The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been accused of an “appalling” attack on press freedom and disabled people’s rights after blocking a request by Disability News Service (DNS) to interview staff in one of its jobcentres.
A leaked memo in May revealed that DWP was inviting journalists from across the country into jobcentres to try to persuade them to paint a more positive picture of its new universal credit (UC) benefit system.
The memo revealed the department’s “frustration” at the negative media portrayal of its work, particularly around coverage of UC, as well as its plans to run a series of misleading adverts in the Metro free newspaper that would “myth-bust the common inaccuracies reported on UC”.
The memo spoke of “negativity and scaremongering” by journalists and said that work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd (pictured) had written to “a wide range of journalists at regional and national publications, asking them to come and see for themselves the great work we do”.
Many of the articles that resulted, particularly those that have appeared in local newspapers owned by Reach, the largest national and regional news publisher in the UK, were criticised by disabled activists for allowing jobcentre staff to praise the local impact of universal credit and to either dismiss or ignore its well-publicised flaws.
Following the release of the memo, and the string of positive articles that followed, DNS asked DWP’s press office to arrange a visit to a local jobcentre.
This would have allowed DNS to interview frontline civil servants about UC, as well as the much-criticised work capability assessment, links between DWP failings and the deaths of benefit claimants*, and efforts by jobcentre staff to support disabled people into work.
But now, more than a month after the request was submitted, DWP has turned down the DNS request.
A spokesperson said: “Unfortunately we won’t be able to accommodate your request for a jobcentre visit at this stage.
“Visits from journalists are time intensive for our jobcentre staff and we’ve therefore focused on hosting visits for newspapers only at this time.
“We hope to open up jobcentre visits to online only outlets** in the future.”
Natasha Hirst, the disabled members’ representative on the national executive council of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ)***, said DWP’s decision risked “compounding the lack of trust in their ‘mythbuster’ PR campaign if they obstruct access to journalists who have been critical of their policies in the past.
“NUJ members abide by a code of conduct to report ethically and accurately and it is vital to a well-functioning democracy that journalists are able to scrutinise the workings of government institutions.”
She added: “If the DWP are confident enough that their policies and practices are improving people’s lives, then providing access to DNS would lend an opportunity to showcase good work and reach directly to their target audience.
“Otherwise, this looks like an effort to impede press freedom.”
A spokesperson for Sheffield Disabled People Against Cuts, the grassroots group which obtained the leaked memo, said: “Once again the DWP are moving the goalposts in order to spin their lies and keep disabled people in the dark about what is happening with universal credit; this time it’s journalists on the receiving end.
“Disabled people very often have difficulty getting access to print editions of newspapers so rely on online news sources such as DNS for reports about universal credit that we have a right to access.
“We think that the DWP may once again be breaching the rights of disabled people by denying DNS and other similar platforms access to jobcentres.
“This is quite simply an extension of the hostile environment towards disabled people.”
A spokesperson for Disabled People Against Cuts added: “To say that we were shocked that DNS were denied access would be a lie – it’s exactly what we would expect from an organisation that distorts the truth so routinely that they were never likely to allow a disabled journalist anywhere where they might ask inconvenient questions of jobcentre staff.”
One well-known disabled activist, who tweets as @imajsaclaimant, said it was an “appalling” decision from DWP, which clearly only wanted to allow journalists to visit its jobcentres if they were “from publications that will give them an article that paints DWP in a positive light”.
He said DWP was “attempting to very tightly control the narrative” and the refusal to allow DNS to question jobcentre staff “reinforces what we’ve always known about DWP, that they are a terrible organisation that treats everyone with contempt.
“By denying journalists who are critical they are preventing accountability, which is what this government has avoided again and again.”
DWP is already facing an investigation by the Advertising Standards Authority into what critics say are the misleading adverts about UC that are appearing in the Metro.
Disabled activists have repeatedly warned about the impact on disabled people of UC – which combines six income-related benefits into one – and say it is “toxic” and “rotten to the core”, with “soaring” rates of foodbank use.
Earlier this month, DNS revealed that DWP had admitted an “extraordinary” failure over nearly a decade to carry out any detailed calculations on how UC would affect different groups of disabled people.
Meanwhile, the DWP spokesperson also appeared to admit this week that its press office had been making a deliberate decision not to send press releases to DNS.
When asked why DWP had stopped sending its releases to DNS, she said the press office usually sends them to journalists “on a case-by-case basis”.
She said DWP press releases can also be found on the government website, but she added: “I have noted your request to receive our press releases, and I will send on those that we think you will find of interest.”
**Sign the Jodey Whiting petition here if you would like to see a debate in the House of Commons on calls for an independent inquiry into links between DWP and the deaths of benefit claimants. If you sign the petition, please note you will need to confirm your signature by clicking on an email you will be sent automatically by the House of Commons petitions committee
**DNS is a news agency, not an “online only outlet”
***John Pring, editor of DNS, is an NUJ member
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