Archive for the ‘Headlines’ Category
April 8, 2013 – JK Rowling should perhaps be given a Nobel Prize for getting a generation of kids to read books. As if that wasn’t enough, she’s generated endless amounts of tax revenue. How was this phenomenon nurtured? By a little time and space on the dole.
You’d be surprised how many successful people developed their craft on the dole. In a way, most successful corporations also require a long period on the dole. Do you think Boeing and Microsoft would have achieved commercial success without decades of state-funded research and development in aerospace and computing?
Any true wealth-generating activity requires periods of “social nurturing” which aren’t profitable. They’re not self-funding in the short term; they are dependent. (We realise this for children – we call it “education”. The money spent on it is regarded as social investment).
“Investment” (in human beings) was also one of the ideas – along with “safety net” – behind “social security”. The welfare state was created in the forties, in a post-war economy which was nowhere near as wealthy as now (imagine: computer technology didn’t exist).
But, for decades, the rightwing press, “free market” think-tanks, politicians and pundits (not just of the right) have wanted you to think differently about social security. They want you to think of “welfare” as an unnecessary nuisance which costs more than everything else combined.
To that end, a simple set of claims, accompanied by a certain type of framing, is relentlessly pushed into our brains by newspaper front pages and TV and internet screens. It has two main components:
- Vastly exaggerate the real cost of “welfare” and falsely portray it as “spiralling out of control” (how this is done is explained here and here). Misleadingly include things like pensions in the total cost when you’re talking about unemployment. (This partly explains why people believe unemployment accounts for 41% of the “welfare” bill, when it accounts for only 3% of the total).
- Appeal to the worst aspects of social psychology by repeatedly associating a stereotype (the “benefits scrounger/cheat”) with the concept of “welfare”. One doesn’t have to be a prison psychologist to understand how anger and frustration are channeled towards those perceived as lower in the pecking order: “the scum”. (According to a recent poll, people believe the welfare fraud rate is 27%, whereas the government estimates it as 0.7%).
It’s a potently malign cocktail. When imbibed repeatedly, there’s little defense against its effects. Even those who depend on benefits come to view benefits recipients in a harshly negative light (see Fern Brady’s article for examples). Those politicians who aren’t naturally aligned with rightwing ideology go on the defensive – they talk about “being tough” and “full employment“. It just reinforces the anti-welfare framing.
The strangely puritanical – and deeply irrational – obsession with “jobs”, ”hard-working families”, etc, at a time in history when greater leisure for all is more than a utopian promise (due to the maturation of labour-saving technology, etc) seems an integral part of the conservative framing – which is perhaps why many on the “left” find it difficult to provide counter-narratives.
But that would require another article. For now I’ll leave you with a short video explaining Basic Income – a fast-spreading idea which is highly relevant to the above. (Guardian columnist George Monbiot recently championed Basic Income as a “big idea” to unite the left).
Jan 24, 2013 – You’ve probably noticed the Daily Express headlines which feature the weather or some health-related story. It seems that most Express headlines fall into one of these categories:
3. The EU/Euro
5. “Migrants”, benefits, “skivers”
Exceptions seem uncommon. Okay, you get the occasional “royals” story, and there was a time when house-price rises/falls could have been added to the list. See for yourself, using the compilations of front pages, below (which I’ve colour-coded to match the above categories).
Occasionally, two of the topics are combined in one headline (see example, above left – “ALL MIGRANTS TO GET A BRITISH PENSION”).
The first collection of front pages shows every Daily Express from 18 January 2013 (top left) back to 29 October 2012 (bottom right), with all exceptions shown (uncoloured):
The latest circulation figures show the Express selling many more copies than the Times, Guardian and Independent (roughly the same number as the Telegraph, and fewer than the Sun and Daily Mail).
The next compilation of Express front pages covers the period from early August 2012 (top left) back to May 2012 (bottom right) – it’s not a complete list, and excludes some exceptions as well as other examples which conform to the above topics:
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 was a war on me. I also thought that it seemed like 100% pure 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.
• ‘WAR ON YOUNG & OLD & VULNERABLE’
• ‘WAR IS PEACE, WORK IS MANDATORY’
• ‘BANKS BAILED OUT BY SLAVE LABOUR’
• ‘ANOTHER SUCCESSFUL ANGER-REDIRECT HEADLINE’
Nov 28, 2011 – Today’s Daily Mail headline reads: ‘NOTHING WILL STOP US FROM STRIKING’. The Mail adds that “unions won’t discuss a last-minute peace deal” and that “Union leaders have declared there is nothing the Government can do to avert the biggest strikes in a generation this week”. [See update #2 below - the Mail has rewritten its story]
The message is clear: “the unions are hell-bent on confrontation” – “nothing” will stop them. (Incidentally, the Nov 30th strikes have massive public support according to polls from the BBC, Guardian, etc – but that’s not part of the Mail’s narrative).
What are the Mail’s statements based on? The report doesn’t mention the source, which is, in fact, an interview with Brendan Barber (TUC head) on BBC’s The Politics Show (27/11/11).
The Mail’s lie becomes clear when one compares its headline (and other statements) with what Barber actually said in the interview. (The following is my transcript of Jon Sopel’s interview with Brendan Barber and Francis Maude, starting at 12m 20s):
Jon Sopel (BBC): Mr Barber we’re about to speak to Francis Maude who is listening to this interview. Is there anything he could say that would get you to call off your action?
Brendan Barber (TUC): Well, at this stage I think that’s probably unlikely…
Sopel: So there’s nothing he can say?
Barber: What Francis Maude has to do, with his colleagues in government, is he has to give people confidence that there is a secure, fair pension going to be maintained for the future… at the moment people simply do not have that confidence…
Sopel: Mr Barber, sorry to interrupt you, isn’t that a rather extraordinary position that there is nothing that the chief negotiator [Maude] could say here on Sunday lunchtime that would get you to call off your action on Wednesday?
Barber: Well, he could certainly have a try… [Barber then outlines the specific policies being forced through by the government, which he wants them to reconsider] … if they’d really take a step back on some of these issues… but having talked to Mr Maude and his colleagues rather a lot over recent months, I fear he’s not prepared to say that – which leaves us with a real difficulty… Unless he comes up with something very surprising then, of course, the action will be going ahead this week.
Sopel: (now questioning Francis Maude): Have you got anything to say to Brendan Barber that might avert these strikes on Wednesday?
Maude: Yes, I’d say, Brendan, call it off. Now. (Listen to the rest of Maude’s comments, starting after 14m 20s).
As I’ve mentioned in previous entries, news frames often provide a narrative with a hero and a villain. This usually boils down to causation in some sense. Who is causing the thing which is making people angry? (And who is trying to prevent that thing from happening?). The “answer” is clear from the Mail’s headline. But since the Mail doesn’t even provide source details, it would be difficult for a casual reader to see that it’s a lie.
• ‘PUBLIC UNITED IN REJECTING CUTS’
• ‘MORE THAN 60% WANT STRIKE’
• ‘GOVERNMENT FAILS PUBLIC SERVANTS’
Update #1, 28/11/11: The Sun has also run with this story (‘Unions chief: We won’t halt strike‘). The Sun is a bit more honest than the Mail – it accurately quotes Barber (“Well, at this stage I think that’s probably unlikely”) and mentions The Daily Politics as the source. The Sun’s first paragraph, however, contains the same lie as the Mail’s: “The leader of the TUC vowed yesterday there is NOTHING the Government can say to make unions call off Wednesday’s strike.”
Update #2, 28/11/11: The online version of the Daily Mail’s headline article (which I also link to above) has been completely rewritten since this morning. The lying headline has been replaced with something about Michael Gove. I’ve scanned the newspaper article, so you can see the original version here. Update #2b, 3/12/11: the online version appears to have been rewritten yet again on 29/11/11, this time with the focus on Ed Miliband rather than Michael Gove.
Update #3, 30/11/11: The Sun (on 29/11/11) asked TUC head Brendan Barber to write 200 words on the case for the strike. Apparently it was so good – so convincing – that the Sun wouldn’t publish it. You can read it here.
Oct 31, 2011 – This morning’s front pages present an arresting selection of news clichés…
The Daily Mail reports that the Church of England is at “WAR” with an ill-defined noun (“sleaze”). Slightly more interesting is the information that the church currently invests millions in Internet Service Providers.
The Mirror front page informs us that it’s “WAR” between the Prime Minister and Nick Clegg on Europe. (It’s not a trivial matter that the metaphor of armed conflict is commonly used on complex social and economic issues which have little to do with armed conflict. More on this when I discuss the “war” metaphor in a future piece).
The Evening Standard tells us that somebody important “HAILS” “women power”; the Wall Street Journal reports that a “SHAKY OUTLOOK” lingers in Europe. (If you have a photo of a lingering shaky outlook, please email it to me immediately).
Shake-up in education, shaky outlook in Europe, war between church and sleaze, war between Cameron and Clegg, a hypothetical “crisis fund” to boost pensions, a bit of money to kick-start the economy, charities hit by cash squeeze, Cameron (when he’s not at war) seeks radical reform on adoption, and the Queen hails women power.
All in all, a rich collection of headline bullshit.
Oct 26, 2011 – Today’s Telegraph front page provides an example of the socially-dominant “worker” frame. The headline contains the first clue: “Give firms freedom to sack their slackers”. (This is the “finding” of a “report” commissioned by David Cameron – see update*). The Telegraph explains:
‘Under current regulations, workers are allowed to “coast along” and employers are left fearful of expanding because new staff may prove “unknown quantities” who are impossible to sack, the report says.’
Here’s the frame in a nutshell:
- “Free market” means firms are free to manage their own resources.
- Resources are acquired and disposed of – in a way which minimises costs, maximises “efficiency”, etc.
- Labour is just another resource (as in “labour market”).
“Workers are resources”
Hidden by this metaphorical frame is the human experience of working in a job, and the distinction between meaningful activity and dehumanising work (not to mention work which physically harms). Orthodox economics of both right and left “treat labor as a natural resource or commodity, on a par with raw materials, and speak in the same terms of its cost and supply” (Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By). Workers’ rights movements have fought against exploitation of workers (with some important successes) but have tended to implicitly accept this economic framing.
Work “ethic” plus
Linked to the “labour as resource” metaphor – in a sort of unholy neural coupling – is the moral framing of work which comes from religious traditions, most notably from the Protestant (or, rather, Puritan) Work Ethic. You don’t have to consciously subscribe to these religious beliefs to be affected – moral guilt over “laziness” seems to affect practically everyone in our society (but not in all societies – the framing isn’t universal).
And thus we arrive at these strange notions:
- Work is morally virtuous regardless of the experience of the worker.
- Firms should be “free” to make this experience even worse.
And so (to cut a very long historical story short) we get the news frames of guilty “slackers” merged with market fundamentalism. And, to many, it looks just like “common sense”. Meanwhile, metaphorical terms such “flexible labour” (or worse, “cheap labour”) hide the reality of human degradation.
The Independent reveals that the author of the “report” (multi-millionaire venture capitalist, Adrian Beecroft) has interests which include “an online company offering payday loans at huge rates of interest”. The Independent quotes “Lib Dem sources” who called Beecroft an “ideological” figure: “He is a private individual who has produced a report not based on any evidence.”
Yet another case of someone with the “right” ideological views producing a Mickey Mouse “report” which becomes front-page news. For further examples, see my earlier piece on the so-called TaxPayers’ Alliance.
Sept 17, 2011 – Today’s Times leads with the “news” that a minister has an opinion about lazy consumers. Specifically, Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary, says that “Consumers must take some of the blame for high energy bills because they cannot be bothered to shop around for the best deals”.
Why is this front-page news for the Times? Presumably it’s not meant as an attack on Huhne in particular, otherwise the headline would be something like: ‘HUHNE – “STRUGGLING FAMILIES ARE JUST LAZY”.’
The millions of shoppers who glance at the Times headline today will see a message about LAZY CONSUMERS. It’s not the result of a poll or a scientific study. It’s someone’s opinion, and it’s a frame. Alternative frames might be LACK OF TRANSPARENCY in fuel costs, or CONSUMERS OVERCHARGED, (which convey something about market failures), etc. Another frame is REGULATOR SHORT OF POWER (the Times ran with this in a 2008 piece). Ofgem (the regulator) talks of CONSUMERS BAMBOOZLED by complex and unfair pricing. Labour focuses on PROFITEERING ENERGY COMPANIES.
But here we have LAZY CONSUMERS. So, the market works just fine – it’s the lazy consumers that cause the problems. How about: OVERWORKED CONSUMERS? That’s not an established frame (people are overworked, consumers simply shop). But it might help us to appreciate why many “consumers” “cannot be bothered” to “shop around” for the “best deals”. After all, it’s HARD WORK FATHOMING ENERGY PROVIDER BS.
• ‘RISE IN ARSE GAS FROM ENERGY PROVIDERS’
• ‘ELECTRIFIED GONADS LESS PAINFUL THAN ELECTRICITY BILLS’
• ‘CONSUMERS TOO EXHAUSTED TO CONSUME SHIT’
Sept 14, 2011 – Today’s Telegraph provides a good example of compartmentalising stories. We’ve been trained (or “educated”) to automatically associate claims about “family life” with certain worldviews. In this case, the threat to “family life” is “compulsive consumerism”. Here’s the Telegraph’s opening paragraph (from front page):
‘PARENTS are trapping their children in a cycle of “compulsive consumerism” by showering them with toys and designer labels, instead of spending time with them, a UN report has found.’
The UN (Unicef) report found that parents work longer hours in the UK than in countries such as Sweden (where children were reported to be happier). Parents in the UK were found to be “too tired” to play with their children.
The Telegraph reports these findings on long working hours. So how does it compartmentalise? By not presenting the context on why we’re overworked – the recent history, and the Telegraph’s diabolical role in it. The Telegraph has, for decades, promoted propaganda from business groups opposing legislation which would put limits on harmful working hours. Here’s the latest example (from just a few weeks ago).
Sept 2, 2011 – The BBC reports this story under the headline, ‘NUMBER OF WORKLESS HOUSEHOLDS FALLS’. The Express goes with “SCROUNGING FAMILIES’, “anger” and “fury” – and again quotes the rightwing pressure group, the TaxPayers’ Alliance (a regular source of framing for the UK press).
Here’s the first paragraph on the Express’s front page (2/9/11):
“ANGER at the scale of Britain’s benefits culture erupted last night after official figures showed there are nearly four million households where no one works.”
Note the fall in “workless households” since 1996, followed by an increase coinciding exactly with the recent recession (shaded bar).
Perhaps “anger erupted” over something else. The fourth paragraph on the Express front page says: “The figures yesterday triggered renewed fury at the £180billion annual welfare benefits bill being picked up by taxpayers.”
This is the standard, misleading device of citing the total welfare bill in a story about the unemployed. It’s misleading because only a small fraction of this amount goes on unemployment benefits (£6.6bn directly in 2010; two-thirds of the total welfare figure goes on people over working age, and there are various benefits for those who have jobs, and contribution-based benefits that need to be taken into account, etc).
The welfare-as-crime frame
The Express front page talks of “the culture of benefits dependency that was allowed to spiral out of control under the previous Labour government.” The spiralling “out of control” of an immoral “culture” evokes the crime frame. Politicians and media often use a “criminal offender” type of lexicon to talk about welfare recipients. This tendency seems to go back a few decades at least, although I suspect media analysis would show it to be increasing in recent years (in the same way that use of terms such as “benefit cheats” has increased). Thus, government advisers were quoted by the Times (17/9/99) as saying that “penalties for the persistent unemployed will be harsher”. Terms such as “hardcore” are applied to “persistent” unemployed. Benefits are being framed as a moral issue – this is how “anger” and “fury” are induced, via moral outrage. The implication is that punishment is the cure (and that, therefore, people shouldn’t complain about getting their benefits cut).
(Updates: a later Daily Express headline used a different type of welfare-crime association: “1.2M CRIMINALS GET BENEFITS”. Also, Tony Blair used the odd phrase “hard core of socially excluded families”).
“Spiralling out of control”?
Back to reality (or at least to statistical representations of it). We should be looking at welfare spending as a proportion of GDP, not in “absolute” terms:
This chart is taken from the excellent UK Public Spending website. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for “fury” here. Perhaps the Daily Express editors need to take an anger management course? And perhaps they should stop acting as a propaganda outlet for the rightwing TaxPayers’ Alliance group…
• ‘ANGRY FOR THE WRONG REASONS’
• ‘TAXPAYERS ALLIANCE PRESS RELEASE No.94’
• ‘LYING BASTARDS WROTE THIS HEADLINE’