Union activists have called for action over discriminatory articles in a national newspaper that “legitimise” hate speech by attacking disabled benefit claimants.
Disabled journalists – backed overwhelmingly by fellow union activists – called this week for the press regulator to strengthen its code of practice, following news stories published by the Daily Telegraph.
They said the “distorted narratives” contained in the Telegraph articles legitimise disability hate speech and “demonise” disabled people who are unable to work.
The emergency motion submitted by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ)* to the TUC Disabled Workers Conference in Bournemouth yesterday (Wednesday) called on the TUC to support a campaign that demands action by the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO).
IPSO is supposed to regulate the Telegraph but it has made it clear that it cannot investigate such news stories because they attack a group of people rather than named individuals, despite receiving more than 600 complaints about one of the Telegraph stories.
But Natasha Hirst, the first disabled activist to become NUJ president, said this leaves disabled people “open to being targeted”.
She told the conference that the kind of narratives contained in the Telegraph articles “legitimise hate speech”.
In May, Jeremy Vine’s Channel 5 television show published a social media post that asked if it was wrong for “taxpayers” to pay “indefinitely” for the benefits of those “deemed too sick to work”.
Last month, the Telegraph sparked hundreds of complaints to IPSO over a “toxic” article which asked its readers to calculate how much disabled people on out-of-work benefits were contributing to the country’s “tax burden”, and claiming that millions were claiming benefits “without ever having to look for work”.
It produced an automatic calculator that allowed readers to discover “just how much of our hard-won salaries are spent on the benefits of those who do not work”.
Last week, the Telegraph ran another news story (paywall) that accused the government of “wasting taxpayers’ money” on a “profligate” benefits system by funding people with mental distress to “claim £40,000 cars on benefits” through the Motability scheme.
Hirst told fellow delegates: “This sort of reporting is a dog whistle for the far-right.
“It is too easy for the owners of corporations like the Telegraph to get away with unethical journalism because we have a regulator [IPSO] that cannot grasp and doesn’t care how damaging this kind of reporting is.”
She warned of the lessons from history that show the consequences of the dehumanisation of disabled people, with the Aktion T4 programme in Nazi Germany leading to the systematic murder of at least a quarter of a million disabled people.
Hirst said: “We must remember our history.
“The drip-drip-drip of inhumane and degrading rhetoric meant it was acceptable for disabled lives to be extinguished, lives like yours and mine.”
Nicky Fitzsimmons, from USDAW, seconding the NUJ motion, told delegates: “We know from bitter experience that the portrayal of benefit claimants as scroungers, as lazy and workshy has very real and damaging consequences for disabled people.”
She said the articles were designed to portray disabled people as a group apart and “something other, a group that doesn’t pay its way and one that is getting away with something for nothing”.
She said that a member of her delegation, who is visually-impaired and uses a white cane, had recently thanked someone for holding a hotel door open for them in Blackpool, only for that person to hurl abuse at her, saying she was only using the cane to get personal independence payment (PIP), even though she does not currently receive PIP.
Hannah David, from the PCS union, read out a comment from a member who works for the Department for Work and Pensions.
They said the government and right-wing press “continue to feed the narrative” of disabled people “languishing” at home and living off the state, to try to push sick and disabled people off benefits and into “inappropriate low-paid work”.
They added: “Language is important and it’s important that we work to change this rhetoric, both from government and the press.”
Dan Edge, from Equity, who works in the arts, theatre, cinema and television, said he had spent years working to develop “positive narratives around disability” and that he was tired of seeing his work “undone” by articles such as those in the Telegraph.
He said the press “needs to be held to account”.
Paulette Ennever, from NASUWT, said such demonisation of disabled benefit claimants had “plagued our society for too long”, with the media portraying disabled people as “burdens on society”.
The motion was unanimously passed by delegates.
Earlier, the TUC’s general secretary, Paul Nowak, told the conference that media organisations like the Telegraph were “very clear that the problem isn’t the systemic barriers that you face, it’s that disabled people are scroungers leaching off the taxes of the so-called strivers.
“That’s utter tosh. It’s utter bullshit. It’s an insult to disabled people, it’s an insult to tax-payers, and it’s an insult to journalists.”
He praised the NUJ for exposing the Telegraph’s “nasty, inaccurate, right-wing drivel”.
The NUJ wants the IPSO code of practice to be extended to allow complaints to be made about discrimination against groups of people.
It also wants IPSO to use its powers to monitor coverage of disability issues in national newspapers so it can act against “systemic negative framing” of disabled people.
And it wants IPSO to work with the NUJ and disabled people’s organisations to produce guidelines on disability reporting.
*DNS editor John Pring is an NUJ member
Picture: NUJ’s delegates at the conference (from left to right) Lynn Degele, Ann Galpin, Johny Cassidy and Natasha Hirst
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