Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Towards a pedagogy of Justice: The role of academic faculty in resisting neoliberalism in the university and beyond.

The following is an essay from my MA course, given the news today in the UK around "free-speech" in universities I felt it timely to publish this. I've been meaning to publish it for some time, especially following the Insurrection attempt in the US. I often see people online claiming that "education" is what's needed to counter Far-right, neoliberalism; in this essay I hope I show that this claim is not true under our current education systems.

In this essay I argue that academic faculty have a key role to play in the undermining and eventual destruction of Neoliberalism. First, I define what I mean by neoliberalism, and provide some background to how it became the hegemonic global economic theory (Harvey, 2005).  I show that the rise of neoliberalism was not a natural evolution of economic theory but the Power Elite’s (Herman and Chomsky, 1988) backlash to the social justice movements of the 1960s (Harvey, 2005; Giroux, 2017; Chomsky, della Chiesa and Gardner, 2013). I show how the early neoliberalists targeted education and universities as a cornerstone in their plans to ensure their own economic and social power (Sum and Jessop, 2013; Giroux, 2005). I show how neoliberalism operates pedagogically, with education conceptualised under the ‘banking model’ and how the neoliberal call for ‘more educated populace’ is lip-service, meaning they want a populace that has been provided with the ‘right kind of education’ (Freire, 1974; Jessop, 2007; Chomsky, della Chiesa and Gardner, 2013; Sum and Jessop, 2013; Kauppinen, 2014; Swann, 2019). I provide a picture of what marketisation and neoliberal attacks on universities have done to academic staff, and to pedagogical practice in general (Slaughter and Rhoades, 2004; Olssen and Peters, 2007; Sum and Jessop, 2013; Jabbar et al., 2018; Noble and Ross, 2019b; Swann, 2019; Tuckett, 2019). I outline the effects this neoliberalisation of education has had on wider society and democracy (Giroux, 2005, 2017). Finally, I present a picture of another way - of resisting, reclaiming, and reinventing Higher Education in order to work towards a more just society.

 The term ‘Neoliberalism’ has been used extensively in the Social Sciences; a search for the term on the JSTOR database returns just over 22,500 entries. The popularity of the term, and how it is used within Social Sciences is worthy of some attention; Venugopal (2015) argues that, within the Social Sciences, many researchers are using the term without defining what they mean. He argues that ‘Neoliberalism’ refers to an economic theory, but its use within the social sciences has come to be as a “…rhetorical device through which those outside mainstream economics grasp, label and attach moral sensibility to a range of contemporary economic, social, political, spatial and cultural phenomena” (ibid, p182). Furthermore, according to Venugopal (2015), the term is not used at all by Economists, or by those supposed proponents of it, such that it “..serves as a rhetorical tool and moral device for critical social scientists outside of economics to conceive of… a range of economic phenomena… which they cannot otherwise grasp or evaluate” (ibid, p183). Venugopal (2015) bases this argument on what he says are contradictory critiques of ‘neoliberalism’ by Social Scientists as both the ‘pursuit of economic growth’ and ‘the blind pursuit of market solutions’. What Venugopal (2015) fails to understand is that ‘neoliberalism’ is not a term that simply refers to an economic theory, but is a moral, political, and pedagogical ideology. Harvey (2005, p2) defines it thus:


“Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterised by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade”


The contradictions which Venugopal (2015) identifies in the critiques of Social Scientists are in fact part of this same ideology and have been ‘baked in’ to the concept from its inception (Harvey, 2005; Sum and Jessop, 2013).

Neoliberalism developed in the 1970s in response to the economic decline that was taking place - the end of the 1960s saw a rise in unemployment and rising inflation which brought about a phase of global ‘stagflation’ (Harvey, 2005; Sum and Jessop, 2013). The Keynesian economics of the post-war period were now no longer producing the kinds of benefits they once had (Harvey, 2005). These Neoliberal Economists embraced Hayekian economics and argued that the state could never have the same level information on ‘matters of investment and capital accumulation’ as that which is contained in ‘market signals’ (Harvey, 2005). Following ‘experiments’ with neoliberal governance in Mexico, Chile, and New York, the Regan administration in the USA and the Thatcher government in the UK began to embrace neoliberal economic policies (Harvey, 2005).

Neoliberalism became the Hegemonic global economic policy following the ‘purge’ of all Keynesian influences at the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in 1982 (Harvey, 2005). Under neoliberalism, there has been a massive increase in Financialisaton, through a combination of technological advances and reduction or elimination of regulations (Harvey, 2005). The Power Elite had succeeded in creating an economic system which was “…associated with the restoration or reconstruction of [their] power…” (ibid, p19). However, this did not necessarily mean the restoration of power to the same people. Under neoliberalism, the Power Elite becomes the CEOs and top businessmen, technological entrepreneurs and media moguls (for example Rupert Murdoch) (ibid).

     In order to ensure the political power of the Neoliberals, there was a necessity to convince the voting populace to support neoliberal economics and politics: The ‘Power Elite’ had created an economic system which would benefit them, but it would come at the expense of the masses. Early neoliberals were cunning in the manufacture of consent (Herman and Chomsky, 1988) for their new economic order - they appealed to ideals of ‘individual freedom’ and ‘individual rights’. They then framed all state intervention as imposing ‘restrictions’ on these personal freedoms. Furthermore, they argued that the best way to guarantee these freedoms is through freedom of the market and free trade (Harvey, 2005). Austerity was framed as the only solution to the economic crisis, and through stories in the press of ‘welfare queens driving Cadillac’s consent for dismantling of the welfare system was obtained (Harvey, 2005). This was repeated following the economic crash of 2008, with the Coalition Government in the UK bailing out the banks; whilst simultaneously cutting benefits for the disabled. The media colluded with this, through the publication of hundreds of stories of ‘benefits cheats’ and through the creation of television programmes such as ‘Benefits Street’ which were edited in such a way as to preserve the narrative of the ‘undeserving’, feckless, and lazy poor (for more on this see my previous pose: https://thepsychologysuper-computer.blogspot.com/2019/01/the-uk-medias-complicity-in-suffering.html).

     Furthermore, the myth of meritocracy or ‘The American Dream’ is used by neoliberals to entice the masses into ignoring the structural disadvantages that neoliberal policy imposes on them (Giroux, 2014). The focus on individual rights, also means individual responsibility and so people who are poor simply are not working hard enough: Poverty is seen as a consequence of moral weakness, laziness, or stupidity (ibid). Work is seen as the answer to poverty, and ‘hard-work’ is seen as signifying virtue within the neoliberal moral sphere (ibid). This can be seen in action in the current Covid-19 crisis in the anti-lockdown protests happening across the United States: These people are protesting because they need to go to work in order to avoid poverty; but rather than question why the economic order requires them to risk their lives in order to survive, they see state protections against the virus as an imposition on their individual freedoms.



The Neoliberals and Education

Although neoliberalism was presented by its proponents as a solution to the economic issues of the late 1970s, this was not the primary motivation of the Power Elite: neoliberalism also represents a backlash against the social justice movements of the late 1960s (Harvey, 2005). Communist and Socialist parties were gaining ground throughout Europe and even in the US there were calls for reforms and state interventions, as Harvey (2005, p15) states “[t]here was, in this, a clear political threat to economic elites and ruling classes everywhere…”. Early neoliberals recognised that universities were a key site in their battle against these political threats to their power. Thus began the ‘neoliberal war on higher education’ - a war designed to undermine education as a public good and with the purpose of creating critical democratic citizens (Giroux, 2014; Giroux, 2005; Freire, 1974); to replace it with education as ‘training’ to meet the demands of the changing labour market (Sum and Jessop, 2013; Giroux, 2014).

 Two documents from the U.S. present the clearest and best evidence for the neoliberal attack on Education (and higher education in particular): The Trilateral Commission’s “Crisis of Democracy” (Crozier, Huntington and Watanuki, 1975) and ‘The Powell Memo’ (Powell, 1971). (NB. whether the aims outlined in these documents have been successful, is debatable; but what I am arguing here is not about their success, rather that these documents provide evidence that Neoliberals understand the importance of Higher Education in democracy). In a 2013 panel discussion (Chomsky, della Chiesa and Gardner, 2013), Noam Chomsky referred to these respectively, as the ‘soft-side’ and ‘harsh-side’ of the backlash against the social justice movements of the 1960s.

The “Crisis of Democracy” (Crozier, Huntington and Watanuki, 1975) presents educational institutions as being ‘the institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young’ and argues that throughout the 1960s and 70s these institutions had been failing to ‘properly indoctrinate’ the young (Chomsky, della Chiesa and Gardner, 2013).

 The Powell (1971) memo goes much further and is excoriating in its critique of university campuses. Originally intended to be a confidential memo written to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; this document outlines in specific detail the issues that the Power Elite have with the current economic and political climate, and how to go about changing this. Powell (1971) argues that the free-enterprise system in the United States was under threat, and that in order to combat it businessmen, and other economic elites need to come together to fight back. He then states that universities are ‘…the single most dynamic source’ of this attack and singles out the Social Sciences as particularly unsympathetic. Powell (1971) recognised the important role that universities play in society; he understood that universities teach the next generation and that this new generation of graduates were taking roles in the business world, politics, and policy. Powell (1971) argues that this next generation are being taught hostility to the ‘free-enterprise system’ and that consequently when they reach positions of power and influence, they will undermine it.

 What is perhaps most disturbing about the Powell memo (1971) is the detailed, step-by-step plan it lays out for the take-over of universities. Powell (1971) details exactly how the business elite should infiltrate universities - through having ‘experts’ who support free-enterprise installed in teaching, research and speaking roles; influence on text books and curriculum; putting pressure on university administrations to ensure ‘balance’ in their academic staff, through hiring more pro-business academics; and so on. Powell (1971) also acknowledged the need for the pro-business message to be presented to the public at large, and so outlined steps to take over both the media and scholarly journals. Powell (1971) states that the Power Elite already have the means to exert these pressures - they have the money which funds research, etc; they own the media outlets; they fund political candidates and campaigns; etc.

Reading the Powell Memo (1971) from today’s perspective it is clear to see how his plan was actioned. It is hard not to think that the Elite were successful in their take-over of the media and are very close to complete control of higher education. But the neoliberal war on education was not just about influencing teaching so that students are pro-business; it was also about a larger pedagogical project to undermine the democratic purpose of education (Giroux, 2014).


The ‘right kind’ of education

     Neoliberalism is predicated upon Schumpeterian notions of ‘creative destruction’ with a focus on innovation and the rise of the ‘Knowledge Based Economy’ (Harvey, 2005; Sum and Jessop, 2013). Early neoliberals recognised the need for a more educated populace in order to compete economically in a changing technological world (Harvey, 2005; Sum and Jessop, 2013).

However, the focus of this education is important to the pedagogical project of neoliberalism; in this pedagogy education has come to mean ‘training’ (Giroux, 2014) (or what Freire (1974) referred to as ‘the banking model’ of education) and ‘knowledge’ has been replaced with ‘information’, in order to successfully commodify higher education (Kauppinen, 2014). Academic faculty have colluded with this commodification of ‘knowledge’ through their acceptance of their institutions using Intellectual Property Rights to marketise knowledge, and through their complicity in using this for their own entrepreneurial ends (Slaughter and Rhoades, 2004). This has been most common in Science, Technology and Medical fields, but also extends into the social sciences through the patenting/copywriting of standardised measures - a practice that is becoming increasingly common in Psychology for example. In neoliberal education all knowledge is ‘know-what’ knowledge, rather than ‘know-how’ and ‘know-who’. The former presents learning as solely about facts being transferred from ‘teacher’ to ‘student’; whereas the latter presents learning as developing skills in critical thinking, citizenship and solidarity (Kauppinen, 2014). As Giroux (2014, p6) states, “Critical learning has been replaced with mastering test-taking, memorizing facts, and learning how not to question knowledge or authority. Pedagogies that unsettle common sense, make power accountable, and connect classroom knowledge to larger civic issues have become dangerous at all levels of schooling”. In the panel discussion mentioned earlier scholar Bruno della Chiesa argues that neoliberals need to ‘raise educational standards, but not too far’, because a truly educated populace would be ‘too dangerous’ for the power elite (Chomsky, della Chiesa and Gardner, 2013).

 Through framing education in this way, neoliberals have realised their project of undermining higher education as a public sphere: they have successful commodified and designated higher education as personal, individual benefits (Giroux, 2014). This pedagogical project has allowed for the increase (and in the UK, the introduction) of student-fees; predicated on the argument that since a degree confers personal benefits (in terms of higher-earnings in the global labour market), then individuals should bear the cost of their own education. This slight-of-hand trick has also allowed neoliberals to increasingly exert influence over what and how academic faculty teach. In this marketised system, ‘value-for-money’ and ‘employability’ become taglines for the creation of new metrics, increasingly used to enforce changes in curriculum that benefit corporate interests. The Research Excellence Framework, the National Student Survey and the Teaching Excellence Framework are examples of these metrics within the UK; these metrics determine funding, student numbers and factor into staff performance evaluations.

This move to metrics and measurable outcomes of higher education provision is also being used to undermine particular subjects within higher education: the social sciences and humanities have come under increasing attack in recent years, with some disciplines on the verge of being completely eradicated (Swann, 2019). These tend to be the subjects and disciplines most linked to creating critical thinking citizens, such as Women’s Studies, Race Studies, Disability Studies, Philosophy, etc (Evans, 2019): subjects which have been dubbed “grievance studies” by the US right-wing (Mounk et al., 2018).

The reliance on ‘metrics’ and enshrining of quantitative measurements also has consequences on the types of knowledge which are considered valid. In the panel discussion della Chiesa refers to the “quantophrenia” of the Social Sciences; the move by the social scientists to rely on quantitative methods ‘in order to look more serious, like the natural sciences’. This obsession with numbers, della Chiesa goes on to argue, then produces research which is always only at a ‘surface’ level; it discourages any further in-depth analysis of what those numbers mean (Chomsky, della Chiesa and Gardner, 2013). This translates into research which can, for example, tell us how many people live below a certain level of poverty, but the idea of asking ‘why?’ those people are poor is considered radical.


The neoliberal university

Neoliberal marketisation of higher education is a global problem, from countries like the United States and Britain, to developing nations like Brazil, marketisation has become the chief organising principle of higher education policy (Tuckett, 2019). This has myriad negative effects on students, not least of which, the effect of encumbering them with huge amounts of debt upon graduation. But the effects on academic faculty are perhaps more prescient in discussions of the neoliberal pedagogical project. Marketisation has undermined the role of academic faculty in numerous ways; through metrics, increasingly impossible workloads, increased competition, pressure to publish, increased casualisation of the academic workforce and the clarion call of ‘student satisfaction’ (Knights and Richards, 2003a; Olssen and Peters, 2007; Wright, Cooper and Luff, 2017). Alongside this is the managerialism (Atkins and Vicars, 2016) and increased bureaucratic/administrative bloat that comes with Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) behaving increasingly like profit making corporations (Slaughter and Rhoades, 2004).

 In a marketised system HEIs are forced to compete for funding, from student fees, from research councils/funding bodies, and from the private sector (Sum and Jessop, 2013). These factors have an impact on what academic faculty teach and research: Constraints on teaching come from the requirement to recruit enough students to a course, with courses that do not recruit enough students being closed. Furthermore, the need to ensure ‘student satisfaction’ and it’s links to academic faculty’s career progression (Knights and Richards, 2003b; van den Brink and Benschop, 2011) mean that academic faculty are more pedagogically cautious in their offerings (Williams, 2011). Academic staff do not present more challenging or potentially ‘uncomfortable’ or controversial topics to the student body through fear of reprisals in their student evaluations. The shift to the ‘student as consumer’ model of higher education has created a model where students feel that since they are paying for their education they have the right to make demands of their academic faculty (Tomlinson 2017).

     The obsession of neoliberal HEIs with student satisfaction is even more problematic than it first appears. There are numerous metrics and systems used by HEIs to assess levels of student satisfaction, from small measures such as ‘module evaluation forms’ through to the NSS (at least in the UK). The problem is, that these measures are designed by people who think they know what students want. For the most part UK HEI leadership and recruitment teams have adopted the mind-set of ‘student as consumer’ and believe that students share this mind-set; this influences policy and practices within individual HEIs but also across the sector. The UK government has embraced a rhetoric of ensuring ‘value-for-money’ from university courses. However, value-for-money is determined by things such as contact/teaching time, degree classifications and graduate employment. The assumption is that all students now perceive their higher education as a cost of ensuring good employment and high earnings; the obtaining of a degree is solely about ensuring access to high earning positions on graduation and the ability for a certain type of consumer lifestyle (Giroux, 2003; Haywood, Jenkins and Molesworth, 2011). Several researchers have recently explored the links between marketisation and student expectations, and their findings indicate that for the most part students do not adopt a consumer mind-set towards their education, they do not see themselves primarily as ‘consumers’ of education and the things that they actually value and expect are the things that are not easily measured in standardised metrics - things like collaborative working, social impact, learning for its own sake (not just to get a job) and so on (see for example, Saunders, 2014; Borghi, Mainardes and Silva, 2016).

     Academic research is constrained in a similar fashion: through limited funding, academic faculty are forced to compete for research grants from funding councils, charities and private corporations. For some subject areas, any kind of research requires funding (Swann, 2019); for example, in pharmaceutical and medical research it is common for corporations to fund research. This requirement to obtain funding means that academic faculty have less control over what they choose to research - these decisions are constrained by the whims and fancy of research funders. In some cases, this even extends to the publication of results, with pharmaceutical companies often not publishing findings of research that show their products to be ineffective (Goldacre, 2012). Even in those subjects where funding is not a requirement to carry out research (such as philosophy), academic faculty are often required to find funding in order to ‘buy out’ time from their teaching (Noble and Ross, 2019a). Competition for research grants is fierce, and academic faculty spend large amounts of time preparing applications, for very little return (since success rates for grant applications are so low). If faculty cannot get funding for their research then they are forced to conduct research in their own time (Noble and Ross, 2019a). A good research profile is essential to academic career progression, and the advent of the REF in the UK, has meant that publishing research is part of academic faculty’s performance monitoring. Furthermore, Noble and Ross (2019) argue that the REF also encourages academic faculty to ‘split’ publications: if the requirement is to publish three papers per year, then there is a motivation to separate a longer, more in-depth paper into smaller papers to meet this target.

     Given that academic career progression is tied to publications (in the right journals), good teaching evaluations, and general student satisfaction (van den Brink and Benschop, 2011)); it is easy to see that all of these factors make for a hostile and stressful working environment for academic faculty. Add to this the fact that the academic workforce is increasingly becoming ‘casualised’ with the rise of short-term teaching only contracts, short-term research contracts, and even outsourcing of temporary academic staff to agencies (for example, UniTemps) (Noble and Ross, 2019a) and you have an academic faculty that “…feel underpaid, pressured, demoralised and demotivated” (Jabbar, Analoui, Kong, et al., 2018, p95). These conditions are creating an ever more competitive environment in academe: faculty compete for students, for grants, for publication in the best journals, for permanent posts (Olssen and Peters, 2005; Wright, Cooper and Luff, 2017), and for prestige (Bagilhole and Goode, 2011). This creates an environment of hyper-individualism, and a system where success is based on ‘survival of the fittest’ (Giroux, 2014). Given this, it would be plausible to argue for the presence of so-called ‘Successful Psychopaths’ (Hare, 1993) within University leadership teams. Hare’s work on so-called ‘Successful Psychopaths’ has demonstrated the existence of vast numbers of Psychopaths at the top of many leading professions - top businessmen, lawyers, doctors, bankers - all meet the criteria used to identify psychopaths (for example see, Hare, 1993). However, in a recent article Forster and Lund (2018) found that there are almost no published papers examining psychopathic traits in university leaders. Foster and Lund (2018) found a plethora of research in the business and corporate worlds, but academe was almost entirely absent. In a Times Higher Education article about their research they stated that this was due to researchers being warned off conducting this type of research, being told it would be ‘career suicide’ (Lund and Forster, 2020).


Consequences of neoliberalism

    Harvey (2005) states that thirty years of neoliberalism have “…not only restored power to a narrowly defined capitalist class. They have also produced immense concentrations of corporate power in energy, the media, pharmaceuticals, transportation, and even retailing” (p38). With neoliberalism the hegemonic global economic discourse for the last 3 decades, we have had sufficient time to assess the impact of its policies on economies, politics and people’s lives.

     Firstly, there have been huge increases in the gap between the richest and poorest 5th of the world’s populations: from a gap of 30-1 in the 1960s, to 74-1 in 1997 (Harvey, 2005). In the UK the share of national income of the top 1% of earners has increased from 6.5% to 13% since 1982 (Harvey, 2005). In the early 2000s the Occupy Wall Street movement brought to the world’s attention that the top 1% hold 44% of the world’s wealth (Global Inequality - Inequality.org, no date). The current Covid-19 crisis is putting this inequality in stark contrast, with recent reports that Jeff Bezos is set to become the world’s first trillionaire by 2026, despite the massive economic impact of the virus (Sonnemaker, 2020).

     Secondly, the neoliberal take-over of the media means that the Power Elite can control the messages that people receive: Manufacturing consent (Herman and Chomsky, 1988) today is easier than it has ever been; with many, many more channels through which neoliberal propaganda can be pushed to the general populace. This take over and manufacture of consent is so complete that people today find it difficult to even consider an alternative to neoliberal policy (Giroux, 2014). The ‘economic imaginaries’ (Sum and Jesssop, 2013) of the modern day have become so limited that anything other than free market capitalism is eschewed as ‘socialism’ or ‘communism’; under the current climate, the Keynesian economics of the post-war period are seen as crazy, left-wing nonsense (Giroux, 2014).

     Thirdly, the combination of the concentration of such a huge proportion of wealth in such a small number of people, along with control of the media has meant that the Power Elite now have a “disproportionate influence over… the political process…” (Harvey, 2005, p38). Henry Giroux in numerous papers, books and speeches has argued that neoliberalism is undermining democracy and that “citizenship has increasingly become a function of consumerism…” (Giroux, 2005, p2). The good neoliberal citizen is one who is indoctrinated with neoliberal ideals of individual rights, individual responsibilities, and the ‘freedom of choice’; one who demonstrates their success through rampant consumerism and a drive for more and more material possessions and wealth. Furthermore, everything the good neoliberal citizen does must in some way be ‘profit generating’, such that even hobbies are monetised and made into income streams (such as the sale of handmade goods on sites like Etsy). As Giroux (2005, p2) puts it: “Under neoliberalism everything either is for sale or is plundered for profit”.

     Fourth, the neoliberal focus on ‘individualism’ is creating a society which is more and more selfish (Giroux, 2014), to the point where the renowned Forensic Psychologist and Psychopathy expert, Robert Hare (when asked at a conference) confirmed that he did believe society is becoming more Psychopathic (Dutton, 2012).

     Finally, neoliberalism has caused a rise in fascism and right-wing Christian extremism (Giroux, 2005; Harvey, 2005). Harvey (2005) argues that early neoliberal proponents used ‘common sense’ (in the Gramscian sense of the phrase) in order to manufacture consent for their economic and political agenda. They did this through “…mobilising racism, xenophobia, sexism and religious extremism…” in order to mask their political intentions. This can be seen recently in the US and the UK. Donald Trump’s election campaign used outright racism, along with racist dog whistles in order to galvanise populist support. Similarly, Nigel Farage’s use of an image of Refugees during the Brexit referendum in the UK, used this same tactic. Giroux in a speech in 2017 argues that the election of Donald Trump as US President is the clearest example of the negative consequences of neoliberal politics:


“Trump is the living symbol and embodiment of a political catastrophe made visible in the plague of a growing culture of unbridled and naked selfishness. The systemic erosion of public goods, the collapse of civic institutions, and a ruinous anti-intellectualism, that supports a contempt for evidence and reason, that has been decades in the making…”.

Neoliberal pedagogy

The war on higher education has had devasting effects within academe, for both staff and students: the constant push for recruitment means that there have been increases in course cohort sizes, but the need to keep costs low means that there have not been concomitant increases in staffing: meaning that ever larger groups of students are being taught by ever small proportions of academic faculty; students are encumbered with massive debts which force them into employment in order to pay back their loans; staff are over-worked, stressed and in trying to survive in a highly competitive environment, they are constrained in what and how they teach and are increasingly being forced into ‘cookie-cutter’ pedagogical models similar to the ‘teach-to-test’ ethos of compulsory education in the UK.

 But this undermining of higher education has consequences for broader society and democracy: for a democracy to function, citizens need to be able to think critically and to hold power to account (Giroux, 2014). Under neoliberalism, education has been reduced to ‘training’ and critical thinking has become something to deride - how else to explain the rise of terms such as ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’? This lack of critical consciousness in the general populace creates an environment where the voting masses are easily manipulated. Manufacturing consent (Herman and Chomsky, 1988) is easier than ever, with a voting populace that does not have the critical thinking skills or the consciousness of their own oppression, to challenge the Power Elite. As Freire (1974) argues, the oppressed internalise the image of the oppressor, and without “Conscientização” (that is education as the raising of critical consciousness) they will act in ways which benefit the oppressor, even if that is against their own interests. This has produced a political climate which is ripe for authoritarianism and fascism to rise.


A pedagogy of justice

The neoliberals and the Power Elite have always known the power of Higher Education and academic faculty in shaping society, it explains their current attack on HE and on intellectualism in general. In order to defeat neoliberalism, current and future academic faculty need to: resist the marketisation of higher education and its consequences within their own institutions; reclaim the university as a public good, and defend what they do to a public that has nothing invested in higher education; and finally, to reinvent higher education, to create truly co-operative learning and learning as “Conscientização”, with the aim of creating citizens for whom the world is ‘never just enough’ (Giroux, 2017).

 Education as being critical to democracy is not a new idea within the British context, the 1919 Report on Adult Education states: “…ADULT EDUCATION IS A PERMANENT NATIONAL NECESSITY, AN INSEPERABLE ASPECT OF CITIZENSHIP, AND THEREFORE SHOULD BE BOTH UNIVERSAL AND LIFELONG” (emphasis in the original, cited in Noble and Ross, 2019, p252). There is a rich history of co-operative movements working with academics, going back to the ‘university extension movement’ and its links to co-operatives such as The Rochdale Pioneers (Woodin, 2019).

 The co-operative model could also be used to reshape research within the neoliberal university; academic faculty can apply co-operative principles to research methodology, to funding, etc (Swann, 2019). There are already academics who are researching and proposing new ways to fund research, and co-operative models in other fields provide good examples of how this can be done: crowdfunding sites such as ‘Experiment’ allow researchers to conceive of new ways to fund their research. Others have suggested a sliding scale membership fee for a research co-operative which would then share funding with members (Swann, 2019). At the more radical end, there are those who are arguing for a ‘universal basic income’ type model for research funding (Vaesen and Katzav, 2017)

     Within the UK, The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 provides an opportunity for the creation of a new, radical HEI (Noble and Ross, 2019b). There is already a Co-operative College, and a movement to create a Co-operative University, with a federated model much like the Mondragon institution in Spain (Benson and Ross, 2019). International examples of co-operative universities already exist and provide lessons on how best to achieve the aims and values of truly co-operative higher education in the UK




As universities are “institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young” (Crozier, Huntington and Watanuki, 1975) they are a key site in the fight against neoliberalism. Academic faculty (and others) who believe in higher education not just as a public good, but as an inalienable right for any democratic citizen, need to be able to defend this position against those with no stake in higher education (Giroux, 2003) . We need to be able to argue that higher education should be publicly funded and available to all. We need to defend education for its own sake, and for raising of critical consciousness. We need to be able to show how this type of education benefits everyone in society and so is worth paying for: not just for the economic competitiveness advantages it confers, but for its ability to constrain authoritarianism, to hold the Power Elite to account, to fight for and pursue social justice, and the end of oppression (Freire, 1974). We need to reclaim higher education as a public good, we need to fight for our students right to tuition free education and we need to aim for a radical pedagogy which raises consciousness and creates critically thinking citizens.

 Academics have the power to shape the next generation of young people, instilling them with values that they then take out into the wider world. So, let us teach them values which bring about a more just society; let us make them critical thinkers able and, more importantly, willing to hold power to account; let us arm them with the knowledge they need to understand their position in the world, to be able to see and name their oppressions and to be able to fight those same oppressions. Let us create a generation for whom ‘society is never just enough’ (Giroux, 2017).


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Sunday, January 27, 2019

The UK media’s complicity in the suffering of disabled people through the Manufacture of Consent for the Coalition Government’s Welfare reforms.

This essay will examine the UK media’s complicity in what the UN called the “grave and systematic violation” of the human rights of disabled people (United Nations, 2016: paragraph. 113) through the manufacture of consent (Herman and Chomksy, 1988) for disability benefits cuts as part of the UK Coalition government’s response following the 2008 economic crash. I will begin by outlining Herman and Chomsky’s (1988) Propaganda Model, with a specific focus on their ‘filters’ and how these affect the narratives and discourse presented through the media; and how this model is still relevant to modern media. I will then turn to the coverage of the then Coalition government’s austerity proposals, the coverage (or lack thereof) of alternatives to austerity, and how the media repeated the government’s ideological justifications for reducing disability benefits. This essay will demonstrate that the UK media (both news and entertainment) presented narratives of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor; inflated the public perception of benefit fraud; and conflated claiming benefits with ‘scrounging’ so that the UK Government’s ideological punishment of ‘undeserving’ people was accepted as the only solution to the economic crash.

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):

Figure 1
The article describes incapacity benefits as ‘handouts’ and claims that payments to people who are ‘not too sick to work’ have ‘cost the taxpayer £12.5billion a year’. Baillie’s analysis showed that this was by no means anomalous for reporting at the time, he found ample examples of the use of language such as ‘scrounger’, ‘cheat’, ‘fraud’ and ‘scam’ in his sample; as he put it “[t]he message is clear: most people claiming sickness-related benefits are defrauding the system” (2011: p. 69).

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).

Figure 2
Figure 3

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.

Figure 4
These articles followed the roll out of the new ESA, and in truth the ‘75%’ figure related to new claims. These figures tell us nothing about claimants who were already on disability benefits, yet the articles generalise to all disability benefits claimants. Garthwaite (2011) found that the language used by the media to describe disability benefits claimants echoed the discourse of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. She argues this division into two categories created an atmosphere were certain types of illness or disability were perceived as less deserving. In their analysis Briant et al (2013) found that the media framed disability benefits claimants as a new ‘Folk Devil’, with a clear narrative of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ based on the type of condition that claims were made for. “The… number [of articles] where mental health conditions were mentioned with ‘undeserving’ themes increased dramatically from 39 in… 2004/05 to 58 in… 2010/11. People with a mental health problem along with people with other ‘invisible’ impairments such as chronic pain became prominent in the emerging new category of folk devils” (Briant et al, 2013: p. 884).

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.

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