitting at the kitchen table with nothing to do.

“She’d just been left there on her own,” he says. “Another time I came home to find two of my housemates with their wheelchairs facing the wall. I don’t know how long they had been like that – hours maybe.”   

Despite intervention by Kenneth’s mum and social worker, he tells me nothing changed. After a year, he was able to move into another supported-living bungalow that he describes as “not perfect” but better.

It says something about the standard of independent living for disabled adults in this country that, when discussing his expectations with disability charity Scope, Kenneth says he hopes for the ability to “choose what time to get up in the morning” and “what to have for lunch.”

Treating disabled people like cattle is the cheaper option. By the end of the decade, the Local Government Association and Adass estimate there will be a £4.3bn funding “black hole” in adult social care. Scope’s report, “The Other Care Crisis”, puts it clearly: “Austerity has pushed the system to crisis point...turning back the clock on disabled people’s independence.”

7. Access to Work

For a government obsessed with “hardworking families” and “making work pay”, changes like PIP or social care have not only been immoral but counterproductive. Cutting the support disabled people need to get dressed and leave the house tends to make it difficult for them to be able to turn up to work.

Cuts to Access to Work – the fund delivered through Jobcentre Plus that pays for practical support for disabled people at work – is the most blatant example of this. Or it would be, if the government were not trying very hard to bury them. (The Department for Work and Pensions only agreed to publish the guidance that shows who is even eligible for support after campaigners threatened legal action.) Go a bit deeper and we know that limits have been placed on the amount of help available – resulting in a “climate of suspicion” around claims, payment delays, cuts in support hours, and risk of disabled people losing their jobs. 

Bernie Vincent, who uses a wheelchair and has cognitive impairments, works as a training manager at an independent living centre. Her disability means she needs help to process and interpret information and for the last twenty years she’s relied on the Access to Work scheme to help fund a support worker. From May 2014, she had her funding cut by 60 per cent. There had been no change in her disability and she had been given no new assessment – only filling in what she describes as a review form.   

“I’ve always had support from Access to Work. Without funding, [working for the past twenty years] wouldn’t have been possible,” she tells me. “Now it’s all under threat.”

The first thing Bernie heard about her funding being cut was when her office manager told her they hadn’t been paid. She tells me she then had to start “chasing things up”.

“[When I called them,] the person on the other end of the phone was robotic, as if she was reading from a script,” she says.  “I couldn’t take in what I was being told. I kept asking for an explanation only to be informed that Access to Work only fund 20 per cent of support needs.”

“There I was telling this stranger I’d never spoken to before that I’d likely lose my job, that I wouldn’t be able to pay by mortgage. Nothing made a difference.”  

Bernie tells me she made “numerous” phone calls, sent emails, and made an official complaint but the DWP went ahead with her funding cut.  This is not surprising. The DWP has been warned by the work and pensions select committee that the process by which people could challenge decisions made about their support funding needed to be “clearer and more transparent”.

The cuts in her funding mean Bernie now has to spend two days at work without her support worker. On the days she still has support, she leaves early in order to “make best use” of the funding and ends up making up her contracted hours at home without help.

Left without her support worker, Bernie tells me she becomes “anxious”, her “mind swims with information”, and everything she does “takes longer”.

“I worry can I make my targets, how this will impact on the others in my [office] team,” she says. “If I don’t have adequate support at work, I can’t continue to do my job.” 

“Society sees disabled people like me going about our lives and think we just jump out of bed, get on with our lives, perhaps in the same way as they do,” she adds. “What people don’t see is the stuff that goes on behind closed doors to make this happen…how critical it is we have the funding and services to just get on with an average day.”  

8. Benefit sanctions

This myth that it is shrinking government – loss of support or added conditionality – that helps workers has propped up much of the coalition’s employment thinking. It gave birth to one of the worst developments of the past five years: the benefit sanction system.

There are no legitimate grounds to remove the money people need in order to eat, whether that person begins as the picture of health or is sitting in a wheelchair. But it gives some insight into the mentality of the system that as of last year, the number of benefit sanctions against disabled and chronically ill people had risen by 580 per cent. Like the 23-year-old pregnant woman who the recent MP-led inquiry heard was receiving employment and support allowance for mental health problems following the stillborn birth of her first baby eight months earlier. She had missed one work-focused interview because on that day she had found it too difficult to leave her flat – so they stopped her money, and left her to walk two miles to a food bank after going without a hot meal for a fortnight. Or the young man with learning difficulties who had his benefits stopped for being four minutes late for the JobCentre – despite the fact he couldn’t tell the time. He was later found sitting in his flat in the dark with no electric, gas, or food.

Listen to Esther McVey or IDS and they will tell you these cases are ‘vulnerable’ claimants who have “fallen through the cracks,” as if what has happened to these people happened by magic. It didn’t. The Coalition brought in measures to increase the amount of money they were able to take from sanctioned disabled and chronically ill people. The application for hardship payments – the emergency fund meant to, essentially, keep people alive during their sanction period - have been designed in a way that is too difficult for vulnerable people to understand. A fact that the MP’s inquiry into the sanction system said means: “the people potentially most in need of the hardship system were the least likely to be able to access it”. Cameron chose to ignore this point when Andrew Marr questioned him this month on the death of David Clapson – the diabetic who died because a sanction meant he couldn’t afford to keep his insulin in a fridge. Or that JSA claimants aren’t even allowed to use the hardship fund for 15 days after being sanctioned. It is worth noting that this group will include disabled and ill people, falsely judged as “fit to work” (see number one) and put on JSA.  

This is a system that is morally rotten. Jobcentre managers routinely put pressure on staff to sanction claimants’ benefits – and even have league tables for job centres to compete against each other. Clapson is not the only one to die as a result. The DWP have been forced to admit they’ve investigated 49 deaths since 2012 “associated with a DWP activity”.  

It is telling that the sanction inquiry found there is limited evidence that benefit sanctions actually help people find work. It is a message that could sum up the coalition’s entire catalogue of disability policies: pointlessly cruel.

*Some names have been changed

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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Welcome to the zoo: what it feels like to report a presidential campaign

Hatred of the mainstream media was a theme at both the Republican and Democratic conventions. Yet how much of the incipient cartoon fascism on show was our fault?

Here’s how you cover an American political convention: you get up inhumanly early to fire off your first emails, chugging down hotel coffee that tastes like burnt leather. Then you put on your least-squashed outfit and you drag yourself through crowds of sweating delegates to an event or a talk (or, if you’re unlucky, the treadless circus of the convention floor), and you watch and listen with your phone in your hand and one eye on social media until you run across something that you think might be worth writing about.

You email your editor from the phone to see if your sense is correct, and the idea is saleable. Meanwhile, you’ve started looking for somewhere to open your laptop and bang out your copy. You write it. You buy a coffee so they don’t kick you out of the café. You scramble for healthy wifi. You talk your way into the giant car park repurposed as a crèche for journalists outside the arena, where your organisation has a tiny table, and Google and Facebook have giant booths distributing free snacks, just to remind you who’s really in charge of the media.

Then you file your copy. You send the link out all over social media, because that’s part of your job, and you go in search of food with your eyes all glassy from screen glare, until you have to do it again. Whenever your editor goes to bed, you think about wrapping up and relocating to a bar where you can flirt with half of your attention while drinking beer and scrolling, constantly, through social media.

At some point around 4am, you clock off and spend an hour searching for a cab that you hope you’re going to be able to put against expenses, and you chat to the driver on your way to your overpriced, out-of-town hotel, too tired to register the shock of a conversation with an actual human being. Later on, in a hotel room that you can’t afford, you ask yourself: how does it feel to have made something that hates you?

In the two heat-drunk, deadline-crazed weeks that I spent at the Republican and Democratic conventions this summer, that line kept echoing in my mind. It’s spoken by an android to its creator in the Alex Garland film Ex Machina, but the 15,000 journalists, reporters, columnists, television crew members and media flunkies gathered to watch the biggest American political showdown of this half-decade could have asked ourselves the same question. Hatred of the mainstream media was a theme at both conventions. Yet how much of the incipient cartoon fascism on show was our fault? And what can we do to stop it?

This is a story about stories, the people who tell them and the price we pay. In all the thousands of essays, reports, video diaries, interviews and listicles produced at and around the lumbering pageant of the US presidential race, one class of person is supposed to be almost invisible, and that is the people who do the work of production: the journalists. But what is happening in politics today, particularly in the United States, and particularly in this election, has everything to do with the media – the industry, yes, but also the people in it. If the media are the message, the message is anxious, incoherent and mired in a money crisis that it has no idea how to handle. Not unlike America, as it happens.

***

Just in case you’ve had the good fortune to have spent the past two years under a rock, let’s recap. These US conventions are the official nominating ceremonies for the presidential candidates of the Democratic and Republican Parties, as well as four-day pageants at which lobbyists and media flunkies come to flirt and network and make whatever passes (in professional political terms) for friends. The candidate selection is merely the excuse for this shindig, and this time the fix was in before it had even begun.

The Democrats had chosen the former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, representing the centre-liberal status quo with a corporate feminist twist and a side order of hawkish sabre-rattling. Her main challenger was the veteran socialist Bernie Sanders, who believes in wealth redistribution, free university education and social justice and gained an enormous following among young voters who have not yet accepted that they owe their votes to any candidate with a blue ribbon.

On the Republican side, a field of whey-faced religious extremists had been cleared for Donald Trump, the real-estate tycoon and reality-television star, who stands on a platform of imposing a “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”, building a border wall with Mexico and replacing the entire US electoral system with a giant statue of his gelatinous face, sculpted from misdirected class rage. This, more than anyone, was the man we had all come to see.

One of the liturgies of doctrinal Trumpism is that there is a thing called “the mainstream media”, which tries to control what “ordinary” people think, despite knowing next to nothing about their lives. The mainstream media are assumed to be homogeneous, cosmopolitan, well paid, based almost exclusively in New York and the Beltway of Washington, and liberal to its core. This is a more accurate description of Trump than it is of most US journalists I know.

Trump did not invent performative hostility towards the “mainstream media”. Every insurgent politician in recent years has taunted the press in public, while giving hacks hungry for copy exactly what they want: a story that draws in readers. And a great many journalists, at least those who have not yet given up on the notion of speaking truth to power, feel less comfortable when power tries to court us than we do when it pretends to hate us.

The ways in which we create and consume media today are not the same as they were even four years ago, during what was dubbed in the US as “the social media election”. Rapid changes in communications technology have reshaped the terrain more thoroughly than those employed to scry in the entrails of the internet for the future of human thought can anticipate. What is clear is that power flows to those who can understand and exploit the hysterical reality engine called the media – and that has always been the case.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt swayed the nation with his deft use of radio – and so did Adolf Hitler. In the 1960s, John F Kennedy became the first “television president”, beating his opponent, Richard Nixon, in televised debates that radio listeners felt that Nixon had won. Ronald Reagan, a professional actor, perfected that position. Barack Obama is the first US president to understand and exploit the full potential of the internet, recognising that social media can be used to reshape the calcified structures of money and messaging that are still, across the West, called democracy.

This year, Donald Trump – a reality TV mogul before he is anything else – has taken control of the narrative, understanding, like Europe’s right-wing populist pundits, that it is possible to bypass facts altogether and hit the electorate in the incoherent space of pure emotion. What, at a time like this, does journalism mean? What does it mean to be a member of the press in an age when there is no longer a clear distinction between media and meatspace, between reality and television?

***

 American political conventions are not the staid, rainwashed yearly affairs that we are used to in Britain. Every four years, the Republican and Democratic Parties throw a festival for thousands of lawmakers, lawyers, reporters, lobbyists and the occasional actual voter on their break from handing around snacks at press parties. It lasts four days, because that’s how long it took originally to count up delegates from every state, and now the rest of the time is filled up with boozing, hobnobbing and wearing clothes that make everyone look like they’re live-action role-playing the most depressing parts of the mid-1980s. There are speeches, and more speeches, musical interludes by tame celebrities, blind children singing the national anthem, and quite a lot of God-bothering – and much of the main action doesn’t start until 4pm every day, in order to give people time to recover from the night before.

This would not work in Britain. America still takes itself too seriously to consider how crass this looks to an outside world that also has reason to fear a vicious, swollen toddler with alarming hair being given access to the US nuclear codes. This year, the Republican convention in Cleveland, Ohio, came first, as befits the case for the prosecution of the political status quo. On the Saturday before it began, the airport was already lousy with journalists looking for Trump people to interview.

Armed police circled the terminal as a choir of children from local schools sang patriotic lullabies to soothe us into what would be a two-week fever dream of nativist fear-mongering and empty political pageantry. The candidates, remember, had already been decided by a grudging, deeply divided electorate. All that was left was ritual, and the dim, thrilling possibility that someone might do something off-message.

I bought the first coffee of the week and got in a cab to call my editor while my synapses soaked in diluted stimulants. The roads were jammed with thousands of hacks doing the same, some of whom already had deadlines to meet. Nothing had happened yet. That didn’t matter. We were here to create news, not report it.

“The threshold for news now is very low,” said Matt Pearce, a reporter for the LA Times and an old friend from (where else?) the internet. “There are more of us running around and there’s less to do. A lot of us were bracing for something potentially as bad as the protests at the DNC [Democratic National Convention] in Chicago in 1968 . . . That’s always the conflicted part of the business. Chaos and mayhem make for selling newspapers, but if you live here in Cleveland, you want nothing to go wrong.”

Why did we come here? To see the show. We had heard that there would be protests, which always make good copy, and dissent on the convention floor. And we knew without doubt that there would be frothing cryptofascism, which makes better copy. The more Trump claims to hate the press, the more we fall over ourselves to give him the attention he craves. He is an insider trader in the attention economy.

I heard the word “zoo” repeatedly. The reporters had “come to see the zoo”. A zoo: where you pay to see dumb and dangerous beasts in cages, and then eat ice cream. Is that where we thought we were? There were wire fences around the convention zone and the people there knew that they were on show, putting on a spectacle for the liberal media that they claimed roundly to despise. Trump’s people made it clear that this convention was about showbiz, although the celebrity roll-call was Lynyrd Skynyrd, a man from a TV show called Duck Dynasty and a handful of C-list actors. The DNC had Snoop Dogg.

As delegates, lobbyists and reporters continued to flood into Cleveland, nothing – at least nothing resembling substantive news of any kind – continued to happen relentlessly. But we were all hoping for a moment of transcendence, a big breakthrough. A great observation or piece of writing that would make our editors proud and our landlords happy, back in the places we were from – sorry, the places we were based. None of the reporters, it seemed, was from anywhere. Instead, we were based in New York, or based in Washington, or based in a small village in Finland. We were transient half-people, scrapping for meaning and a living.

It quickly became apparent that the promised protests would not be occurring. We had prepared ourselves for open-carry gun marches and riots in the streets, and so had the police of every local district, who had been shipped in to bristle on every corner, but anyone with a sensible point to make had decided to stay at home. The gun protest turned out mainly to consist of a man with two guns, with dozens of reporters circling him like hungry vultures that had heard the dying screams of political discourse.

Mark Twain is apocryphally said to have observed that there were only three real American cities – New York, New Orleans and San Francisco – and everywhere else was Cleveland. The place did look like it had been hastily constructed out of plywood and the overwhelming impression was of being backstage on a giant movie set, which helped with the sense of unreality not one jot. Nor did the way that everyone in town seemed to spend between a third and half of their waking hours staring at a phone or a laptop screen. The screen-time/real-time distinction had disintegrated completely and we had all come a long way to be in the same place, looking at our phones.

Still hazy from jet lag, I dunked myself in a basement swimming pool; its acid-blue water was the temperature of fresh urine. I dried off in the bar, chlorine tightening my skin. Next to me on an unforgiving leather sofa, Adele M Stan, a reporter from the American Prospect, was wrapped in a shawl, checking her phone. This, she told me, was the strangest political convention of the seven that she had attended. Many of the major Republican political players, unwilling to yoke themselves to Trump’s toxic popularity, had decided to skip it, and so had most activists with any sense. Instead, the space around the stadium was a clear field for ranters, ravers and swivel-eyed performance artists masquerading as political actors – just like the stage.

For two weeks, in two cities, I met almost nobody who was local. The town centres had been cleared and scrubbed for the event, the local tramps and beggars ungently encouraged to move on. Often, even the waiting staff and Uber drivers had come from out of town. Many of the real citizens had left to rent out their homes on Airbnb. 

Everyone in the action zones seemed to be from somewhere else.

I know nobody from Cleveland and yet, within an hour of arriving, I had run into five people I know. They had come to get the story. It quickly became apparent that they had also come to get laid. I have never been so consistently hit on as I was in those first three days in Cleveland. Tinder was lit with people “in town for the week, trying this out for the first time”.

I ended up having some of my most honest conversations of the trip with other reporters on the instant dating app, where we seemed to feel more free to voice our political opinions. We would start off straight-up flirting, then ease into confidences about how bizarre the experience was and intimate existential panic about the nature of sanity, bracketed in plaintive requests for the sort of sex you have with strangers as the world is ending. I matched with two people from The Daily Show. The week was a stew of pre-fascist panic: mate or die.

***

On the walk down to the convention centre in Cleveland, the streets seemed empty except for stray reporters, security guards and a giant billboard howling: “Don’t believe the liberal media!” Overhead, a chartered plane flew the slogan “Hillary for Prison”. This line was available over the next few days on buttons, badges, T-shirts, baseball caps and mugs, announcing to the world that the trolls had taken the wheel of political discourse. Hillary for Prison. Like much of what passes for political conversation in this election, it makes sense only if you say it in an American accent, and it’s not as funny as it seems.
Outside on the corner, two enterprising young men with button-down shirts and ice-white smiles that did not flicker were selling Clinton- and Trump-themed boxes of cereal for $40 each, because they had college debts that they couldn’t rely on the Democrats to cancel. I switched on the recorder, a decision I almost immediately regretted. The spiel they gave me was so polished that I was unsurprised, a quick Google search later, to find five articles about them already published.

There was still little to do but drink coffee, so a square mile of cleared city was full of reporters running around, wired and jumpy, wondering what we were missing. We were desperate for something, anything to kick off, not because we liked the idea of civil unrest but – hey, it had to be better than cluttering up the hotel lobby.

Speaking of hotel lobbies, one thing bears repeating: most of the reporters in Cleveland weren’t as fancy as we were making out. For every well-known news anchor and overpaid op-ed writer, there were dozens of production crew, staff bloggers and freelance reporters living from pay cheque to pay cheque. On Monday afternoon in the aptly named Public Square, I met up with five reporters whom I had known since we all got our start together covering Occupy Wall Street in 2011. They had driven down from New York and found a floor to crash on in the hope of making enough money covering the convention to pay for the trip. Back in 2011, it seemed that new media had the power to reframe democracy. Five years later, that turned out to be entirely true – but not in the way we expected.

We gathered to reminisce about that time, about the protests, the excitement, the arrests, the brief, gorgeous sense that a different world was possible. We’d also heard that Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine would perform an impromptu concert in the square for the protesters, so we sat at a café table, waiting for that to begin. Rage had been all over Occupy like a rash and could be relied on to drum up some modest mayhem.

In the opposite corner, a few dozen young people were gathered around a speaker stage. We spent an hour checking social ­media with one eye, while catching up on what had happened in each other’s lives – who had got married, who had broken up, who’d been made redundant, who had got custody of the dog. We met covering Occupy Wall Street; now we are, apparently, the liberal media establishment. It took us an hour to realise that the people crowded around the small stage were not the warm-up for the protest. They were the protest. By that time, it was over.

***

I turned up to the Washington Post’s convention-viewing party with a gaggle of other young hacks, all of our well-honed powers of observation focused on predicting when the snack table would be restocked and how long we could stay before somebody noticed that we were freeloading freelancers who came here to pinch the wifi. The Washington Post, underwritten by Amazon money, took over a bar near the convention centre and offered on-site massages and craft beers. There were also speaking events throughout the day. Nick Pinto of the Village Voice was not the only one to notice that those who had sponsored the shindig, including representatives of Big Oil, got to put their point of view across unchallenged at these events. So much for liberal bias.

On the big screens behind the free bar, the convention speeches were playing, but almost nobody was watching. Nobody was watching as Willie Robertson, one of the stars of the Duck Dynasty TV show, took to the stage to curse out the “mainstream media”, which lived in a different world from “regular folks like us, who like to hunt and fish and pray and actually work for a living”. “It’s been a rough year for media experts,” he said. “It must be humbling to be so wrong about so much for so long.”

At the Republican convention, I saw 15,000 reporters trying to find a new, original angle on the only story that mattered – that a dark mood of nationalist populism had taken hold in the world’s only superpower and whatever the outcome of this election, there will be suffering. There will be pain, distributed among millions. I saw the flags in the arena, the pomp and excess, the hundreds of fists raised. Country-rock music played throughout. It was like a nightmare marriage of Nuremberg in 1933 and the Eurovision Song Contest, and I knew that this story was not new.

***

Journalists have a way of acting as if we were not political animals with political appetites, as if we were spectators. There may have been a time, in a previous generation, when this was true, when commentators and editors got to play politics like it was a game. But times are changing and so is the industry, and we’ve got skin in this game. Nobody who expects to be personally unaffected by a Donald Trump presidency would, for instance, steal an entire jar of BuzzFeed-branded pens (including the jar), which is what I saw a young freelancer doing at the Washington Post party. By the end of the first week, we were all ready for a little bit of hope. But that wasn’t the story the Democrats were selling, given their reluctance to lie with such lucrative momentum as their rivals.

Philadelphia in late July was hotter than the underbelly of the sun and the air was soupy with moisture. This is not a place where Europeans should ever have settled, for a number of good reasons of which the weather is not the least. The heat sent everyone a bit loopy, as if we were walking through treacle in a dream. And, like in a dream, the narrative kept slipping out of focus. From the start, the messaging was all about the grand story of America, a nation that does not need to be made “great again” because it is already great, a nation that survives by hallucinating its own legend – but the gathered press could not help but share the sense of having been cheated. The awkward truth that Trump and his followers have tapped into is that there are millions of people for whom America is not, and never has been, all that great.

A few days before the speeches started, the crypto-justice trolls WikiLeaks dropped an enormous cache of emails from the Democratic National Committee’s server that had probably been hacked by Russian agents. These appeared to show, to the surprise of nobody, that the Democratic Party had been manoeuvring against Bernie Sanders from the start.

The convention opened with accusations of corruption and the announcement that Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic chair, was resigning. That afternoon, hundreds of Sanders supporters braved the heat to stand outside City Hall to make their feelings known. The one thing I heard from everyone I interviewed – and the one point of agreement between the Bernie supporters and Trump’s people – was that the mainstream media were not to be trusted.

The overwhelming impression of being a reporter at the DNC was of being held hostage – literally, as well as figuratively. Everyone was too tired to move and certainly too tired to flirt. Where the Republican convention was a slosh of sexual energy, of directionless desire, the Democrats’ was all about desire deferred. I deleted Tinder from my phone to make more space for interviews.

The convention centre was miles out of town and getting in involved a system of passes and checkpoints so complicated that you would have been loath to go outside the media zone, even if it weren’t more than 30°C in the shade. The press was stashed in a system of speciously air-conditioned marquees outside the convention hall, with three stinking porta-potties to service thousands of reporters and no water available. Jerry Springer was there, and I had no idea why. Is he a Democrat? Or does he simply materialise wherever reality television meets Freudian psychodrama, wherever people try to pretend that working-class people screaming at each other is entertainment?

It was, more than anything, a physical slog. The tone was set by the way in which the perimeter had been given over to Uber, so that it was hard to get close without taking the on-demand car service. Entry to the security zone was through an oasis-like Uber tent, where you could pick up free water in exchange for your lingering discomfort with Silicon Valley economics. It’s like being in a rewrite of Children of Men for the gig economy. A new adventure in bleak.

Many of the reporters in attendance had just come from Cleveland and were already worn out from a week of frantic deadline-wrangling and late-night networking – not optional in an industry in which job security is based largely on personal connections. Here, the reporters were taken for granted and so was our good coverage. The understanding was that we would encourage our readers, implicitly or explicitly, to support the nominee because we had no other option. By the end of the second day, it wasn’t clear if we would even be allowed to leave without at least a tweet declaring ourselves #WithHer.

On day two, after the roll-call of states was read out and Clinton was officially nominated, some Sanders delegates – who had hoped for something more than the status quo with a feminist varnish – staged a walkout. The first I saw of this was movement in the media tent, that unmistakable herd motion of reporters who realise potential copy is happening near them, like chickens moving as one at the rattle of the seed trough.

Finally, something off-message was happening. After days of manoeuvring to ensure that no left-wing protesters got near the press, they came right to us. T-shirted delegates from Alabama, Ohio and Tennessee stood in the press tent with hand-drawn signs and sticky tape half hanging off their mouths. They had taped their mouths shut to symbolise their silencing by the Democratic committee but were having to untape themselves every few minutes to give interviews and, after the third or fourth time of doing this, the tape started to lose its stickiness. Those trapped outside chanted: “The whole world is watching!” For once, at least for those with a broadband connection, this was true.

They played us like Slick Willie plays the saxophone. It was masterful. We heat-exhausted copy-monkeys, strung out on hours of refreshing TweetDeck, found ourselves standing on tables, holding our phones aloft like protective amulets, trying to capture whatever it was that was happening, because something, for the first time in days, was definitely happening. Something unplanned. Something off-script.

The decision to occupy the media tent was borderline genius. It was one of the best-played protest moves I had ever seen, placing the dissenters instantly in front of the world’s cameras. Like the convention, it was staged not for those who were present but for readers and viewers elsewhere. The internet was the invisible current in the room. The rest of America and the rest of the world were not here, but we were haunted by them – by the sense that real life was going on just outside the room.

Yet, like in a horror movie from the scrag-end of the 1990s, it turned out that we were the ghosts all along. It turned out that we, the delegates, the lobbyists, the spectators and the precarious, anxious press corps, were the ones haunting the real world through the internet, trying to make sense of a story that had run far ahead of us, trying to form the narratives of which material life is made. We sneer at reality TV without understanding that we are active producers in the greatest reality show of all: US politics.

It was enough. I didn’t care enough about what Hillary Clinton had to say to drag myself through the sweltering nightmare of the convention centre for another minute, so my colleague and I fought our way to a cab and watched it on TV, at home. It turned out that Clinton had little to add to the story that America has been trying to tell about itself for decades, apart from a fantastic array of pantsuits and a series of promises that she will be under no obligation to keep.

With the world facing the alternative of Donald Trump, it is now on us – those who create and sustain the narratives of identity and change in the US and beyond – to make that sell, in order to avert disaster. We may not be the establishment but we find ourselves in a position of having to advocate for it, and to do so convincingly to those for whom the prospect of a woman president is not sufficient to inspire faith in a better future. That’s what the media are good for right now, in this fever dream of an election – and it might not be enough.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser