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How the news is framed & how it affects your brain

The ever-popular “war on workshy” frame

Oct 8, 2012 – Today’s Express headline concerns the “WAR ON WORKSHY”. I first became aware of this “war” back in 1998, when the following headlines screamed at me (on March 27th, 1998):

“WELFARE WAR ON WORKSHY” (Daily Mail)
“BLAIR IN WELFARE WAR ON THE IDLE” (Daily Telegraph)
“SHAKE-UP IN WELFARE HITS THE WORKSHY” (The Times)
“THOU SHALT NOT SHIRK” (The Express)

I was unemployed at the time, and I took it personally – it seemed like a war on me. It also struck me as being political and journalistic bovine excreta. The same media had just reported the lowest official unemployed count for 18 years (given as 1,383,800 in The Daily Telegraph, 19/3/98). Government figures showed that only 5% of welfare expenditure went on the unemployed, including benefit fraud. (The percentage is pretty much the same today – see my earlier post).

As Larry Elliott (Guardian’s economics editor) put it at the time:

“..ministers should stop conniving in the fallacy that the welfare state is in a terminal crisis when it palpably is not…What is not legitimate is to pretend that welfare is a luxury Britain cannot afford”.
(Larry Elliott, The Guardian, 19/1/98)

It’s all déjà vu for me. We were in a “terrible crisis” then, and we’re in a “terrible crisis” now. And we’re encouraged to think about this crisis – repeatedly – in terms of a war between “hard-working families” and “workshy scroungers”. Or, as today’s Express puts it:

Senior Tories believe the move will be popular with millions of hard-working families who are fed up with workshy scroungers ripping off the benefits system. (Express, October 8, 2012)

This frame tends to exclude the thoughts: 1) that large numbers of “hard-working families” are themselves dependent on various benefits (since the market often doesn’t pay a survival/living wage), and 2) that many of those “hard-working families” will eventually find themselves unemployed (at which point they land in the “workshy scrounger” category – until they can find another job).

After decades of relentless tabloid attacks on the unemployed, the cited Tories are probably right – in a sense – about the “popularity” of the proposed welfare cuts. Because the “real” war is in the framing, and the Framing Wars are currently being won by the rightwing press (which, as noted recently by George Monbiot, gets much of its editorial content direct from neoliberal thinktanks). We see an indication of the success of this framing (in shaping people’s thinking) from the 2012 British Social Attitudes survey, which reports that:

62% agree that unemployment benefits are too high and discourage work, more than double the proportion who thought this in 1991 (27%)

So, don’t think about the trillion pounds spent bailing out the banks, or the $21 trillion stashed in tax havens by the tax-avoiding super-rich, etc – those are separate, different news compartments. Focus your anger on the unemployed people. The frames in your head tell you they deserve it.

Alternative headlines:
‘WAR ON YOUNG & OLD & VULNERABLE’
‘WAR IS PEACE, WORK IS MANDATORY’
‘BANKS BAILED OUT BY SLAVE LABOUR’
‘ANOTHER SUCCESSFUL ANGER-REDIRECT HEADLINE’

◊ Read more about the metaphorical framing of welfare here and here,
- and more about the framing of work here & here.

Written by NewsFrames

October 8, 2012 at 8:52 am

5 Responses

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  1. Excellent! Thanks for another smart post!

    Stephanie

    October 8, 2012 at 3:33 pm

  2. The Express has been one of the worst in depicting disabled people. That rag fuels hate, whether it’s migrants, the jobless or the disabled. See the Strathclyde report on newspaper depiction of the disabled:

    http://www.inclusionlondon.co.uk/domains/inclusionlondon.co.uk/local/media/downloads/bad_news_for_disabled_people_pdf.pdf

    kev

    October 8, 2012 at 6:35 pm

  3. [...] are many who are inclined to believe this is a good idea, getting the ever so frequently framed workshy to stop milking from the state and to make a use of themselves, but of course this is an [...]

  4. Congratulations on another fine post. I think the best thing about it is that you mention the two things that are often missed from the ‘war on the workshy’ frame: a) the government is forced to subsidise industry that can’t/won’t pay a living wage to its employees and b) anyone can be unlucky and become jobless, need to claim benefits and therefore be a ‘scrounger’.

    Many thanks!

    JohnD

    October 9, 2012 at 9:55 pm

  5. Thanks, John, Stephanie, Kev and Workfare in the Workplace, for taking the time to add some positive feedback.

    NewsFrames

    October 10, 2012 at 9:51 am


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