BBC's State of Welfare fails to challenge myths

By Bernadette Meaden
November 27, 2012

Radio Four’s three hour special ‘The State of Welfare’ was very disappointing. I hoped that the BBC would redeem its journalistic reputation by basing the programme on solid research, rigorous interviewing techniques, and a range of voices and experience. It would have been the ideal opportunity to establish a factual basis for debate.

Sadly, it wasn’t to be. Very few of the myths surrounding welfare were challenged, and it seemed that yet again the debate was being framed by prosperous people who resent paying tax to assist those less fortunate.

One commentator given a prominent slot on the programme was James Bartholomew, a former City banker who believes the Welfare State has damaged society. His own website boasts that ‘In 2010 he gave a talk on Radio 4 in which he advocated the abolition of the NHS.’

When benefit fraud was being discussed, Mr Bartholomew was even allowed to quote research conducted among single mothers in the US as a better guide to the level of fraud in the British system than the DWP’s own figures. (A heavy American influence is often a feature of those who passionately oppose the Welfare Sate) The official figures show the level of fraud is very low, but those who wish to perpetuate the myth that the country is being bled dry by an army of scroungers refuse to accept this fact, and are still allowed to assert otherwise, barely challenged, on the BBC.

This is doubly disappointing because all that’s required is not expensive investigative journalism but internet access and an inquiring mind. The facts and figures are there for anybody who wishes to take a look. These official figures on public, spending show that as a percentage of GDP, welfare has not grown unreasonably or unsustainably. But even Labour politicians are now falling into line with the groupthink and failing to challenge the distortions, even when it would serve as a valid defence of their own record in government.

Where the BBC fails to do its job, citizen journalists are now attempting to hold them to account. This Tweet details a complaint to the BBC, which takes apart an interview Andrew Neil conducted with Shadow Work and Pensions Minister Liam Byrne. Again, the myth of out of control welfare spending was perpetuated, (about five minutes into the programme) with a supine Mr Byrne mounting a worse than feeble defence. In his complaint, @IamalrightJack does the job Mr Byrne should have done.

Meanwhile, on Radio 4 the usual stereotypes of benefit claimants were being aired. A new favourite complaint of those who think benefits finance a luxury lifestyle is that claimants manage to pay for internet access or mobile phones. Given that at the government’s insistence, Universal Credit will be online only, shouldn’t we stop seeing internet access as a luxury? By its own actions the government has made it an essential prerequisite of social inclusion.

For the facts about Welfare which the BBC failed to provide, here is an excellent, factual, debunking of the myths.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about religious, political and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is a regular contributor to Ekklesia.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.