A national newspaper has ignored concerns about a series of “misleading” Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) adverts that are set to air-brush its “toxic” universal credit (UC) benefit system.
The Metro newspaper – run by the company that owns the Daily Mail – sparked outrage last week over its decision to take hundreds of thousands of pounds from DWP in exchange for a major nine-week series of advertising features.
It led to activists from Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) promising to target the newspaper with a direct action campaign aimed at preventing copies of the Metro from being read when the advertising campaign began.
Following the concerns raised about the campaign, Metro and DWP brought forward the publication date and launched it yesterday (Wednesday).
It was launched on the same day that the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights published a report that was deeply critical of UC (see separate story), which he said had caused severe hardship and had “built a digital barrier that obstructs access to benefits”.
The Metro adverts are part of a nationwide DWP campaign to “myth-bust the common inaccuracies reported on UC”.
Disabled activists have repeatedly warned that UC – which combines six income-related benefits into one – is “toxic” and “rotten to the core”, with “soaring” rates of sanctions and foodbank use in areas where it has been introduced, and repeated warnings about its impact on disabled people.
But a leaked memo – seen by Disability News Service – says a series of Metro advertising features will be part of a wider campaign “to tackle misconceptions and improve the reputation of UC” by persuading newspapers and other media to run more positive stories about it.
It also admitted that DWP will deliberately not be using its logos on the advertising features, intentionally disguising their origin, which appears to be a breach of advertising guidelines.
The first advertorials do include a line stating that they are an “advertisement feature from the Department for Work and Pensions”, but apparently include no DWP or government logos.
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has already received complaints about the adverts.
An ASA spokesperson said: “We’re carefully assessing the complaints and the ad campaign to establish if there are grounds for further action.
“At this stage, no decision has been made as to whether we will launch an investigation.”
A DWP spokesperson said: “It is important people know about the benefits available to them, and we regularly advertise universal credit.
“All our advertising abides by the strict guidelines set by the Advertising Standards Authority.”
A separate document, from the PCS union, has expressed concerns about a new three-part BBC documentary, which DWP said in its staff memo would provide “a fantastic opportunity” as part of its new campaign.
The PCS document warns of potential penalties that might be imposed on staff who are critical of DWP when interviewed by the BBC.
After being asked about disabled people’s concerns about the adverts, a Metro spokesperson said: “Metro takes advertising standards seriously. We are looking into the matters you’ve raised.
“Metro is a non-partisan newspaper which carries advertisements for a range of clients, including government departments and unions.”
But just two days later, her newspaper ran the first of the DWP advertorial features.
She had not responded to further questions by noon today (Thursday).
Meanwhile, a second newspaper group has also been forced to defend its role in the DWP campaign.
Reach, which publishes national newspapers like the Daily Mirror and a string of local papers, has been criticised for running at least three positive articles about universal credit, which all focus on local DWP staff praising the impact it has had locally and either dismissing or ignoring its well-publicised flaws.
One of the articles was headlined, “I Think Universal Credit is Great – Here’s Why”, and another “18 months ago I was unemployed and skint – going to the Job Centre changed my life”, both published by the Leicester Mercury.
A third article, published by the Plymouth Herald, was headlined “The truth about Universal Credit: DWP staff at the Plymouth Jobcentre reveal all”.
Two of the articles have been re-published by other newspapers in the same group, with the “I think Universal Credit is Great” article published by at least 15 other papers.
DNS tried this week to put questions about the articles and the DWP memo to Reach, but it only commented in depth on one of the Leicester stories, which was widely shared with other newspapers in the group.
The Mercury’s editor also published a lengthy rebuttal of criticism of his newspaper by the Guardian, which first reported on the leaked memo.
David Higgerson, who was described as both Reach’s chief audience officer and its digital editorial director, said of the “I think Universal Credit is Great” article: “This article reported on a different view on an issue various Reach titles have been reporting on since 2013, and also contained context about the severe challenges universal credit has caused many people.
“We have found no evidence that the sources quoted in this piece were forced to provide positive comments about their experiences working for the DWP.”
He added: “We regularly choose to syndicate articles when we believe the story will be of interest to other readers, as was the case here and with many other stories.
“Furthermore, in the last 12 months we have published more than 1,100 articles on Universal Credit across the Reach group, including national and local titles, the majority of which have been critical.
“The government regularly advertises with us and other news brands, however this is not something that would be made to bear on a journalist’s reporting.
“There was no undue pressure, financial or otherwise, to publish this story or the others raised here.”
Higgerson declined to respond to questions about the DWP memo, and suggestions that his company had become caught up in DWP’s “myth-busting” campaign.
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