A press watchdog has received hundreds of complaints about a “toxic” article by the Daily Telegraph which asked its readers to calculate how much disabled people on out-of-work benefits were contributing to the country’s “tax burden”.
The Telegraph wrote that millions were claiming benefits “without ever having to look for work” and 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”.
More than 600 people have so far complained about the article to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), which is currently assessing the complaints.
Disabled campaigners warned this week that the news story, following a “hateful” Twitter post by Channel 5’s Jeremy Vine show last month, marks a return to “divisive” and “damaging” media coverage that incites hatred of disabled people.
Dr Jay Watts, a disabled activist and consultant clinical psychologist, drafted a letter to the Telegraph that has been signed by nearly 300 mental health professionals and describes the “distress” the “divisive” story has caused.
The letter says it is “troubling to observe the return of a divisive narrative last seen at the height of austerity politics, which is likely to lead to an increase in hate crimes and have a profound impact on psychological well-being and societal cohesion”.
It says: “The insinuation that benefit claimants are ‘lazy’ or ‘undeserving’, reminiscent of tropes seen in TV shows like ‘Benefits Street’, oversimplifies and misrepresents the realities of their lives.
“The level of shaming in the public sphere is now so bad that we as clinicians sometimes have to beg people in desperate need to apply for benefits so fearful are they of being seen as a burden.”
In a statement, Disability Rights UK (DR UK) – one of the organisations to complain to IPSO – said there had been “an increase in incitement of hatred against disabled people from some sections of our media”, including the Telegraph.
It said the aim of the article was “to vilify people who are too sick to work by angering those who are paying taxes that go towards disability benefits”, and it warned: “We must resist these toxic narratives that only lead to further abuse and vilification of disabled people.”
Kamran Mallick, DR UK’s chief executive, said: “Disability hate speech is totally abhorrent and must stop.
“We urge the Telegraph to cease their campaign against disabled people unable to work.”
The National Union of Journalists’ disabled members’ council also issued a statement, although it did not mention the Telegraph directly.
Natasha Hirst, a disabled journalist and recently elected president of the union, said: “Recent negative reporting on out of work sickness benefits has reinforced a damaging narrative that blames and punishes disabled people for situations that are not of their making.
“Disabled people are rightfully angry to be the target of inhumane and degrading rhetoric in print and broadcast media.
“Journalism is a crucial tool to scrutinise and hold those in power to account and there is no place for toxic reporting that undermines and further marginalises a significant proportion of the population.”
Asked if the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) shared the concerns of those who complained to IPSO that the Telegraph coverage was reinforcing a damaging narrative that blamed disabled people for situations that were not of their making and targeted them with “inhumane and degrading rhetoric”, a DWP spokesperson declined to comment.
Meanwhile, the same “Jeremy Vine on 5” Twitter account that asked last month if it was time to “crack down” on sick and disabled people on out-of-work benefits, has now asked if the increasing number of young adults who are not in work because of illness means they should be described as the “‘sick-note’ generation”.
The post again caused widespread anger among disabled people on social media, with activists describing it as “appalling”, “anti disabled” and an “attack on disabled people”.
It is 12 years since disabled activists demonstrated outside the central London offices of the Daily Mail to protest about that newspaper’s “disablist” and “defamatory” coverage of the government’s push to force people off incapacity benefits.
Lord Justice Leveson’s report into press standards later highlighted the “significant tendency” among newspapers to publish “prejudicial or pejorative” references to disabled people and other minorities.
Leveson included three examples of “misleading articles” on incapacity benefit reform, which he said were examples of the “harmful” practice in parts of the media of “prioritising the worldview of a title over the accuracy of a story”.
One of them was a Daily Telegraph news story.
Activists now believe the government is again using the media to scapegoat disabled people for the UK’s economic problems, and to try to distract the public from its own difficulties.
It comes only weeks after the minister for disabled people, Tom Pursglove, faced calls to resign after uploading a hostile and “dangerous” post about benefit fraud on social media that warned claimants his department would “track you down” and “bring you to justice”.
Following the spate of distressing media “messaging” about benefit claimants, the grassroots, user-led mental health group Recovery in the Bin (RiTB) put out a call for testimony of what life is like for DWP claimants.
Some of that testimony was published this week.
One claimant told RiTB: “I know that I only deserve to live if I’m employed, that’s the message.”
Another comment described how the impact of “DWP processes and their media has had a direct impact on my mental health to the degree that I would rate it worse than my illness, worse than being sectioned and forcibly medicated, worse than being stitched with no local anaesthetic, worse than surviving a suicide attempt”.
Several of those who contacted RiTB spoke of how they felt like a “burden” and “undeserving”, with one describing the disability benefits system as “a special kind of hell on earth designed to make us feel subhuman, which is what most people think we are”.
One claimant said that watching the Pursglove video had caused a “psychotic episode” and led to a police welfare check.
And one of those who responded to RiTB wrote: “I’ve attempted suicide, been paranoid and psychotic and detained under the [Mental Health Act].
“I think that there is more threat to my life from the benefits system than anything else.”
One claimant told RiTB: “Am not on benefits anymore but I can still feel that fear.
“The recent video from the DWP brought it all back. The feeling of being watched, never knowing who or when. Being told by a support worker that I was worrying over nothing.
“Feeling like a fraud and doubting myself all the time. It was exhausting.”
DNS asked the Telegraph if it would correct at least one obvious inaccuracy in its article, whether it regretted its coverage, and if it would apologise in print and take action to ensure that further such articles are not published.
The Telegraph declined to answer those questions, but a spokesperson said that “more than 600 complaints have been referred to IPSO, we will await to hear from the regulator regarding the matter”.
Picture: (From left to right) Natasha Hirst, Kamran Mallick and Dr Jay Watts
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