‘Disabled people have never had it so bad’ by Declan Gaffney




Media rhetoric and verbal abuse in public places.


wheelchair empty

Many people have been shocked by a story which appeared on Twitter yesterday. Alex has collated the tweets here. To put this in context, the poster Thomas Hemingford’s twitter profile reads: “Man. Married, disabled wife. 3 Children, 1 disabled.” Now read on:

“A good friend took me & my wife out last night to a restaurant, it was a really nice gesture, until this guy came up to our table, shouting….  He went on, for ages, saying how he supported David Cameron and how he’s “putting disabled people in their place”…..He went on at us for about 15 minutes, it was very difficult and we were made to feel worthless….

“My friend had to restrain himself, we thought he’d done, then he started making out all disabled people don’t work & get £500 a week….

“This idiot had been drinking, but he was well spoken, it’s alarming people can think like this and say such things. …What was bad too, there were others in the place agreeing with him.

“It’s very alarming, this Govt have created this mentality…I’ve felt attitudes have changed over past 2 years, I’ve never experienced so much abuse and discrimination. It’s both Govt and media.”

This is not an isolated incident.

There is growing concern about the number of well-documented cases of disabled people being subjected to verbal abuse and worse in public places, and the belief that these incidents are driven by political and media rhetoric on welfare reform is widespread.

Of course it is very difficult to show either that the number of incidents is increasing (people may be more likely to report them) or that there is a causal link to what the media and politicians are saying.  But it is possible to look at whether the vocabulary and content of media and political discourse has grown more or less negative over time: the results show that whether or not they are contributing to the problem, it is very unlikely they are helping.

The figures here come from analysis of a large dataset of articles on welfare published in UK national newspapers between 1995 and 2011. We assembled the dataset as part of a project on benefits stigma commissioned by the charity Turn2Us last year. (You can read the report here). The report wasn’t specifically about disability benefits, and there wasn’t room to include all the analysis we would have liked, so these are new figures.

We analysed the content of articles using a set of “themes” which occur in a lot of coverage of benefits: the most important of these were need, fraud, ‘scrounging’ – people claiming who shouldn’t be for reasons other than fraud- compulsion to take up work or training, claimants being better off on benefits, large families on benefits and anti-social behaviour.  Only articles where these themes made a substantive contribution to the content are included- these are not articles that make glancing reference to  need or fraud, for example.

The headline results for articles dealing with disability and benefits are shown in the chart.

We’ve divided the entire period covered by the data into two sub-periods of equal length, breaking in June 2003. In the first period, up to June 2003, 42 per cent of articles dealt with need compared to 29 per cent using one or more of the negative themes.

In the second period, some 58 per cent of articles used negative themes to only 27 per cent of articles in which need was a theme. So the sense that newspaper coverage has grown more negative over time seems fully justified.

There has been both growth in articles with negative content and a fall in articles with more sympathetic content. (There is an overlap between these two categories, with some articles combining negative and sympathetic themes: this overlap has also reduced, with more articles containing only negative themes.)

Source: Consistent 1995-2011 dataset, Turn2Us benefit stigma project. Titles included: Mirror Mail Times Independent Guardian

In fairness, we should point out that one of our ‘negative’ themes is ‘compulsion’- articles which refer to measures to oblige claimants to take up work or training. This plays an important role in the growth of negative coverage, reflecting both the previous and current  governments’ emphasis on benefit conditionality. 

While the prominence of compulsion in public debate may be a driver of broader negativity towards claimants, it would be unfair to blame the media for simply reporting government policy. But when we exclude articles in which compulsion is the only negative theme, while the growth in negative content is reduced, we still find a doubling of the percentage of negative articles (from 20% to 41%).  So straightforward reporting of government policy isn’t the main driver of increased negativity.

We also looked at the vocabulary used in articles about incapacity benefit (and its predecessors and successors). For this, we used word-lists intended to capture specific types of negative associations: the most important were fraud (words like cheat, fiddle), non-reciprocity (handouts, scrounger, feckless, idle)and dependency (e.g. languishing on benefits). As can be seen, there was a huge growth in the number of articles on these benefits from 2003, and an increase in negativity. Both the total number of articles and the number of negative articles peaked in 2010. However there is also an important peak in 2008, coinciding with Labour’s incapacity benefit reforms – while there were more articles in 2010, the share of negative articles is similar in 2008.

Source:  Main 1995-2011 dataset, Turn2Us benefit stigma project. Titles included: Mirror Mail Times Independent Guardian Telegraph Sun Express

Does negative media coverage affect public attitudes?

Almost certainly: in our report we showed that the level of negativity in the newspapers people read had an effect on their perceptions of benefit fraud, even controlling for other factors that influence attitudes.

Media coverage is not the only factor, and probably not the most important factor, but it serves to reinforce suspicions and ill-founded grievances against all people of working age on benefits, including disabled claimants.

The extreme views of people like the idiot who ruined Thomas Hemingford, his wife and friends’ evening are hopefully confined to a tiny minority, but you wouldn’t know it from reading the biggest selling UK newspapers: media coverage helps form a public environment in which people can think this sort of behaviour is socially acceptable.

And as we showed in our report, politics is the big driver of negative coverage, with Conservative, Labour and the coalition governments all playing a role.

The New Statesman

10 thoughts on “‘Disabled people have never had it so bad’ by Declan Gaffney

  1. Boadacia! says:

    Memories of the ’40’s anyone? This is like living in a world where the BNP are in government (same lot in disguise) The ‘Brown Shirts’ in opposition, – and being instructed to toughen up by the even more evil owners of the Media.

  2. Jo Yelland says:

    It’s a concept called ‘mediation’ – either the government or the media look at one thing in a (usually) negative light and the other group has a knee-jerk reaction . For example, say the Sun/Mail ran a piece about a large family living in a large house and the single mum was on benefits (perhaps because the economy is poor, the lack of affordable childcare or the need to look after a disabled child). This piece was negatively written in order to provoke a reaction from the readership.

    Once it does, the government, in order to look like they’re in touch with the same readership (all for votes and opinion polls) then have a knee-jerk reaction and put in place harsher welfare reforms, bedroom taxes etc which are usually poorly thought out. The rhetoric changes to keep pace with the change of direction, often using the same language as used by the initial media outlets (scroungers and skivers vs strivers etc).

    Social Sciences and psychologists have seen this happen for years, but because understanding politics, the world at large and finances are not part of the school syllabus most people simply don’t realise how they are being led. That does not make such disgusting behaviour acceptable – I hope the people who behaved in this way feel utterly disgusted with themselves. If they were my kids I’d disown them.

    1. Will Richardson says:

      Spot on Jo, we’ve been groomed and the national debate terms of reference and focus has shifted further/harder authoritarian right…so much so that we have the most right wing and one of the most authoritarian governments in Europe and don’t even have a moderately left of centre libertarian party.

      If you haven’t already, take the test at http://www.politicalcompass.org then see the articles on UK governments shifting politics over the last 40 years and the current European ones, Francoise Hollande the “Socialist” is actually right of centre, he’s merely the least right wing and slightly less authoritarian Euro politician.

  3. Ian Blackburn says:

    The Nazi used the term ‘ Arbeit macht frei’ …Labour makes (you) free. It was on the gates of the concentration / death camps, including Auschwitz. The Nazi saw disabled as a burden. Now we find the coalition and very sadly, many of the British public with the same view. Why has it happened? If any society allows those in power to create divisions between people over disability or any other problems that hit people, that society is in its final stage of being civilised. britian for some reason seems to need a scapegoat for its ills. Unemplyed, disabled, migrant workers, immigrants, other religious groups. Any that are different to what those in power see as the true Brit….white and stupid. It must end but that is down to all those who see events as wrong and are prepared to stand up and express their opposition. Saying nothing and doing nothing is as bad as doing what those being evil are doing and saying. Where are the tru politicians who stand up for the poor?

  4. Serenity says:

    The war against us has been won with the successful implementation of the ATOS/T4 program.
    The next targets are already being lined up.





    It’s funny how they can deny them homes but when it comes to benefits they have to change the rules for British citizens also?



    Look up government in the dictionary, our government implements these laws then acts as if the results are no responsibility of theirs!
    If they had been doing their job the building of infrastructure would have matched population increase. Instead they use our frustration at their policies to stoke up hate campaigns. There would be no need for this resentment at all if they had been doing the job for which they are so richly rewarded by taxpayers.
    It’s more like a fascist regime with every day that passes as we untermensch know only too well!


    Where are the UAF when you need them?

  5. Annos says:

    “and he warns:

    ‘We stand on the verge of one of the bleakest periods in human history, when the bright lights of civilizations will blink out and we will descend for decades, if not centuries, into barbarity. The elites, who successfully convinced us that we no longer possessed the capacity to understand the revealed truths presented before us or to fight back against the chaos caused by economic and environmental catastrophe, will use their resources to create privileged little islands where they will have access to security and goods denied to the rest of us.’ (p. 197)”


  6. Will Richardson says:

    Judge a society by how decently it treats the poor, weak, vulnerable members of that society.

    Ours has been found wanting for 40 odd years, principally through the abandonment of Full Employment and any pretence of paying workers civililised living wages has generally been watered down.

    Beveridge’s very modest liberal reform heavily depended on Full Employment to make the Social Security System work, once that was gone, things start to deteriorate and the system gets blamed, when the root cause is whitewashed/brushed out/under the carpet.

    We need a Job Education Training Income Guarantee then top up the output gap whilst scrapping Income/Sales taxes replacing them with a Land Value Tax and begin then steadily increase a National Universal Dividend.

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