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When is a scandal not a scandal? Perhaps when politicians and the media simply think it’s not important, because it affects only a powerless minority.
In the last week or so, delays in obtaining passports have been headline news, with developments in the unfolding ‘crisis’ eagerly followed by press and television journalists alike. News editors seemed to find the prospect of people missing expensive holidays due to government inefficiency absolutely unacceptable. The pressure on the government was such that ‘emergency measures’ were announced to tackle a backlog of applications, said to be affecting around 30,000 people.
Contrast this with the backlog of disability benefit claims affecting over 700,000 people, many of whom are seriously or even terminally ill. Some are left in desperate need and forced to resort to foodbanks to survive, some will no doubt die before their claims are processed. But where is the outrage? Where is the pressure that forces the government to take ‘emergency measures’? It is simply not there.
To get a snapshot of these skewed priorities, try Googling the terms ‘UK passports backlog’ and ‘UK disability benefits backlog’, and compare the results. The passport issue produces a proliferation of reports from the national media. The disability benefits issue produces, even on the first page of results, a mix of national media stories, blogs, and reports from charities and patients associations. Quite clearly, for the mainstream media, missed holidays are more important than disabled people going hungry, or terminally ill people spending their last days dependent on foodbanks.
How have we reached this shameful situation? In the case of the BBC, there is evidence that political impartiality has been compromised since 2010, when the Coalition took office. Mark Thompson, then Director General of the BBC, met the Prime Minister’s head of strategy Steve Hilton, to discuss how government cuts would be presented, and Helen Boaden, Head of BBC News, met Andy Coulson, then the Prime Minister’s communications director, allegedly to reassure him that coverage would not be too negative.
For the rest of the media, perhaps they just made the understandable mistake of believing the Prime Minister. After he had,cut the budget for Disability Living Allowance (DLA) by 20 per cent, and as chaos mounted in the assessment system, he said in the House of Commons,
(video) "This government is not cutting the money that’s going into disability benefits. As someone who’s actually filled out the form for DLA and had a child with cerebral palsy I know how long it takes to fill in that form. We’re going to have a proper medical test so people who are disabled who need that help get it more quickly."
Mr. Cameron has his own private fortune and his wife is rich too. The Disability Living Allowance he applied for and received for his late son Ivan must have been a drop in the ocean of their considerable finances. For many now applying and being refused, or waiting many months for the equivalent benefit, Personal Independence Payment, it is an essential lifeline, which can make the difference between eating or going hungry. And yet the media allows the government to preside unchallenged over what is truly a fiasco for sick and disabled people, whilst getting hot under the collar over passports.
The UK is a rich country: we can afford nuclear weapons, bank bailouts, and high speed trains. When will we start demanding the basic requirements of human dignity for our sick and disabled neighbours?
© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden