The 2008 collapse of the ‘sub-prime’ mortgage market and the subsequent crisis for the banking and financial sector had world-wide impact. Governments were forced to prop up failing banks with huge financial investments - from the public purse. As the crisis deepened, state finances became a concern for governments around the world. The response of the then UK Labour government was to propose a period of ‘austerity’ in order to tackle the national deficit. Following a General Election in 2010, a Coalition Government was formed by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Parties. This Coalition laid out its austerity plans and its proposal to deal with the deficit through cuts to public services (specifically the reform of Welfare support) in a White paper (Department for Work and Pensions, 2010). In his forward to the paper, then Secretary of State, Iain Duncan Smith made plain his beliefs about benefits claimants, accusing previous governments of ignoring the issue of welfare reform and watching as “…welfare dependency took root in communities up and down the country, breeding hopelessness and intergenerational poverty” (DWP, 2010: p.1).
The consequences of the Welfare reforms implemented by the Coalition government (and continued by subsequent Conservative governments) have had a devastating impact on disabled people in the UK. This was highlighted by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in a 2016 report; concluding that “Consequently, the Committee considers that there is reliable evidence that the threshold of grave or systematic violations of the rights of persons with disabilities has been crossed…” (United Nations, 2016: para.113).
How did it come to this, in a wealthy, democratic nation? How and why did the most vulnerable in society become the scapegoats of the economic crash? And what role did the News and Entertainment media play in the persecution of disabled people?
In their seminal work, Manufacturing Consent, Herman and Chomsky (1988) laid out what they called a propaganda model of the operation of the media in a democratic society. Their central argument was “…that, among their other functions, the media serve, and propagandize [sic] on behalf of, the powerful societal interests that control and finance them” (Herman & Chomsky, 1988: p.xi). According to this model media entities in democratic societies do not serve the public’s interest, but the interests of a ‘Power Elite’ - those individuals and groups within a society who control wealth, politics, and corporations: In this model, what is deemed newsworthy by the media is what is considered newsworthy by the Power Elite. Furthermore, this model does not just apply to typical, journalistic news media, but to entertainment also since “… entertainment has the merit of not only being better suited to sell goods; it is an effective vehicle for hidden ideological messages” (Herman & Chomsky, 1988, p. Xvii).
In a democratic society the Power Elite cannot exact control on the populace through force (as they would in a dictatorship) and thus they use the media to ‘manufacture consent’ within the populace for their policies. This is achieved through the application of filters to the information that is presented through the media. These filters act to limit the narratives and discourses presented to the populace through News and Entertainment media. In the original model Herman and Chomsky (1988) describe five filters: Ownership, Advertising, Sourcing, Flak, and Anti-Communism.
Ownership acts as a filter on the information presented by the media because owning a media company is expensive. Even in the early days of Newspapers, starting a paper was costly and so limited only to those with substantial wealth. These owners have a vested interest in the status quo; they all need the support of financial institutions in order to run their businesses, and they all need to keep the government ‘on side’ in order to ensure a ‘friendly’ tax and regulations environment. So the owners of the media companies act as a filter to the information presented by their assets - management will not approve the creation of programming that would threaten the interests of the owners, and individuals working within these companies will not risk their jobs and livelihoods by going against the owners’ interests.
Advertising acts as a filter in a similar fashion to ownership: media companies rely on advertising to generate revenue. Media companies therefore need to target an audience that will appeal to advertisers: an affluent audience. Furthermore, advertisers tend to be politically conservative and pro-business and advertisers for large corporations will not support media content that is critical of corporate activities. This filter demonstrates that media is not democratic in the information it presents since “… its political analogue is a voting system weighted by income” (Herman & Chomsky, 1988: p.16).
The third filter, Sourcing, refers to the weight and access given to certain types of source for media content. The media rely on the Power Elite as sources of information and therefore stories which fit with the interests of the Elite are more prominent and common. This filter operates in several ways: firstly government and corporate organisations already have credibility in the mind of the public due to their social status and prestige; secondly government and corporate bodies regularly produce ‘press releases’ which provide a steady source of information in a condensed and usable format for the media; thirdly, these organisations do everything they can to make things easy for the media: they schedule press conferences at times that fit with the news cycle, they provide advance copies of reports and in some cases they provide spaces in which the media can gather. Thus these government and corporate organisations become the preferred sources of the media and so individual journalists are discouraged from reporting anything which might threaten their relationships with these sources. As Herman and Chomsky put it “[i]t is very difficult to call authorities on whom one depends for daily news liars, even if they tell whoppers” (1988: p.22)
Flak, the fourth filter, is used by Herman and Chomsky (1988) to describe the backlash that media companies may face if and when they produce content that challenges the Power Elite; the ability to produce flak that is effective is linked to power, because only then can it have costly and threatening consequences. The media avoid content that covers topics which may produce flak from the elite, because it may result in lost ad revenue, lost access to sources, etc. This does not mean that dissenting viewpoints are never presented, rather that they will be presented less often and less favourably (Herman & Chomsky, 1988).
The fifth, and final filter proposed by Herman and Chomsky (1988) is anti-communism, which was relevant to the global context of the Cold War period, but is perhaps less relevant today. However, one could argue that although anti-communism is not necessarily a filter for modern media, there is a neoliberal bias which acts to filter content in the same way (Harkins & Lugo-Ocando, 2016). This is self-evident considering media companies are massive, profit-driven corporations who benefit from neoliberal ideology.
Through these five filters sources and stories are split into ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’; with ‘unworthy’ being those which threaten relationships with government and corporate sources (Herman & Chomsky, 1988).
Even in the modern internet climate, online news and entertainment companies have huge start-up and maintenance costs. They still rely on advertising revenue and, government and corporate sources. These same sources are still given automatic credibility by their status and prestige. And whilst Flak could also be used to describe the backlash on social media that media producers may face, the crucial aspect for Flak to have an effect is that it needs to threaten the interests of the media company, either directly through a reduction in audience numbers or indirectly through actions against advertisers who use that company. Herman and Chomsky’s (1988) propaganda model is therefore still very relevant for analysing the actions of contemporary media.
Furthermore, even public broadcasters (such as the BBC in the UK) are not exempt from these filters. Yes, one could argue that they are not subject to the pressure of seeking ad revenue; but they still rely on government and corporate sources, which means they are still subject to flak; and in the case of the BBC their entire funding relies on government support (through the legal requirement to have a ‘Television license’). Additionally, the BBC’s definition of democracy means that it always favours the current government’s policies and “TV debate is limited to the views of the three main parities in Britain… But since all of these have become wedded to a free market philosophy, the discussion of alternatives to this approach becomes very sparse” (Happer & Philo, 2013, p. 325). Berry (2016) found that Conservative and Labour politicians dominated as sources in the BBC’s coverage of the UK deficit in the first seven months of 2009. These sources accounted for 49.5% of news text, “[i]n this way, such sources both structure the parameters of debate and set the agenda for the initial angles that are taken in stories” (Berry, 2016, p. 850).
Given the argument laid out above, what does this propaganda model mean in the context of the media’s manufacture of consent? How can the media influence the beliefs and attitudes of the populace? One answer to this question is through the ‘availability heuristic’: a cognitive short-cut in human thinking which produces biases in people’s perceptions of the likelihood or actual frequencies of events (Tversky & Kahneman, 1973). What this means is that, the easier it is for one to recall something (i.e. to remember of examples of that thing), the more prevalent one believes it to be. Ease of recall is affected by emotional salience and repeated exposure. As Tversky and Kahneman put it “[t]hat associative bonds are strengthened by repetition is perhaps the oldest law of memory known to man. The availability heuristic exploits the inverse form of this law, that is, it uses strength of association as a basis for the judgement of frequency” (1973, p. 208). Therefore, the repetition of narratives in the media, and their use of emotive stories and language would produce the effect of ease of recall. What is presented in the media, over and over is easy to remember; and so due to the availability heuristic impacts the public’s perception of the prevalence of the content of those narratives. An example of the availability heuristic in action is given by Happer & Philo when they discuss the comments made by a participant who had worked with people with mental health issues: the participant described the people she had worked with as being non-violent and friendly, however she still felt scared about working with them “…but it is the way things come across on TV, and films – you know, mental axe murderers and plays and things – the people I met weren’t like that, but that is what I associate them with…” (2013: p 328).
The Coalition government was not the first UK government to propose reforms of the Welfare system, both of the major UK parties have sought reductions in welfare spending; however their attempts to implement policies failed, as they were seen as too politically dangerous (Briant et al, 2013; Garthwaite, 2011; Roulstone, 2015). Baillie (2011) analysed media coverage of benefit claimants in the 12 months before the 2010 General Election (following which the Coalition government was formed) and found a distinct change in the way that benefit claimants were portrayed. In an examination of nine national newspapers (covering tabloids and broadsheets, and right and left leaning papers) he found that the language used to describe claimants became more derogatory, and the media began to generalise from individual stories of benefit over-payments to imply that the majority of Incapacity Benefit claims were fraudulent. This can be seen clearly in this article from the Daily Mail (Walker, 2009):
In support of Baillie’s (2011) conclusions the findings from Briant et al (2013) show a marked difference in how the media reported on disability and sickness benefits, and those who claim them between similar periods in 2004/5 and 2010/11, periods were the respective Labour and Coalition governments were attempting to make changes to disability benefit entitlements. Briant et al (2013) found some important differences in reporting in the two periods: in the 2004/5 articles the focus of the articles was on the Government’s failings in dealing with benefit fraud, whilst in the 2010/11 the blame was placed on disabled people who were increasingly portrayed as ‘workshy’ ‘cheats’ and ‘scrougners’ claiming ‘handouts’. Furthermore, the sheer number of articles where disability was mentioned increased by 43% in 2010/11 compared to 2004/5. There was also a notable decline in the number of sympathetic portrayals of disabled people in 2010/11; even in the left-leaning Guardian the proportion went from 14.8% sympathetic in 2004/5 to just 5.6% in 2010/11 (Briant et al, 2013). There was also an almost three-fold increase in the number of articles in which benefit fraud was a central theme from 2004/5 to 2010/11. However, as Briant et al stated this inflated coverage, “… and the strength and prominence of fraud as a tabloid theme conflicts with the recorded or estimated levels of fraud” (2013: p. 881). In truth the National Audit Office figures showed that only 1% of benefit spending was lost to fraud (2010, in Baillie, 2011).
So what was the difference between these two periods such that the media supported Government welfare reforms in 2010/11 but had not done so in 2004/5? In the simplest terms, the economic crash of 2008 provided the government with a justification for economic reforms. Although the crash was the result of irresponsible banking practises and lax oversight (Harkins & Lugo-Ocando, 2016), any responses to it which targeted these groups would threaten the Power Elite. Solutions which focused on tighter banking restrictions, taxation of the highest earners or richest members of society would generate effective flak for any media company that covered them. In this climate, the media was quick to accept the neoliberal ideological solutions proposed by the government. At the time the Government were arguing that the deficit should be reduced through cuts to public spending, because higher public spending or threats of future higher taxation would discourage private investment (Berry, 2016). However, this position was not universally accepted by economists, there was a strong argument for continued operation of the deficit in order to speed up recovery. Alternatively, the deficit could have been reduced through a clampdown on tax evasion and avoidance: with an estimated £121 billion in revenue lost this way (figures from PSCU, 2010:9, in Berry, 2016).
The acceptance of the neoliberal solutions to the economic crisis was evident in the BBC’s coverage of the UK’s National Deficit in the first seven months of 2009 (Berry, 2016). Conservative and Labour politicians dominated as sources, accounting for 45.9% of news text, with representatives of the Institute of Fiscal Studies and other economic institutions being the next most common. All of these sources supported the neoliberal policy of deficit reduction through decreased public spending (Berry, 2016). This resulted in the economy being “…primarily evaluated through the views of pro-austerity European politicians, City Analysts, the Bank of England and the financial markets” (Berry, 2016: p. 855). Furthermore, “systemic accounts for the rise in the deficit do not appear, and even the fact that the deficit was caused by a global financial crash has almost vanished from coverage by 2009” (Berry, 2016: p.851). Alternatives to public spending cuts were not presented in BBC reporting and journalists did not question Government ministers about alternatives; “[t]here were no reports which said the deficit was so large that there was a necessity to take action against tax evasion/avoidance, or that taxes would need to be raised on the wealthy or businesses…” (p.858). This absence of the presentation of other options was despite the level of support that they may have had: in a Glasgow University Media Group study a proposal of a one-off tax on the wealthiest 10% of the population (which would have generated £800 billion) was supported by 74% of the UK population (Happer & Philo, 2013). This proposal was rarely covered in the press, even though it would have paid off the National debt and reduced the deficit without the need for public spending cuts. When it was presented by the media, the proposal was characterised as being extreme and nonsensical (Happer & Philo, 2013). This repetition of the Government’s narrative about the need to cut public spending legitimised their proposals. The BBC claims ‘impartiality’ in its reporting and is considered by many in the UK to provide reliable accounts; so their acceptance of the narrative matters in influencing public attitudes. Furthermore, this provided the groundwork of the manufacture of consent for disability benefit reforms by validating the need for cuts to public spending.
The Coalition Government clearly set out their ideological position in their welfare reform White Paper: the arguments made by the government for the proposed reforms were that the “…welfare bill has become unsustainably expensive…”, that the best route out of poverty is through work, that benefits are too good and so disincentivise work, that the existing system was prone to fraud, and that a new system of conditionality for claimants should be introduced (DWP, 2010: p. 1). These ideas draw directly from the neoliberal discourse of worklessness and dependecy (Wiggan, 2012). The rise of neoliberal ideology in the 1970s created an intellectual space whereby supporters of liberalisation could “…champion behavioural explanations of poverty and unemployment…” allowing politicians to shift the focus of reforms from structural changes to employment and welfare to a focus on individuals’ behaviour and attitudes (Wiggan, 2012: p. 384). This neoliberal discourse is made explicit in the White Paper (DWP, 2010) which argues that “Britain is racked by worklessness…”, “…a culture of [welfare] dependency exists…” and so welfare reforms are necessary (Wiggan, 2012). Furthermore, Wiggan concludes that in the welfare reform papers “… the terms that dominate - worklessness and dependency - construct the persistence of poverty and unemployment as originating in the poor choices and behaviours of individuals” (2012: p.400). This discourse then allows the government to characterise benefits claimants as making ‘a lifestyle choice’ (Patrick, 2014), since it is a perfectly rational economic decision to keep the stability of benefits rather than the risks of finding paid work (Wiggan,2012). The White Paper (DWP, 2010) introduced the idea of ‘conditionality’ for benefits recipients, with the argument that this would encourage them into paid employment. Patrick (2011) argued that welfare conditionality would be ineffective in increasing employment of disabled people; since it is based on the faulty assumption that characterises benefits claimants as passive, problematic and welfare dependent (Piggott & Grover, 2009, in Patrick, 2011). This narrative also neglects analysis of the structural obstacles to employment that disabled people face; relying on the faulty and unsubstantiated assumption that employment in a ‘knowledge market’ would be more accommodating of disabled people (Grover & Pigott, 2010).
The narrative of conditionality for benefits claimants was supported through a discursive strategy reminiscent of Malthusianism: that poverty is the result of individual failing, not structural conditions and that divides benefits claimants into categories of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor (Harkins & Lugo-Ocando, 2016). In an analysis of reporting including the word ‘underclass’ Harkins & Lugo-Ocando found that poverty was presented “…as an individual issue rather than as the by-product of structural forces” (2016: p. 80). The term ‘underclass’ was used pejoratively, to decribe claimants as ‘work-shy’, ‘lazy’, and ‘refusing to work’. As can be seen in this article from the Mail Online. The article includes an image of a map of Britain (figure 2) which their headline (figure 3) refers to as a ‘Workshy map of Britain’ (Williams, 2013).
In their examination of The Sun’s coverage of disability benefit reforms, McEnhill and Byrne (2014) found a high proportion of articles which focused solely on disability benefit fraud or dishonesty. They went further in arguing that most of these articles generalised from individual cases to suggest that the majority of disability benefit claimants were dishonest. So this coverage activates the availabilty bias through the sheer number of instances that people can recall and through the use of emotional valence of individual stories. This coverage legitimised the Government narrative that fraud was common in the benefit system. In fact, “[d]ata from the British Social Attitude surveys suggests declining support for benefit recipients and an increased perception that fraud is rife (Baumberg, 2012, 149-50)” (in McEnhill & Byrne, 2014).
This narrative is then furthered by the division of disability benefits claimants brought about by the move from Incapacity Benefit to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) (DWP, 2010). ESA claims assessments explicitly categorised claimants in one of three ways: fit to work (in which case claimants are moved onto Job Seekers Allowance); not yet fit to work, but able to do work related activity; and not fit to work. In practice this had the effect of creating groups of claimants who could be deemed as ‘undeserving’ in the media, and reinforced the existing stigma attached to some types of claims (Bambra & Smith, 2010; Grover & Piggott, 2010; Roulstone, 2015; Grover, 2015; Garthwaite, 2011). This is evident in the headlines pictured in figure 4 and the associated articles.
This attitude was not restricted to the Press, entertainment media also sprang up around this time which supported these narratives: “[p]rogrammes entitled Saints and Sinners and Benefits Street are a prime cultural phenomena in the United Kingdom in cementing the binary of good and bad, legitimate and non-legitimate disabled people” (Roulstone, 2015:p. 680). The Channel 4 programme Benefits Street sparked much debate over its treatment of the benefits claimants featured in the show (for example, this BBC News article, and this from Mail Online ); it focused on a single street (James Turner Street) in Birmingham where the majority of residents were on some kind of benefit.
In an examination of the programme Runswick-Cole and Goodley (2015) focused on the way the show presented three of the residents of James Turner Street: Deidre Kelly (refered to as ‘white Dee’ in the programme) and a young couple, Mark and Becky. Dee is introduced as a single-mum raising her children on benefits, through the course of the series it is made clear that she is a mental health service user and has been assessed as entitled to disability benefits. However this does not exclude her from the category of ‘scrounger’ that the narrative of the show presents; her entitlement to disability benefits and her unfitness to work are repeatedly implicitly challenged throughout the series. “Dee’s status as a mental health service user is made visible on Benefits Street because it supports the over-arching narrative; that Dee is a quintessential example of a ‘scrounger’, who uses disability to falsely claim state support” (Runswick-Cole & Goodly, 2015:p. 646). This contrasts with the presentation of Mark and Becky, who are presented as ‘scroungers’ in the show (Runswick-Cole & Goodly, 2015). In fact, in the very first episode the viewer is told that they have lost their benefits as the result of ‘fiddling’ or claiming fraudulently. What is not presented in the show is that both Mark and Becky had learning difficulties and even attended the same school for children with special educational needs. Runswick-Cole & Goodley (2015) argue that this is because their disabilities would put them into the category of ‘deserving’ of state support and so would undermine the narrative of the show. These ‘entertainment’ shows are powerful in the manufacture of consent, as “…entertainment has not only the merit of being better suited to sell goods; it is an effective vehicle for hidden ideological messages” (Herman & Chomsky, 1988: p. Xvii).
Given the evidence above it is clear that the media accepted, repeated and therefore legitimised the Coalition Government’s welfare reforms. There has been a more intense vilification and stigmatisation of benefits claimants through the rhetoric of ‘shirkers’ and ‘scroungers’, and that this has increased stigma for claimants (Patrick, 2013, in Patrick, 2014). However, people do not accept media uncritically; so I will now examine the impact that the media had on attitudes to disability benefits claimants.
Following their analysis of newspaper articles Briant et al (2013) conducted focus groups to assess the impact of the media’s reporting on people’s perceptions of, and beliefs about, benefit fraud and benefit claimants. When asked what they believed the percentage of people fraudulently claiming disability benefits to be, participants gave estimates as high as 70% (with 40% the most common). When they were then asked to justify their belief in the prevalence of benefit fraud “participants cited newspapers as their primary source…” (Briant et al, 2013: p. 882). This study provides clear evidence of the availability bias in action and also how the government narratives around disability benefit fraud and claimants was legitimised in the minds of the populace through the media’s reporting.
In a qualitative longitudinal study examining the lived experiences of welfare reform, Patrick (2014) found that although participants did not agree benefit claiming was a lifestyle choice, they had internalised the rhetoric of ‘deserving/undeserving’. Patrick (2014) interviewed 3 groups of claimants three times between 2011 and 2013: young job-seekers, disabled people and single parents. She found that participants had internalised the rhetoric and stigmatisation that the government and the media had presented. This increased their feelings of shame at being ‘on benefits’ and had an impact on their self-image. Despite this, participants did not reject the messages out-right; they still accepted that benefit fraud was common, that worklessness was a problem and that reform was necessary - they just did not believe it applied to them. The narratives presented about disabled benefits claimants had created an environment where disabled people were arguing amongst themselves about who was ‘deserving’, rather than challenging the narrative of ‘deservingness’. This narrative is incredibly powerful, as Partick put it: “Arguably, its very potency is that no one interprets it as a description of themselves, but it is rather understood as a criticism of others, who are seen as appropriate targets for Govenment ‘reform’” (2014: p. 711). Disability benefits claimants acceptance of this narrative is further evidenced by the focus group findings from Briant et al (2013): although the narrative was less successful with the disabled participants (with many of them expressing anger at disabled people being labelled ‘benefits cheats’); they still accepted the narratives of benefit fraud being easy and common, and that therefore there were some ‘undeserving’ disability benefits claimants.
Following the release of a United Nations report in 2016 the media began to change their reporting; with the left-wing media starting to highlight the damage done by the welfare reforms (for example: Bulman, 2019; and Watts, 2018). The report stated “…[p]ersons with disabilities have been regularly portrayed negatively as being dependent or making a living out of benefits, committing fraud as benefit claimants, being lazy and putting a burden on tax payers… the inquiry collected evidence that persons with disabilities continue to experience increasing hostility, aggressive behaviour and sometimes attacks on their personal integrity” (United Nations, 2016: paragraph 85). Even the more right-wing Newspapers began to pick up on the problems with welfare reform (for example this article in the Mail Online), but only when the reforms began to affect their readers: as in the below clip of a Conservative voter on BBC's Question Time. However, the focus of many of these stories is simply on how awful things are; this is not sufficient to generate change, what is needed is the presentation of alternatives (Beresford, 2016).
There is evidence then, of Flak beginning to be generated by the media against the welfare reforms. However, this has yet to have an impact on government policy and is somewhat undermined by the elections of full Conservative governments in the last two General Elections. Furthermore, since the EU referendum vote, the media has been dominated by Brexit; meaning that the impact of welfare reforms has been sidelined.
In this essay I have argued that Herman and Chomsky’s (1988) Propaganda model is still a relevant description of how modern media operate. I have demonstrated that the UK media manufactured consent for the Coalition Government’s welfare reforms through the acceptance and repetition of narratives of ‘austerity is necessary’, ‘welfare spending is too high and fraud too common’, ‘welfare reform is the only option to reduce the deficit’, and ‘that some groups are derserving/underserving of support’. Previous UK governments’ attempts to reform welfare failed because they did not have the necessary support. The Coalition was only successful because the media assisted them in creating that support. These welfare reforms have had a massively negative impact on disabled people in the UK. And although the media is now attempting to highlight this, they are not doing enough. What is needed now is for the media to present alternatives for how to reduce the UK national debt and deficit. In conclusion, the UK media has been complicit in the suffering of disabled people caused by the Coalition’s welfare reforms.