There has been a “significant increase” in the number of negative stories about disabled people in national newspapers over the last six years, according to new research.
The Bad News for Disabled People report, which compared articles from 2004-05 and 2010-11, found that the proportion of stories about disability benefit fraud had more than doubled.
When focus groups were asked to describe a typical story in the newspapers about disability, benefit fraud was the most common subject mentioned.
There were also more stories discussing the alleged “burden” that disabled people are placing on the economy, and a fall in the number of articles about disability discrimination.
All the focus groups used by the researchers thought fraud was much higher than its true level, with suggestions that as many as 70 per cent of claims were fraudulent, justifying this by referring to articles they had read in newspapers.
Government figures estimate that the overpayment of incapacity benefit due to fraud is just £20 million a year, or 0.3 per cent of spending.
The report, written by the University of Glasgow’s Strathclyde Centre for Disability Research and Glasgow Media Group and commissioned by the disabled people’s organisation Inclusion London, concludes that there has been a shift from a “largely patronising portrayal of disabled people” in 2004-05 to one where “the predominant focus has been on disabled people as scroungers”.
There has also been a sharp rise in the use of offensive language used to describe disabled people, with terms such as “scrounger”, “cheat” and “skiver” found in 18 per cent of tabloid articles about disability in 2010-11 compared to 12 per cent in the same period in 2004-5.
The Daily Mirror increased its use of “pejorative” – unpleasant or disparaging – language from 4.3 per cent to 8.8 per cent of articles, but the greatest increase was found in the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the Sun.
There was a large fall in the number of articles in which the suggestion that disabled people were “deserving” claimants of benefits was a “dominant theme”, with such articles in the Sun falling from 7.9 per cent in 2004-05 to zero in 2010-11, in the Daily Express falling from 6.2 per cent to 1.1 per cent, and in the Daily Mail falling from 1.4 per cent to 0.8 per cent.
This coverage contrasted with the Guardian and the Daily Mirror, both of which ran stories expressing concern about the impact of cuts to disability benefits on disabled people.
Professor Nick Watson, of the Strathclyde Centre, said: “Much of the coverage in the tabloid press is at best questionable and some of it is deeply offensive.”
Researchers found a “significant increase” in the reporting of disability in the five newspapers over the last six years, with 713 disability-related articles in 2004-5 compared with 1,015 in a similar period in 2010-11.
Anne Kane, Inclusion London’s policy manager, said media coverage was becoming more offensive at the same time that disabled people were facing the “savage impact” of government spending cuts.
She said: “The researchers at Glasgow University have done a great service by analysing the disturbing way in which bad government policy finds its reflection in pejorative language and an increasing portrayal of disabled people as ‘undeserving’.”
A senior Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said: “It is difficult for us to comment on what stories the media run or choose not to run.
“Ministers have said repeatedly that what they wanted to do is get the system working the way it should do for people who need help from the welfare state. We are not interested in tarring people as fraudsters or anything like that.”
He denied that the government was failing to take any action when newspapers published inaccurate and hostile stories about disability benefits.
Although he could not say whether he and his colleagues had complained about particular stories or to particular papers, he said DWP press officers frequently phoned the media when they published or broadcast inaccurate stories.
He added: “We phone up journalists and we attempt to correct the stories. My team do it, I do it, we try and correct articles when we see inaccuracies.”
20 October 2011