The Sun Gets Tough on Scroungers

Posted: August 15, 2010 in Media & Journalism, The economy

I see that the Sun newspaper has launched a new campaign: “Help Us Stop £1.5bn benefits scroungers”.  It is appealing to readers to call its special hotline about those awful people next door who are earning “hundreds of thousands of pounds a week” on falsely claimed benefits at the expense of decent-hardworking-taxpayers. The paper promises to name and shame them with photos and details of how much they’re cheating the system. And it says it will pass the information on to the Dept of Work and Pensions.  Looking at the coverage so far, though, it seems odd, that these “benefit scroungers” are so happy to help the paper name and shame them, which makes one wonder what they’re being told when the Sun comes calling for their details and photos.

Anyway, the paper wheeled out its managing editor, Graham Dudman, to explain its campaign on BBC Newsnight (12 August), along with Anne McElvoy of the London Standard for critical balance no doubt. Dudman claimed to speak for the “silent majority” among its readers who are outraged that, in the middle of difficult economic times, there are people claiming benefits to have widescreen TVs, computer games and nice clothes! “That’s not what the benefits system is about”, he says, implying two things here. First, that perhaps benefit claimants should have the decency to look a lot worse off, live in a hostel or out of plastic bags; or maybe walk the streets in rags and without a shower for days; second, and more importantly I suspect,  that the system should be so draconian and miserly that it forces people to go looking for work. But as McElvoy points out, the system actually disadvantages claimants who do want to work, leaving them to make a very rational, understandable choice between being better off on benefits than dirt poor in a job. Would the Sun maybe start a campaign to change things for the better? Of course not!  For as Dudman quite happily admits, the campaign makes for “great stories and people are outraged by them. […] We like to get people angry and shock and amaze on every page!”  Indeed.

But the thing about these populist campaigns is that they appeal to the mob mentality, to the petty and the vindictive who seethe and fester as they see their neighbours do better than they and have more stuff. It is likely that most will have no hard evidence to shop their neighbour for cheating, that it’s prejudice or venegeance that really drives them. And precedent should tell us that it is very likely they will inform on perfectly innocent people. In the past ten years, there’s been a series of newspaper campaigns to name and shame your local paedophile, some of which led to libellous mistakes and even mob law on the streets. In 2003, the Sun named and shamed a convicted paedophile only to identify him with the photo of a totally innocent man. In an incident in Wales,  in 2007, a crowd sprayed graffiti on the house of a woman they “knew” to be a paedophile; she was actually a paediatrician. But, like all rabble rousers, papers like the Sun will deny responsibility for the consequences of their incitement. 

Now it’s true that there are people who cheat the benefits system and the Sun’s estimate of the total bill to the state – £1.5bn – is correct. However, it doesn’t tell us that another £3.1bn is lost through administrative error, where claimants are paid too much; nor does it set that against the millions that go unclaimed by people who don’t realise they’re entitled to it. The paper could also have put the problem into perspective by pointing out that the exchequer loses £15bn every year through tax evasion. Yes, it’s shocking! There are decent-hardworking-taxpayers out there who are not paying their taxes, though I somehow doubt the Sun will be launching a campaign against them anytime soon.  Watch this space, though. The hour of judgment is nigh.


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