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Good idea: Poverty bites

Snappy titles, unfortunately, are not the Joseph Rowntree Foundation's strong point. It's hardly the most important thing about their reports, but it's still a bit of a shame. One recent publication on British poverty is a case in point. It looks at the media's approach to inequality, among other issues, and it's actually an interesting read. But its anti-soundbite of a title, Engaging Public Support for Eradicating UK Poverty, doesn't do it any favours. Then again, the media's unhelpful obsession with soundbites is part of the point.

JRF's argument is a simple one. Levels of poverty in the UK are no longer decreasing and the government is still nowhere near meeting targets such as halving child poverty by 2010. To prevent poverty from falling off the government's priority list completely, the public needs to care about it, too.

But perceptions of the problem are skewed, and the report argues that the media play a big part in that. It's not just that there isn't much coverage, although that is a problem - a review of 40 hours of TV turned up just two direct references - but the kind of reporting matters, too.

Discussing UK poverty is seen as "worthy but not newsworthy"; in its review of the few reports that do get published, JRF avoids the word "boring", but "tired" and "clichéd" both make an appearance. There are also reality TV shows that turn poverty into a "spectator sport" - but nothing in between.

The result is that most people in the UK think of themselves as having "middle income", whether they're earning relatively little or sitting comfortably in the six-figure income bracket. Many believe that those who live in poverty have only themselves to blame; and most of us are angrier about the injustice of bankers' bonuses than unfairness at the other end of the economic scale.

Changing public opinion requires better media coverage, says JRF, calling for in-depth reporting and soap-opera storylines, rather than dry reports and sensationalism. Encouraging people living in poverty to get involved, either as case studies for stories or through home-grown blogs and radio stations, is recommended, too.

It would be hard to deny that British poverty deserves more thoughtful coverage. At the NS, we try to offer some on these pages, and will continue to do so in coming weeks. But how big an effect would a shift in perception really have? There are some pretty strong indications - the response to those who opposed the Iraq war is an obvious example - that public opinion doesn't have much of an effect on how the government acts. But in the run-up to the election, Labour has 12 years' worth of promises on poverty to live up to, and the Tories have asked to be judged "on how we treat the
most vulnerable". It would be churlish not to take them up on the challenge.

This article first appeared in the 12 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Barack W Bush