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Let's Go Fishing - How the Media Is Used to Match People to Government Policies on Welfare

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The journalistic sport of 'fishing expeditions', where rather than reporting on a specific event that has actually happened, stories are created from Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, covert recordings, or by trawling for case studies, is nothing new. It is, however, being used to particularly pernicious and skillful effect in this country at present to boost public support for the government's proposals for welfare reform.

Since the coalition government was elected, the manifesto promise of the Big Society has morphed into relentless bashing of benefit claimants via the media. Whether stories originate from press officers or from journalists, the results are the same.

Strivers vs. Shirkers, benefit scroungers, large families fleecing the public purse, single mums, teen mums, are all headlines that fuel the increasingly hate-filled rhetoric against benefit claimants.

On 17 February, 8.6 million viewers of BBC's Call the Midwife watched a storyline where an exhausted mother of eight, refused adequate housing by the council, risked her life by having a back-street abortion to end her ninth pregnancy.

The story was set in the 1958, where contraception was not available on the NHS. Would such a story elicit any sympathy if set in 2013? The answer is a resounding no, if the case of 'Dole Queen' Heather Frost is anything to go by.

A day after this particular episode of Call the Midwife aired, Heather Frost, mother of 11 and grandmother of two, hit the headlines for having a £400k 'eco mansion' built for her by Tewkesbury council.

Putting to one side the rights and wrongs of large families being supported by the state, of all the negative adjectives aimed at Heather Frost, such as feckless, shameless, irresponsible, the claim that Ms Frost "treated her womb like a clown car" was perhaps the most offensive to her children. This said of a woman who is currently recovering from treatment for cervical cancer.

Have we become so numbed by the government's hounding of the poor that we no longer flinch at such unbridled venom?

As Councillor Derek Davies, lead member for built environment at Tewkesbury Borough Council, told Radio 4's Today programme, the only true part of this story is that that Heather Frost has 11 children that have to be housed as part of the welfare system that we have in this country.

When the Today presenter pressed him on the fact that it was true that the council was building a home for 11 children, his spirited riposte "and the alternative to that is?" had even the indefatigable Evan Davis stumped.

Make no mistake, it is no coincidence that as the government seeks to make cuts to benefits, we have seen a deluge of negative stories about claimants over the past year. In Heather Frost's case, it is likely that someone has gone through the planning application and noted a six bedroom house on the plans, rather than the resulting PR spin of a 'Dole Queen' demanding a mansion be built for her.

It is easy to place all of the blame for society's failings on the shoulders of a benefit claimant. I have lost count recently of the amount of times I have seen stories of claimants living the high life, posed by a photographer with a laptop in front of them or in front of a flat screen TV. No mention of the fact that may be one of their few possessions, or that it may be rented or bought at extortionately high hire purchase schemes, or if you look carefully, the rest of their surroundings are tatty. No, best just to make them look like a lottery winner; the naïve British public will buy that.

The Sun is even running a 'Britain's Bonkers Benefits' campaign, chock full of case studies of people who don't want to work. The Sun even ran the headline "I just want to wed a footballer" to illustrate the four million 'Brits who have never worked', featuring 26-year-old Jo Leigh who gets her boyfriends to pay all her bills. Morally dubious maybe, but the only snag with choosing Miss Leigh as the poster girl for benefit claimants is that she doesn't actually, er, claim benefits.

Don't assume either that because the subjects of these many stories have agreed to speak to the media and be photographed next to some consumer goods that they are boasting about their 'profligate' lifestyle. Even the savviest political operators can be naive about what the media can do with a little basic information.

The success of the Spartacus report demonstrated how well organised and eloquent disability campaigners have been in mounting a case for the defence, but there is no such solidarity movement for non-disabled job-seekers. In other words, they are fair game and they rarely have right of reply when they are placed in the middle of a media storm.

Speaking on ITV's Daybreak, Ms Frost denied having said that if she didn't like the new house, they'd just have to build her another one. She also pointed out that her current housing was temporary accommodation and that the family have been waiting for years to be re-housed. She is merely taking up an offer of housing that was made to her by the council, who have a legal obligation to provide adequate housing for these children.

Ms Frost is not the only single mum to have found herself at the centre of a media storm, recently Amy Crowhurst who hit the headlines ten years ago as Britain's youngest mum when she became pregnant aged 12, was castigated for an interview with Closer magazine where she allegedly claimed that getting pregnant so young was the best decision she had ever made, as now she was able to go clubbing.

When you hear her rebuttal on LBC radio, what Amy is actually saying is that she doesn't regret the birth of her children and is making the best of a difficult situation. The interview with Closer magazine was supposed to be a ten years on catch up, not a character assassination. "Am I the only one on benefits?" she asks, clearly baffled by her notoriety.

BBC Newsnight is not above such tactics either, as single mum Shanene Thorpe discovered. Innocently thinking that Newsnight were interviewing her about cuts to housing benefit, Shanene was subjected to an aggressive drubbing by political editor Allegra Stratton as to why she was claiming housing benefit in the first place when she could live with her mum. Shanene, who has a job and only claims benefit because her London rent is so high, rightfully demanded and received an apology from Newsnight for being so abysmally treated.

Cait Reilly, the University of Birmingham graduate who had the Government's 'Back to Work' scheme declared unlawful when she was forced to stock shelves in Poundland rather than being given proper work experience, was dismissed by the right wing press as another whinging lazy student, despite her confession that she hated being on benefits and is now working in a Morrisons.

All of these stories, whatever their individual detail, are merely vehicles for promoting welfare cuts. The recent appointment of controversial spin doctor 'Wizard of Oz' Lynton Crosby as Cameron's campaign manager means that it is extremely unlikely that we will see a rejection of 'nasty party' tactics on welfare reform.

Bridget Robb, interim chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, believes that the current tone of the benefits debate is unproductive and needs to change, commenting: "Welfare reform is necessary, but it will not be achieved by apportioning blame or by scare tactics. The Labour party is being too quiet on the issue of welfare reform, and should be defending the poorest in society from these underhand attacks. If the government is so confident of the 'fairness' of benefit reform, then why is it using such bully boy rhetoric against those on benefits?"

I don't know Heather Frost, I have no idea what life events have influenced her choices, but neither do you. We need to have a sensible debate on welfare reform, and soon.

Around the Web

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Jobless mum of 11 gets council to build her luxury 6-bedroom eco mansion

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Jobless mother with 11 children gets council to build her a SIX-BED house ...