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Welcome to the Shammies, the media awards that recognise truly unsung talent

The BBC takes the top prize.

There are awards for everyone. There are the Logies, the Commies, the Tonys, the Theas, the Millies (“They cried with pride”) and now the Shammies. The Shammies celebrate the finest sham media. “Competition for the Gold Shammy,” said the panel of judges, “has been cut-throat.” The Shammies are not for the tabloid lower orders. Rupert Murdoch has been honoured enough. Shammies distinguish journalism that guards the limits of what the best and brightest like to call “the national conversation”.

The Shammy judges were especially impressed by a spirited campaign to rehabilitate Tony Blair. The winner will receive the coveted Jeremy Paxman Hoodwink Prize, given in honour of the BBC broadcaster who says he was “hoodwinked” over Iraq – regardless of the multiple opportunities he had to challenge Blair directly and expose the truth and carnage of the illegal invasion.

Shortlisted for the Hoodwink is Michael White, the Guardian’s former political editor, whose lament for Blair’s “wasted talent” is distinguished by his defence of Blair as the victim of a “very unholy . . . alliance betwee a familiar chorus of America-bashers and the Blair bait[ers]” (I am included).

On 19 December, another contender, White’s colleague Jane Martinson, was granted a “rare” interview with Cherie Blair in her “stately private office” with its “gorgeous views over Hyde Park” and “imposing mahogany furniture”.

In such splendour does Mrs Blair (she prefers her married name for its “profile”) run her “foundation for women” in Africa, India and the Middle East. Her political collusion in her husband’s career and support for adventures that destroyed the lives of countless women were not mentioned. A PR triumph and odds-on for a Shammy.

Also nominated – the brains behind the Guardian’s ecstatic front page of 8 November: “The best is yet to come”, dominated by a half-page picture of the happy-huggy-droney Obama family. And who can fail to appreciate the assurance from the BBC’s Mark Mardell that, in personally selecting people to murder with his drones, “the care taken by the president is significant”?

Matt Frei, now of Channel 4 News, drew commendation for his reporting of Obama as a “warrior president” and Hugo Chávez as a “chubby-faced strongman”. A study by the University of the West of England found that, of 304 BBC reports on Venezuela published in a decade, only three mentioned the Chávez government’s extraordinary record in promoting human rights and reducing poverty.

In the Gold Shammy category, the judges were struck by the outstanding work of the Guardian’s Decca Aitkenhead. “Everywhere we went, before my eyes people fell in love with him . . . no one seemed to be immune.” This was her memorable encounter with Peter Mandelson in 2009. She described his “effortless allure . . . the intensity of his theatre is electrifying to behold . . . His skin is dewy, as if fresh from a spa facial, and his grooming so flawless he looks almost hyper-real, the cufflinks and tie delicately co-ordinated, with their detail inversely echoed in his socks . . . His whole body seems weirdly untroubled by the passage of time . . .”

Aitkenhead had previously “profiled” Alistair Darling, the chancellor who presided over the worst financial collapse in memory. Greeted “like old friends” by Darling and his “gregarious” wife, Maggie, “who cooks and makes tea and supper while Darling lights a fire”, Aitkenhead effused over “a highly effective minister [who] seems almost too straightforward, even high-minded, for the low cunning of political warfare”.

The judges were asked to compare and contrast such moments of journalistic ecstasy with the same writer’s profile of Julian Assange on 7 December. Assange answered her questions methodically, providing her with a lot of information about the state’s abuse of technology and mass surveillance. “There’s no debate that Assange knows more about this subject than almost anyone alive,” she wrote. No matter. Rather than someone who had exposed more state criminality than any journalist, he was described as “someone convalescing after a breakdown”, a mentally ill figure she likened to “Miss Havisham”. Unlike the alluring, electrifying, twice disgraced Mandelson and the high-minded, disastrous chancellor, Assange had a “messianic grandiosity”. No evidence was offered. The Gold Shammy was within her grasp.

Then, on Christmas Eve, BBC News Magazine published an article marking the 40th anniversary of the Christmas bombing of Hanoi. The bombing, wrote Rebecca Kesby, “was President Richard Nixon’s attempt to hasten the end of the Vietnam war, as the growing strength of the Viet Cong caused heavy casualties among US ground troops”.

In fact, Nixon had promised “an honourable end to the war in Vietnam” four years earlier. His 1972 Christmas bombing of Hanoi in the north was as concerned with peace as Hitler’s bombing of Poland: a cynical, vengeful act of barbarism that changed nothing in the stalled Paris talks. Kesby cites Henry Kissinger’s absurd claim that the North Vietnamese were “on their knees”. Far from hastening “the end of the Vietnam war”, America’s savagery ensured the war went on for another two and a half years, during which more Vietnamese were killed than in the previous decade.

Kesby claimed that previous US targets had been “fuel depots and munitions stores”. On my wall is a photograph I took of a hamlet in the north obliterated by F-105 and Phantom fighters flying at 200 feet in order to pick off “soft targets” – human beings. In the town of Hongai, I stood in the debris of churches, hospitals, schools. A new type of “dart bomb” was used; the darts were made from a plastic that did not show in X-rays, and the victims, mostly children, suffered until they died.

Today our memory of all this is sanitised. America and its allies, using even more diabolical weapons, continue to “hasten the end of war”. Such has been the BBC’s unerring theme since Vietnam. The Gold Shammy is richly deserved.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The A-Z of Israel

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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.