Scroungers, fraudsters and parasites: how media coverage affects our view of benefit claimants

The public discourse of welfare in the UK seems to be caught in a vicious circle, where the media, politicians and public feed into each other.

In 1942 Beveridge set out a plan for a system of social security which would be free of the stigma associated with earlier forms of public assistance.

Seventy years later, it would be hard to argue that benefit stigma has disappeared. On the contrary, outlandish slurs against benefit claimants as a group have become an accepted part of the political language, and the default setting for public attitudes is widely seen as one of suspicion and resentment. As one disabled claimant described it:  

There’s that awful feeling that people are watching you… even just your neighbours, because there is just this feeling of just, sort of unpleasantness.

An unemployed claimant sums up the dominant public view of people on benefits:

Parasites, skivers, work-shy, lazy, stupid, feckless…                                                                                          

Those quotations come from focus groups we conducted alongside a specially commissioned poll and analysis of media coverage for our report "Benefits stigma in Britain", commissioned by the charity Elizabeth Finn Care. Our aim was to provide a map of stigma as it exists today and to understand the factors behind it.

One of the key findings from the survey is that British people do not generally believe that claiming benefits is something that people should be ashamed of – only a small minority agree strongly when asked, "would you yourself be ashamed to claim benefits?" (About 10 per cent). It is not benefit receipt itself which attracts stigma, but beliefs about how "deserving" claimants are – how great their need is, how responsible they are for their situation, whether they have worked in the past or will work in the future.

But how do members of the public, including benefit claimants themselves, arrive at opinions about how deserving claimants are in general? It is sometimes assumed that views are a transparent expression of personal experience – as when politicians uncritically retail grievances against claimants they have heard on the doorstep. Alternatively, negative attitudes are sometimes written off as an expression of pure prejudice or ideology. Both of these approaches ignore the role that second-hand information is likely to play when people make judgements about how deserving claimants are.

To see how important secondary sources of information such as the media can be, consider this finding from our survey. We asked claimants of sickness and disability benefits how visible their conditions were in a range of social contexts – being seen in the street, meeting someone properly, knowing someone quite well and so on. Only 21 per cent of claimants said that their condition would be obvious to someone in the street.  

This indicates just how thin the information available to assess deservingness can be, which will tend to make information from other sources more important. So what sort of information about claimants do people receive from the media? Using a database of 6,600 national press articles between 1995-2011, we quantified the use of language about such aspects as "fraud" or "need", and the appearance of specific themes such as "never worked/hasn't worked for very long time", "better off on benefits" and so on. 

Perhaps the most striking finding was an extraordinarily disproportionate focus on benefit fraud: some 29 per cent of news stories across all titles referenced fraud over the period. Bear in mind that DWP’s estimate of fraud across all benefits is 0.7 per cent. We also looked at the sort of stories which referenced fraud: not surprisingly a large share were tabloid stories based on individual cases, but perhaps more surprisingly, a large majority originated in the Westminster policy process – stories based on statements by ministers and MP's, select committee reports, statements from think-tanks and pressure groups and so on. If the UK media seems to have a strange obsession with benefit fraud, this reflects the obsessions of the political class.

It seems that the disproportionate focus on fraud in the press affects the public’s perceptions of deservingness, because people supplement the limited information from direct experience with information derived from the media. In our survey we asked respondents to estimate how many claims were outright fraudulent. This showed the British public believes that one in four out of work claimants is committing fraud – and this seems highly consistent with the level of media coverage of benefits. There is also a striking relationship between the amount of news coverage of fraud in particular titles and the estimated fraud levels among readers of those titles, illustrated in the chart below.

Sources: Mori survey for Elizabeth Finn Care report; 20 per cent sample of articles in media database for Elizabeth Finn Care report. Click for big

This brings us back to our starting point: it is perceived deservingness which drives benefit stigma, and public discourse around social security in the UK seems almost to be designed to make claimants seem undeserving. This is not just about fraud, but also about other sources of "undeservingness". In fact, over recent years fraud has become less dominant in critical coverage of benefits, yielding to a language of "non-reciprocity" or "scrounging" (terms such as "handout", "feckless", "something for nothing"). We find similar trends in the content of articles: in more recent years (post-2003) the press has devoted somewhat less space to fraud and a lot more to people who (it is held) shouldn’t be claiming for reasons other than fraud. We also see significant increases in the use of such well-worn stigmatising themes as large families, anti-social behaviour and claimants who have never worked.

Source: Consistent set of UK national titles (Times, Guardian, Independent, Mail, Mirror) from media database for Elizabeth Finn Care report.

We believe the report offers strong evidence that the public discourse about welfare has an impact on the public’s beliefs about benefit claimants – including the beliefs of claimants themselves, who in our focus groups were keen to distance themselves from "scroungers". And in the case of benefit fraud, the evidence suggests that it is the politics of welfare which drives disproportionate press coverage.

A particularly worrying aspect is that there now seems to be a feedback loop between politics, media coverage and public attitudes: over the last three years politicians of all parties have sought to calibrate their statements to reflect what they say members of the public have told them (call it the "Gillian Duffy effect").

In other words, the public discourse of welfare in the UK seems to be caught in a vicious circle. That was an eventuality Beveridge never anticipated when he set out his plan for a stigma-free social security system.  

Only 21% of disability benefit claimants describe their condition as visible. Photograph: Getty Images

Ben Baumberg is a Lecturer at the University of Kent and co-editor of the collaborative blog Inequalities, Kate Bell works mainly at Child Poverty Action Group, and Declan Gaffney is a policy consultant specialising in social security, labour markets and equality. Together they published "Benefits stigma in Britain".

Photo: Getty
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Michael Carrick is the “Geordie Pirlo” that England misunderstood

The Manchester United legend’s retirement announcement should leave Three Lions fans wondering what if?

That it came in the months leading up to a World Cup arguably added an exclamation point to the announcement of Michael Carrick’s impending retirement. The Manchester United midfielder, who is expected to take up a coaching role with the club afterwards, will hang up his boots at the end of the season. And United boss Jose Mourinho’s keenness to keep Carrick at Old Trafford in some capacity only serves to emphasise how highly he rates the 36-year-old.

But Carrick’s curtain call in May will be caveated by one striking anomaly on an otherwise imperious CV: his international career. Although at club level Carrick has excelled – winning every top tier honour a player based in England possibly can – he looks set to retire with just 34 caps for his country, and just one of those was earned at a major tournament.

This, in part, is down to the quality of competition he has faced. Indeed, much of the conversation around England’s midfield in the early to mid-noughties centred on finding a system that could accommodate both box-to-box dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As time went on, however, focus shifted towards trequartistas, advanced playmakers and those with more mobile, harrying playing styles. And the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli were brought into the frame more frequently than Carrick, whose deep-lying capabilities were not utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65 per cent of Carrick’s England caps have come in friendlies shows how undervalued he was. 

In fairness, Carrick does not embody similar characteristics to many of his England midfield contemporaries, including a laudable lack of ego. He is not blessed with lung-busting pace, nor is he enough of a ball-winner to shield a back four solo. Yet his passing and distribution satisfy world-class criteria, with a range only matched, as far as England internationals go, by his former United team-mate Paul Scholes, who was also misused when playing for his country.

Rather, the player Carrick resembles most isn’t English at all; it’s Andrea Pirlo, minus the free-kicks. When comparisons between the mild-mannered Geordie and Italian football’s coolest customer first emerged, they were dismissed in some quarters as hyperbole. Yet watching Carrick confirm his retirement plans this week, perfectly bearded and reflecting on a trophy-laden 12-year spell at one of world football’s grandest institutions, the parallels have become harder to deny.

Michael Carrick at a press event ahead of Manchester United's Champions League game this week. Photo: Getty.

Where other players would have been shown the door much sooner, both Pirlo and Carrick’s efficient style of play – built on patience, possession and precision – gifted them twilights as impressive as many others’ peaks. That at 36, Carrick is still playing for a team in the top two of the top division in English football, rather than in lower-league or moneyed foreign obscurity, speaks volumes. At the same age, Pirlo started for Juventus in the Champions League final of 2015.

It is ill health, not a decline in ability, which is finally bringing Carrick’s career to a close. After saying he “felt strange” during the second-half of United’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion earlier this season, he had a cardiac ablation procedure to treat an irregular heart rhythm. He has since been limited to just three more appearances this term, of which United won two. 

And just how key to United’s success Carrick has been since his £18m signing from Tottenham in 2006 cannot be overstated. He was United’s sole signing that summer, yielding only modest excitement, and there were some Red Devils fans displeased with then manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to assign Carrick the number 16 jersey previously worn by departed captain Roy Keane. Less than a year later, though, United won their first league title in four years. The following season, United won the league and Champions League double, with Carrick playing 49 times across all competitions.

Failing to regularly deploy Carrick in his favoured role – one that is nominally defensive in its position at the base of midfield, but also creative in providing through-balls to the players ahead – must be considered one of the most criminal oversights of successive England managers’ tenures. Unfortunately, Carrick’s heart condition means that current boss Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to make amends this summer.

By pressing space, rather than players, Carrick compensates for his lack of speed by marking passing channels and intercepting. He is forever watching the game around him and his unwillingness to commit passes prematurely and lose possession is as valuable an asset as when he does spot an opening.

Ultimately, while Carrick can have few regrets about his illustrious career, England fans and management alike can have plenty. Via West Ham, Spurs and United, the Wallsend-born émigré has earned his billing as one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, but he’d never let on.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.