Last week, the BBC Trust’s editorial standards committee published its findings on two appeals over complaints about The Future State of Welfare a BBC2 documentary fronted by the BBC journalist and Today presenter John Humphrys.
The committee partially upheld one complaint on the grounds of accuracy and impartiality, but failed to address any of the many concerns raised about the way the documentary seemed to misrepresent the government’s cuts and reforms to out-of-work disability benefits.
Disabled activists flooded Twitter on the night of the broadcast in November 2011, criticising Humphrys for “scapegoating” benefit claimants, with one saying he was “disgusted at lack of rigour with factual claims” (@MasonDAutistic) and another describing it as the “scariest piece of #Tory propaganda seen since 80s” (@Quinonostante).
But despite up to 50 complaints about the way the documentary addressed disability benefit reform, none of these issues were dealt with by the trust, the BBC’s governing body.
Disabled people who viewed the programme were furious at its claim that government figures showed “three-quarters of new claimants who were tested were deemed not to merit” employment and support allowance.
In fact, government figures showed that of those tested through the work capability assessment (WCA), and once the many successful appeals were included, only just over half of new claimants had been found fit for work.
The committee did refer to this complaint in its report, but said only that it “did not qualify to proceed to appeal”.
The programme also failed to mention the widespread criticisms of the severity, inaccuracy and inflexibility of the WCA.
Instead, Humphrys told viewers that “more stringent” tests had been brought in to “try to flush out people who are claiming on health grounds when they should not be”.
Humphrys also failed to point out that government figures showed incapacity benefit (IB) fraud was just 0.3 per cent of spending.
Other viewers were unhappy that the programme had asked pollsters Ipsos MORI to put a leading question about IB to members of the public, asking them if they agreed with the statement: “We need stricter tests to ensure people claiming IB because of sickness or disability are genuinely unable to work.”
None of these complaints were addressed in last week’s ruling by the BBC Trust’s committee.
The disabled activist and blogger Sue Marsh, a leading campaigner for WCA reform, welcomed the trust’s ruling, which she said showed the programme had been “biased”.
She said: “I thought it was literally the most unbalanced, biased piece of reporting on the reforms I had seen. I was staggered that it went out as it did.”
But she added: “It is strange that there was nothing in the trust’s report about the people who had complained from the disability community.
“I had so much feedback from people saying they had complained, and I would be very surprised if they were satisfied with any explanation that didn’t apologise.”
In 2011, a BBC spokesman told Disability News Service (DNS) that the programme could not be described as disablist because “those who are genuinely unable to work through disability or incapacity should not be impacted by the change in policy we examine”.
This week, a BBC News and Current Affairs spokeswoman said that all complaints relating to the programme had now been dealt with.
She said the “overwhelming majority” of the 144 people who complained about the programme had been “satisfied” with the BBC’s initial response, while “a handful” had appealed to the editorial complaints unit, the next stage in the complaints process.
She said these other complaints were now all “resolved”, with everyone “happy” with the response they had received, with the exception of the two the trust ruled on last week.
The spokeswoman said: “We won’t comment further on the detail of the complaints as that is a private matter between the complainant and the BBC.”
But she said that requests to film the WCA process for the documentary had been refused and Humphrys had spoken during the programme to a disabled person who had undergone an assessment, and “clearly outlined how distressing she had found it”.
She said the claim that three-quarters of new claimants failed to secure ESA was “based on figures released by the Department of Work and Pensions”.
One of the disabled activists who did complain about the programme has told DNS he believes the BBC deliberately obstructed his complaints for more than a year.
The activist, who blogs as Mason Dixon, Autistic, was forced to abandon his complaint last December because he had “no faith left in the corporation to be fair and uphold even their own written standards”.
He said he had assumed that the BBC would be “keen to preserve its journalistic integrity and the authenticity of its reputation” and that there would be “pro-active interest in correcting errors”.
Instead, he said, he encountered “dismissive indifference and stone-walling”, and was repeatedly “fobbed off” when he asked the BBC to make reasonable adjustments for him during the complaints process.
He finally called a halt to his complaint for impairment-related reasons after trying for more than a year to convince the BBC to address his concerns about the programme.
He added: “What I’ve encountered from the BBC suggests it is rotten from the inside-out; no scruples, no remorse, no concern for ethics or standards.”
The committee found last week that the documentary failed to provide the “crucial” information that nearly half of the increase in the benefits bill mentioned by the programme was due to an increase in spending on pensions, while out-of-work benefits – the subject of the documentary – were responsible for a much smaller proportion of the increase.
It also concluded that the statistics that were provided by the programme “all tended to provide the Government’s perspective”.
And it decided that the failure of accuracy had led to a breach in impartiality, although it cleared Humphrys of presenting “a personal view on a controversial subject”.
8 August 2013