Over the bank holiday weekend of 28-30 May a number of British papers covered stories on the “Ten worst excuses put forward by benefit cheats”. This was simple and yet carefully crafted populist journalism.
Crafted not only because it played to all the stereotypes of the poor, (feckless, swindling, on-the-make) but also because it had “watercooler currency”. The ten worst excuses were being swapped on radio phone-ins, comment columns and no doubt workplaces over the following days. For a short time public discussion about the welfare system and cuts was dominated by “yes, but have you heard the about the man who claimed that he was only carrying the ladders for therapy?” Or “the man who said someone stole his ID”? Or “ it must have been my twin who was working while collecting benefit?”
The “ridiculous excuses” story featured prominently in the Mail and Telegraph and other outlets including the BBC.
All handy for a government taking some heat for the most savage cuts in welfare for 30 years. Convenient for a Department whose last brush with the media was a really effective demonstration by disability activists exposing the impact of new eligibility tests.
So which intrepid journalist dug their way into the dull world of benefit claim records and sifted out from millions of papers these pearls of chicanery? No, it is in fact the Government who carried out a “survey” as part of a crackdown on benefit and tax credit fraud. The Mirror quotes a “fraud chief”, Welfare Reform Minister, Lord Freud. The unelected Freud told the paper that “Our investigators are routinely dealing with bare-faced cheek and ridiculous excuses for stealing money from the tax payer.”
The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee pondered more on the story’s origin and motives. It turns out that it first saw light of day through a DWP press release. Toynbee is, she say, on the circulation list for all DWP press releases. And yet she wasn’t sent this one. When she contacted the DWP to enquire why she had been left off the list, it became clear that she was not the only one.
The story was released to only a small number of media organisations described by the Department as “key contacts”. According to the duty press officer who spoke to Toynbee “it was a soft consumer story, a PR story we sold proactively, so we didn’t sell it any wider”. In other words it was given to those papers who the government could trust to use it as they intended, no difficult questions asked.
The demonisation of the unemployed, poor and benefit claimants is a persistent and central part of what the right-wing press do and it extends far beyond the tabloids. The method too is as old as the hills. Take a microscopically small number of examples of apparent cheating, report them as if they are widespread and goad working, tax-paying citizens into hatred and contempt those less fortunate than them. The claim that benefit fraud is a major problem for public finances is nonsense. And it is nonsense consciously designed to take our eyes off the real scams and fraud that “steal money from the taxpayer” in the words of the warmly cosseted Lord Freud.
The cost to the taxpayer of alleged benefit and tax credit fraud is, according to the DWP press release, £1.6 billion. Of this £1.1 billion is benefit fraud. That is 0.7% of the total benefits bill or £59 for each of the 18.5 million claimants. On the other hand, MPs were asked to repay £1.2 million in wrongly claimed expenses. That is £1,858 for each MP.
Two of the worst culprits in the MPs expenses scandal now occupy cosy seats in the Department of Work and Pensions. Chris Grayling claimed thousands to renovate his flat in London even though his family home was only 17 miles away. Steve Webb claimed £8,400 for stamp duty after selling his flat and buying another 100 yards down the street.
Grayling recently claimed, wrongly, that 75% of people claiming incapacity benefits were fit for work. Another minister claimed, also wrongly, that more people received the higher rate of disability living allowance for alcohol and drug problems than for blindness. All reported as fact by the Government’s friends in the media.
All of these people are involved, day in and day out, in a propaganda war on the poor. For the most part the media are their allies in this war. “Ten worst excuses” shows up the scope of their “coalition of the willing”. It’s the job of the socialist press to expose the lies of these class warriors and to turn the spotlight instead on other fraud — £15 billion in tax fraud, the £70 billion in estimated tax avoidance and the £3.6 billion lost to fraud in the finance industry all of which you will struggle to find out about anywhere in the right wing press.
Anyone who has lived on benefits knows they are extremely hard to claim. The truth is millions are left unclaimed and claimants are scrutinised and stigmatised to ensure that it stays that way. An equally damning indictment of the rotten system we live under is that millions of people are dependent on benefits or credits not because they don’t have work but because they are paid such a pittance by employers that they couldn’t live without them.
It’s a point of socialist honour that we never allow the same bosses’ ideas factories to turn us against the most vulnerable and poor in our class with their lies, distortions and distractions.