THE BLOG

The Poverty of the Daily Mail

04/04/2013 12:10 BST | Updated 03/06/2013 10:12 BST

The Daily Mail's headline on Wednesday is despicable journalism - but sadly not atypical.

That morning, I choked on my breakfast cornflakes as I doubled back in disbelief during my daily scan of newspaper headlines. Did I see correctly - the Daily Mail accusing the welfare state, designed to combat poverty and protect our vulnerable, of 'producing' a sick man who eventually murdered six children? Oh, yes, I did.

Moving from one deeply troubled individual with a history of drug problems and criminal charges to painting welfare claimants as selfish and irresponsible with one broad sweep of the brush is inexcusable journalistic distortion of facts. It is one thing to highlight the various problems in the Philpotts' past; it is quite another to use this tragic and highly unusual case to viciously attack the dependents of benefits, claiming that a "drug-taking layabout... embodies everything that is wrong with the welfare state". The Mail's editors could have blamed the failure of drug or criminal rehabilitation; they could have highlighted the mistakes of local social services; but instead they chose to attack the benefit system. This morning, the Daily Mail's prioritisation of its political agenda did not even try to hide behind the façade of objective journalism.

The tragedy is that while this morning's fresh attempt at the character assassination of welfare claimants was shocking, it fits quite neatly with a much longer term pattern in the popular press. Editors frequently pluck out one shocking case, using it to justify a continued attack on whichever 'problem' they seek to highlight: benefits claimants, immigrants, the NHS. On Wednesday, the Mail ran a story about benefit fraud duly forgetting to note that only around 1% of benefit cases are fraudulent. Displaying a similar enthusiasm for fact selection, The Sun recently ran a story emphasising Britain's 'soft-touch' for so-called 'benefit tourists', simultaneously attacking immigration standards and the welfare system. The article forgot to point out that only around 6.4% of benefit claimants are foreign nationals. With data journalism increasingly seen as important, websites using statistical evidence to counteract such generalisations are vital - to reveal, for instance, that only 3% of welfare spending is on the unemployed. As a historian, I am trained to examine a wide range of evidence before producing an informed conclusion - the same skills a journalist needs to exhibit. But recently, the principle of objective journalism has been molested again and again by fact-picking, false generalisations, and a complete disregard of the wider picture.

The shameful result of smear campaigns by the popular press is a deep ingraining of false stereotypes in society, and apathy - if not acceptance - of the current government's cuts to the welfare state. Last year, for example, we spent £116bn on welfare. But as the Guardian pointed out, tax evasion and avoidance is estimated to cost us £120bn. In theory, if this tax was reclaimed we could double welfare spending - it all comes down to political priorities, as shown perfectly by the Mail this morning.

The Daily Mail continue to have a right to publish stories containing as much bias as much as they like; the only solution the journalistic community and wider public can build is to openly reject this standard of journalism.