The welfare debate: holding the BBC to account and reframing the debate

The BBC Trust’s ruling that the BBC2 programme, The Future State of Welfare presented by John Humphrys, breached its rules on impartiality and accuracy is cause for celebration.  Humphrys himself gave a pretty good flavour of the programme in a Daily Mail article published a few days prior to it. He wrote of ‘the predictable effect of a dependency culture that has grown steadily over the past years.  A sense of entitlement.  A sense that the State owes us a living.  A sense that not only is it possible to get something for nothing but that we have a right to do so.  This, seventy years on from the Beveridge Report, is the charge many people level against it.  I have spent the past year making a documentary for BBC2 in which I have tried to deal with that charge’. 

A programme that had done so in a dispassionate and objective way would have been very welcome. Instead, as the Child Poverty Action Group (and I declare an interest as honorary president) argued in its complaint, taken together with that of an anonymous individual, the whole programme was framed by the assumption that over-generous ‘welfare’ has created a ‘dependency culture’.  This message was reinforced by the ‘expert’ voices chosen to appear, the manner of much of Humphrys’ questioning and commentary and the partial use of statistics. 

The Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee did not uphold CPAG’s arguments about the way in which the programme was framed or the loaded nature of much of Humphrys’ own contribution.  I found much of their reasoning in justification somewhat tortuous.  They vindicated Humphrys himself against the charge that he was presenting a personal view, suggesting that he was ‘for the most part playing the traditional interviewer’s role of devil’s advocate by challenging interviewees as appropriate’.  But in the notes I took while watching the programme, I commented on how he challenged a Labour councillor who had criticised housing benefit cuts in a way that he hadn’t challenged those who supported his thesis (although later in the programme he did push the American academic Larry Mead with regard to the success of workfare).  And while I agree with the Trust that it is good to hear from those affected rather than a succession of ‘expert’ talking heads, too often those affected were undermined or misinterpreted and the few British ‘experts’ who did appear did not challenge the ‘dependency culture’ consensus view promulgated by Humphrys.  While it may, unfortunately, be true that increasingly this does represent a political consensus, it most certainly is not a consensus among social policy academics researching these issues.  This was reflected in the considerable amount of anger expressed after the programme on the social policy email forum.

Where the Trust agreed with the complainants was in the partial use of evidence.  It noted that ‘having introduced the headline figure of the rising benefits bill, the Committee considered that to achieve due accuracy the programme ought to have reflected what percentage of that overall rise is represented by the welfare benefits being targeted by the Government and which were the subject of the programme.  The Committee took the view that on this occasion, in this context, the missing information was crucial’.  It also decided that ‘in the absence of sufficient complementary statistical information to underpin contributors’ accounts as to the difficulty of securing a job for example, the viewer is left unable to reach an informed opinion’ so that the accuracy guidelines had been breached.

Crucially, it concluded that ‘the failure of accuracy had also led to a breach of impartiality‘ (emphasis added).  This was because ‘viewers would be likely to form the conclusion that the benefits being targeted by the Government were largely responsible for the view held by some that the “welfare state is in crisis”’ and that ‘despite the anecdotal testimonies of job seekers heard in the programme, that there was a healthy supply of jobs overall’ – a view propounded by a couple of Jobcentre managers and implied by the Mayor of Middlesbrough.

While the Trust did not uphold all the charges, it did take ‘the opportunity to remind the BBC that, in choosing to present a programme on a highly controversial issue such as welfare reform, in a less formal style, using presenters and correspondents better known as main stream news and current affairs practitioners, producers need to be particularly sensitive to the impression that might leave with the audience’.  The producers of the recent BBC1 programme, Nick and Margaret: We all Pay Your Benefits, might have done with heeding that advice.  To be fair, it was much more judicious in its use of evidence and the presenters, Nick and Margaret (of The Apprentice rather than current affairs fame) did on occasion show some understanding of the predicament of the benefit claimants effectively put in the stocks.  But the overall framing of the programme as taxpayers vs benefit claimants was divisive, ignoring the extent to which many people move in and out of paid work and the fact that benefit claimants also pay taxes even if not income tax (and will low paid workers no longer count as ‘taxpayers’, as the tax threshold rises further and further?).

It has taken nearly 18 months of perseverance to win the verdict, as the complaints were turned down at earlier stages of the complaints process.  Programmes such as The Future State of Welfare help to perpetuate the kind of myths about social security claimants that underpin the present government’s ‘aggressive’ (as IDS described it in Monday’s Guardian) assault on the benefits system (see the recent Compass briefing).  CPAG and the anonymous complainant have performed a vital public service.  Thank you.

Ruth Lister is a Labour peer, Emeritus Professor of Social Policy at Loughborough University and chair of the Compass Management Committee.

3 thoughts on “The welfare debate: holding the BBC to account and reframing the debate

  1. This is a typcial case of specialist producer interest speacial pleading. So comrade Ruth there is nothing wrong with the welfare state .There is no culture of dependency. There was just media bias.
    So that all right then.
    So how come Labour has already stated that the cuts will not be reversed? Discuss.

  2. We have been saying this for years the BBC always works for the people in power, New Labour had it shows and each time a green paper came out the BBC would have Scroungers . I’m all for the BBC now going a pay for view if you do not want it you should not have to pay for it.

    I just won by ESA after the ATOS doctor agree I could not work, and the DWP saying they thought I could, with 45 points I stated what did you need to be deemed disabled a coroners report, they reviewed it and I was given ESA .

    I’m now getting ready to go through PIP’s but taking advice without Pain being part of the claim or breathlessness my chances of getting the mobility is zero.

    But yes with Labour now agreeing with most of the Tories cuts little point in voting Labour anymore.

    New Labour we are told is dead somehow I very much doubt it Miliband believes New Labour is his best chance of winning the next election lets see, I’m sure Blair and Mandy are around to back up Miliband.

  3. I think it would be sad if every tv show was impartial.
    I think you wasted a year fighting this and adults should be trusted and allowed to make their own mind up sbout tv shows. You are advocating the censorship of someones opinions.

    Sometimes the expression of extreme views is the inky way to wake people up to a challenge to their way of life.

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