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Naming and shaming the journalists & editors who demonise people with disabilities

with 18 comments

There was a sickening article in today’s Observer from Ian Birrell on the real-life effects of the recent media coverage on people living on disability benefit:

“Polls have found substantial increases in the number of disabled people experiencing aggression and abuse, with evidence that the attitudes of the rest of society towards them are worsening. Many disabled people were already scared to go out after dark or travel on public transport such is their justified fear of encountering hostility.

…Unfortunately, much blame rests on the shoulders of the media and certain parts of government. There has been a new dialogue over disability, characterised by the constant drip-drip of stories implying vast numbers of disability claimants are bogus, that benefits are doled out without proper checks and taxpayers fund free cars for thousands of children with minor behavioural disorders.

Many emanate from the Department for Work and Pensions, which has twisted facts, manipulated statistics and distorted data to win support for its drive to cut costs and crack down on benefit fraud. This cascade of spurious claims and scandalously spun stories ends up demonising the disabled. It does no credit to Iain Duncan Smith, the secretary of state, who proclaims himself a compassionate Conservative. Ministers say they cannot be blamed for the actions of the media, but they know how the game is played.

Meanwhile, there has been a significant increase in articles about “cheats”, “scroungers” and “skivers” in the media. Not just tabloids, but broadsheets and broadcasters. A recent Glasgow Media Group study revealed a near-tripling of these words in papers, alongside a reduction in reports on discrimination and sympathetic stories about disabled people. Focus groups found people suggesting seven in 10 claimants were fraudulent; in reality, levels of fraud for disability benefits are 0.5%, much lower than for other benefits – and less than the level of errors made by officials.

…It is grossly irresponsible for journalists and politicians to collude in this manner to create a climate encouraging hatred, hostility and abuse towards people for whom life is already so difficult. This would be true at any time, but especially at a time of such uncertainty, when people are fearful of the future and looking for others to blame for their misfortune. Those with disabilities should not be made scapegoats for other people’s sins.”

The picture Ian Birrell describes seems eerily similar to the way the more toxic elements of the media chose to portray refugees and asylum seekers during the early 1990s. Given the results of that campaign, it’s disturbing to think what life will be like for disabled people in ten years time if the current media campaign of demonisation is successful.

But the difference between then and now is that the internet allows us very easily to track false and misleading media coverage, and draw attention to the activities of repeat offenders.

A quick search of the Mail, Sun, Express and Telegraph websites seems to support Ian Birrell’s argument (by contrast, compare the Independent, Mirror and Guardian).

When the overwhelming majority of stories that contain the phrase “disability benefit” portray the claimants in such a negative light, and focus relentlessly on the tiny minority engaged in wrongdoing, it’s difficult to avoid concluding that the editor of the paper in question has a political agenda.

When the collective audience of the newspapers engaged in this campaign is so large, it’s easy to see how the public are getting such an inaccurate picture.

Whether through out-and-out misrepresentation or through an extreme form of “selection bias“, the reporters and editors who are distorting public perceptions of disability are having a direct impact on innocent people’s lives.

With a few notable exceptions, UK journalists who make false and misleading claims have generally able to  evade the consequences of their actions, damaging other people’s lives without ever “becoming the story” themselves.

It struck me that one way of trying to address this issue might be to start documenting the UK media’s “drip drip” campaign of demonisation, highlighting the most egregious examples, and naming and shaming the editors and journalists responsible.

I’m interested in how widespread this problem is, and whether it will turn out to be just a passing phase or a sustained campaign, in the classic mould, with the potential to do serious damage to the status of a minority group. If you come across examples of press coverage that exemplify the problems that Ian Birrell has highlighted, please do leave a comment. I’ll also be keeping an eye out myself, and will update this page with the most extreme examples I find.

Written by Richard Wilson

December 4, 2011 at 8:52 pm

18 Responses

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  1. Thank you for blogging on this issue, Richard, it has been a major bane for disabled people. The papers mentioned have been referred to Full Fact time and time again and found to be telling lies. It is extremely damaging and the worst I have come across is this:

    Here, Duncan Smith states:

    “What I cannot bear is the idea that this country was the workshop of the world. It gave everybody the free market, the industrial revolution. You think what we did to change the world. This was the place that everyone looked to.

    “Yet we have managed to create a block of people in Britain who do not add anything to the greatness of this country.

    “They have become conditioned to be users of services, not providers of money. This is a huge part of the reason we have this massive deficit. We have had to borrow vast sums of money. We went on this inflated spending spree.”

    Compare that with:

    See the poster on the right of that link, which has the text:

    “60,000 Reichsmarks is what this person suffering from a hereditary defect costs the People’s community during his lifetime. Fellow citizen, that is your money too.”

    Many people are scared at how things are turning out.


    December 5, 2011 at 10:16 am

    • Hi Tim – thanks for this additional information – I think we have our first “worst offender” nomination. Tim Newton Dunn, your number has been called….

      And that poster is chilling – I knew something of the history but had never actually seen a poster from the time actively fuelling the hatred

      Richard Wilson

      December 5, 2011 at 8:52 pm

  2. Richard, have you seen the Inclsion London commissioned report from researchers at Glasgow Uni about bias of disbility reporting in the media. Really interesting stuff and would help with what you are trying to do here:


    December 5, 2011 at 11:02 am

    • Many thanks for this – I hadn’t seen this yet but have had a read through and it has some really shocking examples. I had no idea that things had got so extreme until I saw Ian Birrell’s article so this kind of information is really appreciated.

      Richard Wilson

      December 5, 2011 at 8:58 pm

  3. The Guardian has also participated in the demonization mob by spreading the lies of Simon Wessely and lying by calling him an expert on CFS/ME (in reality Simon Wessely has never studied CFS/ME, only chronic fatigue, which has nothing to do with it).

    Wessely’s unscientific propaganda has resulted in many deaths. The Guardian, along with the other UK press, didn’t hesitate to let him dance on their graves and call extremely ill people extremists, terrorists etc.

    I lost all the respect I had for the Guardian after they published that garbage.

    Maija Haavisto

    December 5, 2011 at 4:05 pm

  4. I’ve written quite often on my blog about this subject. (Found at )
    When I’m feeling up to it I will trawl through a few examples for you. Also Fullfact and Channel 4 Fact Check have answered a few accusations from the press.


    December 5, 2011 at 5:22 pm

    • Thanks for this – I’d heard about fullfact before but hadn’t seen their work on this specific issue. Excellent stuff.

      Richard Wilson

      December 5, 2011 at 9:03 pm

  5. […] Naming and shaming the journalists & editors who demonise people with disabilities […]

  6. Some “worst offender” nominations so far:

    Tom Newton Dunn, The Sun, “Iain Duncan Smith on benefits Britain”, December 2010

    Gerri Peev, Daily Mail, “400,000 ‘were trying it on’ to get sickness benefits: 94% of incapacity claimants CAN work”, last update January 2011

    Alison Little, Daily Express, “SICK BENEFITS: 75% ARE FAKING”, July 2011

    Richard Wilson

    December 5, 2011 at 9:09 pm

  7. Here’s a few more.
    “Disabled benefit? Just fill in a form” Daily Mail, 11/11/2011
    “4M scrounging families in Britain” Daily Express 02/09/2011
    “Bizarre benefits fraud excuses revealed by government” BBC 29/05/2011
    (Appeared in multiple papers)


    December 5, 2011 at 9:25 pm

  8. This one made me furious. The papers attacked the Motability Scheme (Which I wrote about and ) and as a direct result the scheme introduced some severe restrictions which are going to seriously impact on people who have family or carers drive their car.


    December 5, 2011 at 9:36 pm

  9. Forgot the link to the Motability change announcement.


    December 5, 2011 at 9:37 pm

  10. I thought this article by the sun was outrageous and completely unethical. If we look at the title, you can already see the discrimination towards the boy “hungry tot may eat himself to death”. A 2 year old boy, with Prader-Willi Syndrome being called aggressive, “his condition means that he can also be violent to the people around him”. “He said we’ll have to lock the fridge and the kitchen in the future. He will be very violent as he gets older. It’s quite scary”.

    Outrageous, I can’t believe this kind of article is allowed to be published in the 21st century.


    January 13, 2012 at 11:46 pm

  11. Can’t believe it, I also forgot the link :


    January 13, 2012 at 11:50 pm

  12. The Media and Goverment Ministers love to look for soft “targets” to place all that’s wrong with society
    I have two learning disabilities and a health condition.
    I have experienced bulling for being disabled.

    I wish there was a law was effective at stopping this form of bullying


    January 28, 2012 at 1:09 pm

  13. “They have become conditioned to be users of services, not providers of money. This is a huge part of the reason we have this massive deficit. We have had to borrow vast sums of money. We went on this inflated spending spree.”
    Yes, Iain, and of course the fact that the UK’s bankers secured loans on non-existent funds U.S. style has absolutely nothing to do with why the country ran out of money when the creditors asked to be paid back. *Sarcasm*


    May 31, 2012 at 7:19 am

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