Claimant Bashing at the Beeb
The BBC Trust has just published a landmark judgement about treating benefit claimants fairly in BBC programmes. For anyone who has been worried about the BBC’s anti-claimant bias, it’s a hopeful moment.
Back in October 2011, the BBC broadcast The Future of the Welfare State with John Humphrys, a programme where the presenter travelled the country, building up a picture of “a growing sense of entitlement among some groups claiming benefits”. Once, he argued, people in working class communities in places like Cardiff where he grew up, would have been ashamed to rely on benefits, now they saw it as a lifestyle choice. Iain Duncan Smith described it as an “excellent programme“; Humphrys himself parlayed it into a Daily Mail article, where he was even clearer about his attack on benefits and the people who claim them:
In the words of an old lady who lived opposite my house when I was born and who lives there still: “If they can get money without working, they will.” Times have changed, she told me sadly, and the ‘pride in working’ has gone.
The Child Poverty Action Group complained to the BBC Trust Editorial Standards Committee about the programme in November 2011 and the Trust finally published its ruling this morning. The Committee found that the programme didn’t break BBC guidelines on impartiality directly, but it did break guidelines on accuracy, which also had an effect on whether or not the programme was impartial.
(Full disclosure: the Committee referred to some TUC reports when considering this issue.) There were two aspects of the complaint about accuracy. One was that the programme did not give figures that would allow viewers to judge whether the benefits being cut by the government were responsible for the rising benefits bill. The other (more serious in my view) was that the programme gave the impression that there were plenty of jobs unemployed people could do if only they were willing.
The Committee’s decision is very significant:
The Committee concluded that viewers would be likely to form the conclusion that the benefits being targeted by the Government were largely responsible for the view held by some that “the welfare state is in crisis”. The Committee also concluded that viewers would be likely to form the impression, despite the anecdotal testimonies of job seekers heard in the programme, that there was a healthy supply of jobs overall. As both issues are central to the viewers’ understanding of the key issues discussed in the programme, and because this was a controversial issue which was also a major matter within the meaning of the Editorial Guidelines, the Committee concluded that the failure of accuracy had also led to a breach of impartiality on this occasion.
The decision on impartiality is a judgement call, and I have to say I disagree with the Committee’s judgement. On one side of the argument (the government’s) they interviewed several authority figures; on the other side they mainly relied on the comments of claimants themselves. They were, in effect, ‘in the dock’ in this programme and the Committee does suggest that the programme would not have been impartial if there had been no authority figures on their side, but there were interviews with a number of New York critics of Anerican welfare reforms and the Committee judged that this was enough for balance.
This is a really important ruling, and it vindicates the Child Poverty Action Group’s decision to complain and then appeal. It shows that, even at a time when not much is going our way, there’s still room for victories every day.
Update (1/8/13): Iain Duncan Smith really didn’t like the decision or the coverage of it! The Daily Mail is re-running John Humphrys’ article – Sue Marsh has the best comment on this, she’s already said everything that needs to be said, so I won’t add anything other than to encourage you to read her post.