Daniel Blake and the lasting damage of misinformation about disabled people

By Bernadette Meaden
October 31, 2016

Last week I blogged twice about Toby Young’s review of I, Daniel Blake, in which he claimed that the vast majority of people receiving sickness and disability benefits should never have been receiving them, as they were in reality fit to work. I and others pointed out that he had made numerous errors, and seemed to have based the article on his misreading of a very dubious DWP press release and the TV programme Benefits Street.

Jonathan Portes, formerly Chief Economist at the Department for Work and Pensions contacted the Daily Mail and was able to secure several corrections and amendments to the original article online, plus the following printed correction.

This correction completely undermines the central plank of Mr Young’s highly misleading and damaging argument, that almost everybody claiming Incapacity Benefit had been fit to work. It’s good that his outrageous misrepresentation of reality has been corrected. But what effect will it have? Will the public who read the original piece now change their views accordingly? I very much doubt it. The fact is that when it comes to the public view of sick and disabled people, the government and their media supporters have in recent years done damage that could take many years to reverse.

In 2013 Conservative Party Chairman Grant Shapps made very similar claims to those Mr Young made last week. They were, of course, equally untrue and were corrected in due course. But meanwhile, his false and inflammatory comments gained front page headlines and were well and truly embedded into the public consciousness. The idea that hordes of ‘fake’ disabled people had been bleeding the taxpayer dry for years became ‘common knowledge’. That is why disabled people, when they talk about benefit cuts and the cruelty of the Work Capability and PIP assessment systems often get the response, "Oh, we know you’re genuine, but…" Thus a cruel and punitive system is accepted by the public because misleading stories have led them to firmly believe a lie.

Politicians, press and broadcasters have all contributed to the idea that many people claiming sickness and disability benefits are not genuine or honest.. Whether through sheer ignorance, or to justify cuts, sell newspapers or boost TV ratings, they have created a false picture which is going to be very difficult to change. For disabled people who already lead challenging lives and are more likely to be living in poverty, it has added another layer of pressure and difficulty.

Meanwhile, Grant Shapps remains an MP  and last week Toby Young was appointed  Director of the government-backed charity the New Schools Network. Mr Young says he plans to continue his journalism.

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© 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

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