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.

Baillie, R. (2011) ‘An examination of the public discourse on benefit claimants in the media’, Journal of Poverty and Social Justice, 19(1), pp. 67–70. doi: 10.1332/175982711X559172.

Bambra, C. and Smith, K. E. (2010) ‘No longer deserving? sickness benefit reform and the politics of (ill) health’, Critical Public Health, 20(1), pp. 71–83. doi: 10.1080/09581590902763265.

Benefits Street series sparks hundreds of complaints (2014) BBC News. Available at: (Accessed: 26 January 2019).

Beresford, P. (2016) ‘Presenting welfare reform: poverty porn, telling sad stories or achieving change?’, Disability and Society, 31(3), pp. 421–425. doi: 10.1080/09687599.2016.1173419.

Berry, M. (2016) ‘No alternative to austerity: how BBC broadcast news reported the deficit debate’, Media, Culture and Society, 38(6), pp. 844–863. doi: 10.1177/0163443715620931.

Briant, E., Watson, N. and Philo, G. (2013) ‘Reporting disability in the age of austerity: the changing face of media representation of disability and disabled people in the United Kingdom and the creation of new “folk devils”’, Disability and Society, 28(6), pp. 874–889. doi: 10.1080/09687599.2013.813837.

Bulman, M. (2019) ‘More than 17,000 sick and disabled peolpe have died while waiting for welfare benefits, figures show’, Independent, 14 January. Available at:

Corcoran, K. (2014) ‘Benefits Street residents claim TV bosses bribed them to take part with beer, cigarettes and McDonalds during 12-hour-a-day filming... but wouldn’t accept cash as it would affect state handouts’, Mail Online, 10 January. Available at:

Department for Work and Penisons (2010) White Paper - Universal Credit: welfare that works. Available at:

Garthwaite, K. (2011) ‘“The language of shirkers and scroungers?” Talking about illness, disability and coalition welfare reform’, Disability and Society, 26(3), pp. 369–372. doi: 10.1080/09687599.2011.560420.

Grover, C. (2015) ‘Employment and Support Allowance, the “summer budget” and less eligible disabled people’, Disability and Society, 30(10), pp. 1573–1576. doi: 10.1080/09687599.2015.1091151.

Grover, C. and Piggott, L. (2010) ‘From incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance: Social sorting, sickness and impairment, and social security’, Policy Studies, 31(2), pp. 265–282. doi: 10.1080/01442870903429678.

Happer, C. and Philo, G. (2013) ‘The Role of the Media in the Construction of Public Belief and Social Change’, Journal of Social and Political Psychology, 1(1), pp. 321–336. doi: 10.5964/jspp.v1i1.96.

Harkins, S. and Lugo-Ocando, J. (2016) ‘How Malthusian ideology crept into the newsroom: British tabloids and the coverage of the “underclass”’, Critical Discourse Studies, 13(1), pp. 78–93. doi: 10.1080/17405904.2015.1074594.

Herman, E. S. and Chomsky, N. (1988) Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon Books.

McEnhill, L. and Byrne, V. (2014) ‘Beat the cheat: Portrayals of disability benefit claimants in print media’, Journal of Poverty and Social Justice, 22(2), pp. 99–110. doi: 10.1332/175982714X13971346086512.

Patrick, R. (2011) ‘The wrong prescription: Disabled people and welfare conditionality’, Policy and politics, 39(2), pp. 275–280. doi: 10.1332/147084411X574572.

Patrick, R. (2014) ‘Working on welfare: Findings from a qualitative longitudinal study into the lived experiences of welfare reform in the UK’, Journal of Social Policy, 43(4), pp. 705–725. doi: 10.1017/S0047279414000294.

Press Association (2018) ‘MPs to investigate benefits sanctions amid warnings of troubling cases’, Mail Online. Available at:

Roulstone, A. (2015) ‘Personal Independence Payments, welfare reform and the shrinking disability category’, Disability and Society. Routledge, 30(5), pp. 673–688. doi: 10.1080/09687599.2015.1021759.

Runswick-Cole, K. and Goodley, D. (2015) ‘DisPovertyPorn: Benefits Street and the dis/ability paradox’, Disability and Society. Routledge, 30(4), pp. 645–649. doi: 10.1080/09687599.2015.1008294.

Tversky, A. and Kahneman, D. (1973) ‘Availability: A Heuristic for Judging Frequency and Probability’, Cognitive Psychology, 5, pp. 207–232. Available at: (Accessed: 19 January 2019).

United Nations (2016) Inquiry concerning the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland carried out by the Committee under article 6 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention. Available at: (Accessed: 23 January 2019).

Walker, K. (2009) ‘Just one in six incapacity benefit claimants “is genuine” as tough new test reveals TWO MILLION could be cheating’, Mail Online, 20 October. Available at:

Watts, J. (2018) ‘No wonder people on benefits live in fear. Supermarkets spy on them now’, The Guardian, 31 May. Available at:

Wiggan, J. (2012) ‘Telling stories of 21st century welfare: The UK Coalition government and the neo-liberal discourse of worklessness and dependency’, Critical Social Policy, 32(3), pp. 383–405. doi: 10.1177/0261018312444413.

Williams, A. (2013) ‘Workshy map of Britain revealed: Thousands of incapacity benefit claimants found to be capable of working’, Mail Online, 4 May. Available at:

Sunday, July 3, 2016

A response to 'Feminists treat men badly. It's bad for feminism'

This post was a response to this article, from June 2016. But I stand by every word!

An article from the Washington Post was shared into my twitter timeline this morning. It made me ANGRY. Because actually this kind of article is really damaging. It undermines the feminist cause, it tells women we need to be 'polite' when we talk about our oppression and demands that we centre men's feelings when fighting our oppression. So, I'm going to break down my objections point by point, answering the accusations made in this article.

FEMINISM IS NOT A FIGHT FOR EQUALITY!!! I get so damned tired of hearing this argument. As a feminist I want women to be liberated from the oppression they face under a White-Supremacist, Cis-Hetero, Capitalist Patriarchy (from here on out referred to as 'patriarchy' to save time). I don't want 'equality' under an unfair system. I'm not fighting for membership of an unfair club for women. I want to burn the club to the ground and a build a new one. Women (and here I mean ALL women) cannot have any kind of 'equality' under the current system, without that 'equality' coming at someone else's expense. We need to smash the system and build a new one. FEMINISM IS THE FIGHT FOR WOMEN'S LIBERATION.

Men's individual actions contribute to a system of oppression for women. As feminists we critique and analyse men's individual behaviours to explain how the system operates. To demonstrate the effect of Patriarchy on women's day to day lives. And, can I just point out that attacking someone's behaviour is far from attacking them as a person. A distinction I've always made as a mother is to chastize my child for his bad behaviour and not call him 'naughty'/'bad'; because behaviour can be changed. We criticise these behaviours in the hopes that men will change them. Because we believe that men can change them.

Again, an analysis of individual behaviour helps us to highlight how the system operates at a very basic level. And, we can totally talk about how men sit on public transport at the same time as fighting for work-place changes. I LITERALLY do this. I work in Equality and Diversity at a university. My day to day job is about addressing gender and race imbalance in Higher Education. And yet, I'm as likely to tweet about men taking up too much space on public transport. Funny, hey? Maybe I'm just some kind of weird freak and other feminists can't do this (sarcasm).

Additionally, if critiquing their behaviours 'sours many men' to the feminist cause, then I'd say they're not really very committed to it anyway.

*screams* *takes deep breath* OK. That's better. Right. So yes, I will acknowledge that Patriarchy is damaging for men. As the mother of a sweet, caring, gender non-conforming son I see first hand the damage Patriarchy does to boys. But, see, despite this I know (and so does my son) that as a white, middle-class male he's always going to have it easier than anyone else. I think, that since men are currently the one's with all the power, if they're unhappy with the system perhaps THEY should do something to change it.

Oh, and attacking Andrea Dworkin as a man-hater, how original! *rolls eyes FOREVER*

HAVE YOU EVEN LOOKED AT 'STRAIGHT WHITE BOYS TEXTING'? It is a blog about men starting 'conversations' with women by demanding sex from the very first contact. It's full of men who get angry and nasty when women refuse these 'advances'. This is not 'jerky attempts at flirting'. This is male entitlement. The idea that they can see a woman they like and immediately ask for sex, and expect her to say 'why, yes, you wonderful man! Where have you been all my life?'

And, yes it has a disclaimer that it's not racist or sexist. BECAUSE IT IS NOT. Racism/sexism require POWER. They are expressions which refer to the prejudicial way in which power in interactions privileges oppressors over the oppressed. White men CANNOT be the victims, since they have all the damned power.

OK, misandry is a word. I'll give you that. And it does exist. But it's completely justified. I mean is it really unreasonable to have a dislike/hatred of people who have been/are raping, killing, torturing people like you for millennia? It's a reasonable response to oppression.

As for words like 'manspreading' and 'mansplaining': well these words help women to describe the effects of Patriarchy on our day to day lives. Let me break it down for you, first with 'manspalining'. I'm a working-class girl, who was always very bright. I read LOTS. I learned everything I could. Got an education and managed some social mobility. But as a working-class girl I have never 'known my place'. I'm gobby, balshy and in your face. I'll happily enter into an intellectual debate (or any other debate) with ANYONE. That's not to say that I think I'm always right, often I enter these discourses to learn more about something. But when I am right, I won't bloody back down. I cannot tell you the number of times in my life men have assumed that I cannot possibly know more than them about a given topic. The number of times I've been dismissed, both because I'm a woman and because I'm working-class (hello, intersectionality). I went through most of my life thinking this was something unique to me. That something in the way I interacted with these men, how I spoke, how I carried myself, something about ME made them make these assumptions. Then I came across the term 'mansplaining' and freaking neon sign lit up. Suddenly I understood that this was not about me. I wasn't to blame for the way these men acted. That this is an experience common to all women, even flipping PROFESSORS!! This word gave me a way to describe and understand just one small part of how Patriarchy affected me personally and women in general. It's an important word.

Secondly, 'manspreading' - again the neon flash when I came across this word. But more importantly it is a way for us to describe an aspect of male entitlement. Manspreading is used to describe the way that men feel entitled to take up much more than their fair share of space in public (often at the expense of women). Yes, it usually refers to the specific example of this happening on public transport; but it describes a much deeper issue, As a girl I used to sit like that all the time, until people started telling me off for it. It was 'unlady-like' for a girl to sit like that (and flashing my knickers was not a concern because I NEVER wore skirts and dresses as a child). I (as all girls are) was taught to shrink myself in public space, To make myself small. To be unobtrusive, unnoticable. Whilst boys and men are taught/allowed to spread out. Again this is a small, insidious way that Patriarchy operates to diminish women and girls.

As for the comment about women and their bags: I used public transport exclusively when my son was a baby. Every time a woman had her bag on the seat it was moved when that seat was needed by someone else. Manspreaders however, will often allow others to stand whilst they sit taking up two, sometimes three seats. There is no equivalence here.

Erm, OK. So advising women that it's better to be single than accept relationships with men who are selfish, perhaps abusive is equivalent to men who complain because women are too 'uppity' now-a-days? It may seem to be equivalent on the surface but if you interrogate the reasons given for advocating avoiding relationships you'll see that men's reasons are often (though, admittedly not always) rooted in misogyny, whilst women's are rooted in self-protection and self-respect.

OMFG!! This is the most blatant misrepresentation of 'friend-zone' critiques I have EVER come across. The 'friend-zone' is exclusively used by men who feel upset that a woman won't enter into a sexual/romantic relationship with them, EVEN THOUGH they have been nice to her. It treats women's friendship as being some kind of punishment. And argues that every man should be entitled to a sexual/romantic relationship with any woman he is nice to. The 'friend-zone' is inherently misogynistic. There are so many good critiques of this on the web, like really, read some. Just google.

Oh, my heart bleeds. Women are finally starting to make inroads to liberation from male domination and we're supposed to feel sorry that men no longer have privilege? Give me a break!

FEMINISM IS NOT ABOUT EQUALITY!!!! FEMINISM IS NOT ABOUT MEN!!!! FEMINISM IS THE FIGHT FOR WOMEN'S LIBERATION FROM MALE DOMINATION!!! Men have all the power, perhaps they should use that power to address some of the issues that face them? Why should feminists do the work of looking after men? I mean, I know we live in a Patriarchy and women are supposed to look after men, to put men first and foremost in everything they do. But this is LITERALLY what feminists are fighting against.

And if men will not support us because we speak the truth about how their behaviour affects us? Well, sod them. If you're a man, and you can listen to me (and other feminists) talking about how Patriarchy affects us, how we are abused and oppressed in this system and your first thought is 'Oh, what you're saying about men hurts my feelings, so I'm not going to support you' then YOU ARE THE PROBLEM!

*screams forever*

Right, I have one thing to say to this: Brock Turner, Bill Cosby, Ched Evens, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen..... the list goes on and on and on.


And, sure feminists are to blame for the rise of Donald Trump, It has nothing to do with racism, xenophobia and sexism. Nope. It's all the feminists fault.








Sunday, April 17, 2016

On (finally) getting a diagnonsis

As most of you know, I've been ill for some time now. Roughly two years in fact. For the first few months I thought I was just over-worked, burned out. But when my physical symptoms didn't improve, even after taking some months for self-care I realised something was actually wrong.

I was tired all the time. No, tired isn't the right word - I was bone weary exhausted. The slightest exertion would put me in bed for days. And no matter how much I slept, it was never enough. My body felt like it had been filled with concrete and I felt like I was moving through treacle rather than air. But possibly the worst for me was the constant brain fog. An inability to concentrate, to think clearly, to rationalise. Sometimes, even putting together a sentence was too much. Gary and Cas have become adept at interpreting my random mumblings and arm wavings.

After roughly 6 months of these symptoms I went to my doctor and discussed a few things. I had friends with ME/CFS and Fibromyalgia, so these were the first things I thought about. The doctor agreed that it could be ME/CFS, but we needed to rule out other things first. So, I had blood tests taken.

When the results came back, the GP asked if I'd had a cold or something when I went to have the blood taken. Nope. Well, my T-Cell Count was elevated, indicating my immune system was doing something. So, we repeated the tests. This time I had some inflammation markers and the GP wanted to rule out Rheumatological disease. So he sent a referral letter to the Rheum department at our local hospital. And I waited. And waited. And waited.

It took about 6 months. During which time my condition got worse. I couldn't walk any kind of distance (even walking around the supermarket to do the shopping was too much). We'd become trapped by my illness, because a day out was out of the question. Finally, after much discussion and hesitation we decided that we'd buy a wheelchair. We figured it would give us back some of our quality of life, we'd be able to have days out again.

I saw another GP around this time, He was quite young, and obviously VERY misinformed about ME/CFS. I had gone in because I was starting to experience a lot of pain, and I wanted to get some stronger painkillers. He was not nice. He treated me as though I was 'drug seeking'. And when I mentioned about the wheelchair he told me that I shouldn't get one because, "that's giving up". What I needed to do was "buy a cross-trainer and do some exercise everyday. Start with 10 minutes, and don't stop when you get tired. And build up. You just need to build up your stamina".

Needless to say, I came out of this appointment got into my car in the car-park and rang Gary sobbing hysterically.

This GPs advice stems from the Graded Exercise Therapy treatment for ME/CFS. But it is a complete bastardisation of this therapy - even the NICE guidelines state that this type of treatment should only be done under the supervision of a trained professional. And that's before you even begin to examine the literature around it's effectiveness - which seems to indicate that it makes many patients MUCH worse.

I didn't listen to this GP. In fact, once I'd calmed down, I was furious. I still am. I wonder what he'd say now, with my new diagnosis?

So, anyway. My rheumatology appointment finally came around in mid-December last year. The Rheumatologist I saw was really thorough and at the end of the appointment he told me that he suspected I have Lupus. The only time I'd heard about Lupus was through it being mentioned on House, so I had no idea what the diagnosis meant. However, it did seem to make sense, because instead of suffering from several different conditions (chronic migraine, skin condition, ME/CFS) all of these things were part of the Lupus. And most importantly, there was a treatment. A pill that I could take that should make me feel better. I left that appointment feeling the first bit of hope I had felt in about 18 months.

I know that may seem strange, that I was happy to be told I probably had a serious medical condition; but I'd had 18 months of trying to get people to believe me when I told them how sick I was. Months dealing with the 'yuppie flu' label thrown at those with ME/CFS. And months of my health just getting worse and worse. Finally, someone was agreeing with me that my body wasn't working right. And more importantly telling me they could fix it.

The Rheumatologist ordered more blood tests, and I had these done between Christmas and New Year.

Over Christmas my health got worse again, Much worse. I was in constant agony. My hands, feet, knees and hips stiffened and HURT. Like lying in bed crying, hurt. Like, take all the painkillers you can, get maybe an hours reprieve (where the pain lessens, becomes bearable, but doesn't completely go) and then back to crippling agony again. When it came time to go back to work after the New Year, I couldn't get out of bed.

You know, I'm still not making clear how sick I have been - I haven't been able to bath or shower myself in over a year. Even when I was feeling 'good' and going to work, I'd come home and collapse. I couldn't move, couldn't make food. So Gary has been bathing me for all that time. Most days I can't get dressed, because if I did I'd be too tired to do anything else or I'm in too much pain. Often, Gary has to carry me up and down the stairs because my knees and hips hurt to much to carry my own weight up them. I lost all of my independence. Since Christmas, I've left the house maybe a handful of times (and that includes trips to the Doctors/hospital).

So, come mid-January I'm starting to get frustrated. I'm waiting on the results from the Rheumatologist's blood tests. So, I ring the hospital and get put through to his secretary. She tells me that I was Vitamin D deficient, and my GP should treat me for that. And that the immunology results haven't come back yet. I get the Vitamin D from my GP, it makes no difference to my symptoms. So at the end of January I chase the Rheumatology dept again. I speak to the Secretary and she tells me that my results have come back, but won't tell me what they are. She assures me that if I needed to be on treatment I would be, and that I'm 'on a list' waiting for new clinic appointments to see the Rheum.

After this phone call I was devastated. I believed what she told me about the treatment. Which meant the blood tests had to be clear and it wasn't Lupus. I saw my dreams of an easy treatment, and improvement in my health, vanishing. I cried, sobbed on the phone to Gary.

But, the more we talked about it, the less sense it made: if my blood tests were clear, why did he need to see me again? The Rheum knew I had been sent to him to rule out other diagnoses before being referred to the ME clinic. So why would he waste my time and his to see me again if the results were clear? Why not just write to me/ my GP and say there's nothing Rheumatological wrong.

In early February I had another appointment with my GP, and I discussed this with her (my original GP retired in December, and I am still heartbroken, coz he was awesome). She agreed that what the secretary was saying didn't make sense, and said that they would chase it up.

Around a week later, I got a call from the GP surgery, in which they told me EXACTLY what I had already been told by the Rheum Secretary. I was fuming. They hadn't gotten any further than I had, and when I challenged this I was told to ring the Rheum secretary myself and 'explain it all to her'. Like I hadn't done this several times already.

By this point work were beginning to get a little antsy and I was starting to get really worried about keeping my job, I had nothing new that I could tell them, no idea if I was going to get better or when I might be able to return to work.

So, I waited for my appointment. In constant agony. Unable to care for myself. Unable to leave the house. Pretty much bed ridden. Until the beginning of April.

I made Gary take the day off work to come to the appointment with me. I'd done some research, and now believed that Lupus is the correct diagnosis. There were other symptoms, that I'd not really thought about, that were explained by this diagnosis. And I also knew at this point that blood tests alone could not diagnose/rule out Lupus. So Gary and I went to that appointment ready to battle for a diagnosis of Lupus and treatment.

At this appointment we were called in to see a nurse, we thought initially for a chat before seeing the Rheumatologist but it became apparent quite quickly that this wasn't the case. I explained that I was experiencing worsening symptoms and that the Vitamin D hadn't helped (I mean, really?! Did they actually think a vitamin D deficiency could explain how poor my health had been for over a year?!)

After a few minutes the nurse explained that my blood tests had been inconclusive. My double stranded DNA test was positive (I'm not really clear what this test is, but it's something to do with anti-bodies and break down of proteins, I think) but none of the others were. This is apparently 'unusual' (yeah, typical of my body to be weird). So the nurse said that she wanted to repeat some of the tests. She went off for a chat with the Rheumatologist and came back saying that my diagnosis is 'Mixed Connective Tissue Disease or Lupus'. She said I don't have enough of the symptoms of Lupus for a diagnosis without a positive blood test (I disagree, and actually the Rheum pretty much told me I had enough for a Lupus diagnosis in the first appointment. He ordered the blood tests to confirm the diagnosis). But, she said the treatment for both conditions is the same, and she gave me a prescription. She also told me it would take about 8 weeks for the medication to have an effect.

At this point Gary was furious (though he was polite and civil about it). Why hadn't they told us this when they got those blood test results on the 29th January? Why had I spent two months in complete agony when I could have been on the treatment? Her response was 'you should have rung us', to which I replied 'I did and so did my GP'. Rather than offering an apology or attempting to understand our point of view the nurse got defensive. She told us that whoever had reviewed my results had seen that I was being called back in to the clinic and decided that the diagnosis and treatment could wait until I came back in. I could almost see the steam coming out of Gary's ears. He asked if someone would contact me this time about the results of the blood tests and the nurse replied that, no they wouldn't, but 'it doesn't matter anyway because you're on the treatment now'. So apparently having a name for my disease is completely unimportant!

I've been on the medication for 12 days now, and although they told me I wouldn't feel any different, I do. I've had less pain, and the fog has lifted. Some of this may be placebo effect, but whatever, I don't care. I'm just glad that I feel better. Over the last twelve days we've alternated between being furious with how I have been treated, by my blood test results and diagnosis being withheld; and being excited and hopeful about how much better I'm going to get now I have treatment.

It's been a long and hard journey. It's taken 2 years. During which time Gary and Cassius have had to care for me. They've been amazing and I couldn't have asked either of them to be more understanding or supportive. But we finally have a light at the end of this very long, very dark tunnel.

This post may meander a little, it may seem unfocused and not have a clear point or path, but that's because that's what this journey to a diagnosis has been like, It's been a confusing and frustrating mess, filled with pain and exhaustion. But, hopefully, we're through the worst of it now.