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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

“Scrounging families”

"Scrounging families"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.”

So, “anger erupted” at these official figures (from the Office for National Statistics, ONS). Whose anger erupted? Here’s what the ONS figures actually show (courtesy of an ONS graph):

ONS workless 1996-2011

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:

Uk welfare spending 1950-2011 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…

Alternative headlines:

Written by NewsFrames

September 2, 2011 at 10:28 am

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