Universal Credit, advertorials, and the BBC

By Bernadette Meaden
May 30, 2019

In 2011, the BBC made a documentary The Future State of Welfare, presented by John Humphrys. It was broadcast whilst the Welfare Reform Act 2012, which introduced Universal Credit and many other welfare reforms, was still on its passage through Parliament. 

In addition to the documentary, Humphrys wrote a long article for the Daily Mail. Headlined ‘How our welfare system has created an age of entitlement’, the Mail summarised it as “Our Shameless society: John Humphrys argues that the Beveridge Report has - unintentionally - created a climate of welfare dependency.” 

Illustrated with the almost obligatory picture of the large, chaotic family from the TV series Shameless, it was perfect grist to the mill of politicians who wanted to cut benefits. Humphrys wrote about Splott in Cardiff, where he grew up. In his youth, almost everyone was working and the one man on their street who seemed happy to live on the dole was “treated with contempt”. Now, he says, a quarter of the working age population is on benefits, and the implication is that there are many people “for whom idleness is a lifestyle choice”.

The article also repeated the claim that a million sick and disabled people claiming out of work benefits were “able to work or stopped their claim before their medical assessment had been completed.” with the implication that they should not have been claiming these benefits. To be fair, Humphrys was quoting Prime Minister David Cameron’s conference speech, so perhaps it’s understandable that he thought it was true. When Grant Shapps later repeated this claim, the UK Statistics Authority ruled that it was completely untrue, but this ‘fact’ passed into the public consciousness and was often cited by commentators who supported welfare reform. It must surely have done much to reduce opposition to disability benefit cuts. 

The Future State of Welfare was subsequently found to have breached the BBC’s own guidelines on accuracy and impartiality.  Alison Garnham of Child Poverty Action Group, said: "We welcome the BBC Trust's recognition in its ruling that the programme broke rules on accuracy and impartiality in ways that fundamentally misled viewers."

"This programme, like too many media stories, failed the public by swallowing wholesale the evidence-free myth of a 'dependency culture' in which unemployment and rising benefit spending is the fault of the unemployed.

"The reality needs to be reported that only three per cent of welfare expenditure goes on Jobseekers Allowance, and that aside from the direct effects of the recession, social security expenditure on working age benefits has not increased as a proportion of GDP in recent years."

Now, eight years later, we learn that the BBC has commissioned a three part series on Universal Credit. Of course one hopes that this time things will be different, that the BBC will give us a ‘warts and all’ picture of the new system, reflecting criticism from bodies ranging from the National Audit Office to the United Nations, and the harrowing plight of many claimants. But the signs so far do not give cause for hope.

The series is already being relished by the DWP as a contribution to their new media strategy for Universal Credit. As a leaked DWP memo says, “This is a fantastic opportunity for us – we’ve been involved in the process from the outset, and we continue working closely with the BBC to ensure a balanced and insightful piece of television.” That sounds disturbingly cosy.

Up and down the UK, as Universal Credit rolls out, countless organisations have been testifying to its problems and the damage it causes. For the people employed to promote and defend Universal Credit, the prospect of a truly independent and impartial documentary should cause some anxiety, at the very least. Surely the DWP should not be so confident?

Of course, programme makers will be able to find some people for whom claiming Universal Credit has been a positive experience. But that is not really the point. The whole point of a social security system is that it should be at its most effective when supporting the most vulnerable and disadvantaged claimants – if the documentary accurately shows their experience of Universal Credit, then one suspects it will not be the PR coup the DWP anticipates.

Another part of this new Universal Credit media strategy is a series of advertorials in the Metro newspaper, masquerading as an impartial investigation – Universal Credit Uncovered. These paid-for advertorials have been described by anti-poverty charity Z2K as “dangerously deceptive” and the charity is so concerned it has submitted a formal complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority, which you can read here.

It remains to be seen whether the BBC’s Universal Credit series will be accurate and impartial. Head of BBC Current Affairs Joanna Carr says: “In this series, BBC Current Affairs will inform and deepen the national conversation around a substantial policy debate affecting millions.” But therein lies the problem. The policy debate, now almost a decade old, has frequently been based on lies and spin. Universal Credit, the bedroom tax, PIP etc. are now a miserable reality of life for millions. At the time before the legislation was passed, when the policy debate could have been properly informed, and Universal Credit subjected to proper scrutiny, the BBC appeared to be ‘rolling the pitch’ for these welfare reforms.

And how has John Humphrys’ home town fared under welfare reform? Well, Cardiff now has seven Trussell Trust foodbank centres. The one in Splott, where Humphrys grew up, opened in 2014, and Wales Online reported “The new centre in Splott will be the first Trussell Trust Foodbank in Wales to offer evening opening hours specifically aimed at those in full-time employment or education." Mayor Derrick Morgan said: “In a climate of worsening poverty and rising homelessness, foodbanks and their network of support services are becoming ever more necessary. The opening of a fifth centre in Cardiff, whilst a sad indictment of increasing levels of poverty, will enable people in the south-east of the city to access vital support.”

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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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