Documents the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) tried to keep hidden for more than a year have revealed some of the tactics civil servants have used to manipulate media coverage on welfare reform.
The “DWP media evaluation” reports have been produced by a member of the department’s communications team nearly every month since March 2014 and analyse mainstream and social media coverage of DWP issues.
But DWP has repeatedly refused to release the reports – arguing that they were “commercially sensitive” – since Disability News Service (DNS) first asked to see them through a freedom of information request in September 2015.
It took a complaint by DNS to the Information Commissioner’s Office for DWP to agree finally to release the reports, more than 13 months later.
The documents detail how the DWP press office has tried to reduce negative media coverage, revealing that it successfully “dampened interest” in a report on benefit sanctions by the Commons work and pensions select committee in March 2015, resulting in “a smaller spike in coverage than previous critical reports”.
The committee’s March 2015 report had called on the government to set up a new independent body – modelled on the police complaints watchdog – to investigate the deaths of benefit claimants, and called for an independent inquiry to investigate whether benefit sanctions were being applied “appropriately, fairly and proportionately”.
Three months later, the June 2015 media evaluation report bragged how the press office was able to secure a “favourable article” about its much-criticised Disability Confident campaign and the “importance of the vast array of disability reforms” from the “typically unsupportive” Guardian, by offering some “exclusive words from the Minister for Disabled People”.
The following month, the evaluation report revealed how the press office had managed to secure a slight majority of positive coverage, “despite national figures showing an overall rise in unemployment for the first time in two years”, by arranging “a push on regional media interviews with local Jobcentre Plus spokespeople”.
Among the information contained in the reports is the number of stories DWP press officers have managed to “spike” – or persuade journalists not to publish – with the March 2014 report showing they succeeded in killing 44 stories in the previous month.
In August 2015, in a section titled “crisis communications”, the author of the report details how the press office approached two “negative” stories: the publication of long-awaited statistics on the deaths of benefit claimants, and the revelation that DWP had used made-up quotations from fictitious people taking about how they had been helped by the benefits system (pictured).
The evaluation report said the death statistics release had “required careful handling”, and it described how its press officers had “proactively briefed broadcasters and newspapers” and “spiked coverage in the Guardian, in the FT, Express and ITV”, while its “rapid press rebuttals got corrections in both the Guardian and Daily Mirror, changing the most negative terms”.
But the report admitted that there had been 57,000 mentions of the hashtag #fakeDWPstories on Twitter during August 2015.
After an initial “spike of activity”, the hashtag began to accompany subsequent, unrelated DWP announcements, forcing the department to scale back all of its social media activity to “ensure the story was contained”.
The reports also confirm what most disabled activists will have assumed, that DWP’s press office considers the Daily Mail and the Sun newspapers to be “supportive” of its work, while the Guardian is seen as “typically unsupportive”.
There are also suggestions that the press office’s efforts on social media to promote its “crackdown on benefit fraud” have not always proved successful, with the admission in the October 2014 report that three message sent out on the social media site Twitter had been retweeted (or shared) just 18 times, even though DWP had nearly 85,000 followers.
Although the reports are tilted heavily towards celebrating any DWP communications successes, there is also evidence of the success of disabled people’s opposition to the government’s welfare reforms.
A “word cloud” (an image showing how often various words and phrases are used, with the size of those words of phrases demonstrating their frequency) of Twitter messages sent to @DWPpressoffice in the month leading up to the November 2014 report showed that – apart from “work and pensions”, “DWP” and “IDS” – the words and phrases used most often were “Mylegalforum”, “disabled people”, “ColdWeatherPayments” and “WOWpetition”.
Disabled activist David Gillon said the evaluation reports revealed the “tawdry, Yes Minister-ish world of the DWP press office, where all that matters is the suppression of any story that might cast DWP in a bad light, no matter where the public interest may lie”.
He said: “The numbers of stories the press office has caused to be spiked, often more than one a day, is even reported as a performance metric.
“We also see the DWP proactively trying to limit the reporting of critical reports from parliament, and working flat out to secure corrections to critical personal independence payment stories, a fascinating contrast to the usual grossly-delayed ‘DWP are unable to comment on individual cases’.
“And if the news is bad enough, as with the 57,000 #FakeDWPStories tweets, the DWP turtle will even pull its head into its shell and retreat from social media entirely. It appears that even DWP recognises it remains a toxic brand.
“Meanwhile, it is headline news that an op-ed piece in the Huffington Post by the minister for disabled people was retweeted a whole 89 times.
“That’s the kind of success criteria that can only be branded Disability Confident!”