Channel 4 and BBC have attempted to justify plans to broadcast two separate fly-on-the-wall documentary series based in jobcentres, both of which could enable ministers to continue their campaign to undermine critical reporting on their “toxic” universal credit benefit system.
Only last week, the Advertising Standards Authority ruled that misleading Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) adverts promoting universal credit (UC) – mostly published in the Metro free newspaper – had breached its rules.
The adverts were part of a secret DWP campaign “to tackle misconceptions and improve the reputation of UC” – first revealed after a leaked DWP memo was passed to the Guardian by disabled activists earlier this year – despite overwhelming evidence that has exposed the system’s flaws.
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 have repeatedly warned about its impact on disabled people.
BBC had already announced plans for a new three-part documentary, in which DWP said the broadcaster would “intelligently explore” UC by “spending time with our people who are instrumental in implementing it”.
But Disability News Service (DNS) can reveal that Channel 4 has also secured permission from DWP for significant behind-the-scenes filming for its own fly-on-the-wall documentary series, which will again be based in a jobcentre, this time in Leeds, and is also set to be aired next year.
Both series sound strikingly similar.
The six-part Channel 4 documentary series will be filmed at Southern House jobcentre in Leeds over the next five months, with DWP telling staff it will follow “the journeys of customers, the relationships between customers and Work Coaches, and showcasing the breadth of support we offer”.
The BBC series is being filmed in three Liverpool jobcentres, and is supposed to “take a fresh look” at the support provided under universal credit, “as well as exploring the human stories of some of the 78,000 people who work in the DWP” and “the personal stories of the claimants and their families contending with their claims”.
And just as with the BBC documentary, the PCS union has warned members working in the Leeds jobcentre that they are likely to face disciplinary action from managers if they criticise DWP, or universal credit, while being interviewed for the Channel 4 film.
A Channel 4 spokesperson insisted that its series was not focused on universal credit, but instead will “follow Jobcentre staff as they work with their customers with the aim of improving their future employment opportunities”.
The broadcaster said it “may also follow the lives of some of these customers at home as well as other related activities or schemes, such as work placements or outreach”.
The spokesperson insisted that the series was “very different” to the one the BBC is filming, even though both are set in jobcentres, and both will inevitably feature claimants on universal credit.
Asked about concerns that the series would be used by DWP as propaganda for its universal credit “myth-busting” campaign, the Channel 4 spokesperson said: “In accordance with all relevant legal and regulatory obligations the series will be a fair and accurate reflection of life in and around the job centre, of its staff and its customers.”
He said the idea had been proposed by Channel 4 and not DWP, and he added: “Lots of series have been made about benefits, mostly focussing on the extreme end of the spectrum and the long-term unemployed.
“This will be the first series placing equal emphasis on the human stories on both sides of the desk – challenging preconceptions about staff and customers.”
But an internal memo from the PCS union has warned of its “real concerns” about the Channel 4 documentary, “mainly around staff who do agree to be filmed and the potential penalties if they are critical of the DWP”.
The union memo recommends “that any member who is concerned about this should not volunteer as there is no guarantee that they won’t be disciplined”.
Asked about concerns that jobcentre staff would not be allowed to speak openly about UC, a Channel 4 spokesperson said: “We understand from the DWP assurances have been given to all staff that full support will be given during the filming process.
“We have no reason to believe that anyone will face disciplinary proceedings as a result of their involvement in the series.”
But Jennifer Jones, from Disabled People Against Cuts Sheffield, which first obtained the leaked DWP memo earlier this year, said the documentaries were “designed to manipulate public perception into believing that universal credit is a good and successful welfare system despite the overwhelming evidence to contradict that”.
She said it felt as though the public were being “bombarded from all angles” with DWP propaganda.
She said: “We seem to be entering an era where no matter which way you turn you are pelted with government propaganda.”
She added: “DWP workers have effectively signed a gagging clause which prevents them from highlighting any negative aspect or element of jobcentre operations that is unsuccessful or could be better.
“Due to this fact we want to ensure that the public understands that you will not ever see an accurate representation of the DWP on camera from somebody who works for them, because if they speak out against the department in any way, shape or form they will face a grievance, and possibly even be sacked.”
She said it was a “travesty” that any DWP workers were co-operating with the two documentaries.
She added: “We will campaign tirelessly to highlight the truth that these programmes are nothing short of government propaganda.
“There’s been a hostile environment towards disabled people for a long time under the coalition and Conservative governments.
“This hostile environment seems to be extending to all welfare claimants.”
Jones said DWP appeared to be “on a mission to drive up the reputation of universal credit in a sick attempt to suffocate the voices of those of us who have lived experience of how harmful this system truly is.
“Universal credit is a failing system and we continue to call for it to be stopped and scrapped.
“We will not rest until it is. Our lives depend on real change.”
A BBC spokesperson declined to say this week whether the broadcaster was concerned that its series would be seen as a continuation of DWP’s campaign of UC “myth-busting”, and that it was almost certain to hear only from DWP staff who were happy to repeat the DWP line on UC, because of the potential for disciplinary proceedings.
She said in a statement: “This documentary was proposed by the BBC, not the DWP.
“We have a formal access agreement with the DWP allowing us to partake in observational filming at their jobcentres and other locations where we have filmed with a large number of staff and claimants.
“As with all of our output, the BBC has editorial control over this documentary, which will adhere to our strict editorial guidelines on impartiality.”
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