Wednesday, January 18, 2012

I'm confused by the BBC

The last couple of weeks have seen the Coalition's Welfare Reform Bill (WRB) being voted on in the House of Lords.

There are two main aspects of disability benefits. First is ESA, Employment Support Allowance. This is the money given to people who are unable to work because of illness or disability. Then there is DLA, Disability Living Allowance. This is the money given to people regardless of their income or whether or not they are in work, in recognition of the increased costs that come with disability.

It is possible to get both; it is also possible to be eligible for either one but not the other. I myself get DLA (because I have substantial disability-related costs) but not ESA (because I am working).

Part of the WRB includes plans to replace DLA with PIP, Personal Independence Payments. One of the stated aims of the WRB is to reduce the DLA spend by 20%. Since the DWP's (Department of Work and Pensions) own figures show that fraud is only 0.5%, this means that genuinely disabled people are going to be hit by this - which is why we're all worried.

(Is everyone keeping up with the abbreviations at the back? A cynical person might think that part of the reason for renaming as well as reforming this benefit is to make it far too complicated for the average news column to be able to report on.)

Disability campaigners have been asking for a six-month pause to the WRB so that a proper independent consultation can be carried out, and to start the change slowly with a pilot project to uncover and iron out the teething troubles. We are of the opinion that if the government is going to fiddle about with the benefits that support the most vulnerable, most disabled, and/or most ill people in the country (including many who are terminally ill and only claiming for their last few months of life) they should think really carefully about it and be sure that they will do as little damage to as few people as possible.

Last night, the Lords voted. The government won, by 16 votes, the WRB rattles on to the next stage. The good news is that in order to swing the vote, Lord Freud had to make an awful lot of promises - under oath and on the record - about the implementation of PIP. Our amendments aren't passed, but some of what we were asking for in them has been conceded, and that's more than many of us expected.

What does the BBC have to do with this?

Well, the BBC is confusing me.

First, they ignored the issue. If you were on Twitter, you can't have missed the #spartacusreport hashtag that was top trending in the UK for most of last week. It refers to the Responsible Reform report. Auntie Beeb had time to do all sorts of analysis about middle-class shoplifting, but did not so much as acknowledge our existence.

Then Radio 4's News Quiz did sterling work using comedy to demonstrate exactly how ridiculous the proposals are. Hat-tip to Sandy Toksvig and Sue Perkins in particular.

But from there on in, and in the sections of the Corporation that are defined as News rather than Entertainment, it's been the government line all the way.

For instance, Maria Miller, the person who is laughably job-titled Minister "For" Disabled People, was given unchallenged airtime to claim that Responsible Reform had only used 10% of the responses to the initial WRB proposals. Technically, that's true. There were over 5,000 responses and we only used about 500. Why? Well, the 500 responses we were allowed to use were official responses from "public" people like the Mayor of London (who objected to the proposals on several counts) and organisations like the Papworth Trust, Mind, and Scope (who also objected to the proposals on several counts). The report uses all of the "official" responses to which we were granted access. However, for obvious reasons, we weren't allowed access to the private responses from private individuals. This includes the responses from many campaigners who had written to describe how they, personally, as individuals, would be affected and what their fears were. Yet to hear Miller speak, you'd think we'd cherry-picked a tiny number of supportive statements and ignored thousands of reports in support of the WRB.

Where was the balanced reporting? Where was the skeptical journalist to ask Miller if the thousands of private responses we weren't allowed to use were broadly for or against the government proposals? Why are her vague and often misleading comments allowed to pass unchallenged?

And then this morning, this article (which I'm copy/pasting from in case it gets edited in future, as the BBC often do):
"The government has headed off a House of Lords defeat over plans to replace the Disability Living Allowance.

Ministers want to amend the system to make sure claimants undergo more testing, but opponents say this will mean 500,000 people will lose benefits."

Firstly, the 500,000 losing benefits. The WRB has a stated aim to reduce DLA by 20%. There are 3.2 million people on DLA (source:; a 20% reduction is therefore 640,000 genuinely disabled individuals. So we say that the WRB - not the testing - will mean 500,000 people lose benefits partly because it's a nice round number and partly so that no one can accuse us of over-egging the pudding.

Secondly, ministers do not want to make sure we undergo more testing. They want us to undergo different testing (for which they will pay a private company because they think asking our NHS doctors for medical evidence is inappropriate) and they want us to undergo more frequently repeated testing.

We have said that making claimants with incurable conditions undergo frequently repeated testing is a waste of governmental time and money ("no, my leg still hasn't grown back").
We have also said that, particularly with regard to people with mental health issues, too frequently repeated testing causes distress to claimants which may impair their recovery.

We do not pretend, nor have we ever said, that making claimants undergo more testing will mean 500,000 people losing benefits. Those two items don't belong in the same paragraph, let alone the same sentence.

You get the idea. There are scores of examples just from the last two days - far too many to deconstruct all of them. We are not seeing balance from the BBC. First we were dismissed and ignored, now we are being misrepresented as ill-informed scare-mongerers making disjointed and illogical claims that we have never made, while Miller and her ilk are permitted to broadcast spin and propaganda that the WRB itself and the DWP's own statistics disprove.

The reason I feel upset by this behaviour from the BBC when I can usually ignore it from the Daily Mail is the same reason why I feel more betrayed by the 65 Liberal Democrat lords who voted with the government than I do by the 150 Conservative lords. When people or organisations behave in the way you expect, it doesn't bother you - but when people or organisations you believe in let you down, it stings.

We don't expect the BBC to support us, but we expect neutrality, balance, investigation, factual reporting. We're obviously upset that the Lords' vote went against us, but the way the BBC are treating and portraying us only increases the negative image of disabled people and adds insult to injury.


katharine said...

Brilliant piece of writing. I agree with everything you have said. So many things in articles written about WRB, confuse and get the facts wrong misleading the public about what its about.

Could write lots more but brain has conked out. Just found your post after clicking at the bottom of Sue Marsh's post today.

p.s I have ME too

Julie said...

We're experiencing the same from the Beeb regarding the Health and Social Care Bill. For the past year and a half, everyone who is anyone in medicine has opposed this bill as representing the breaking up of the NHS, but the Beeb hasn't reported it. Now they have tried to tag that opposition onto the row about NHS pensions, as if it's got something to do with that. There's definitely someone leaning on the Beeb to stop them reporting on these issues.

Unknown said...

Thank you for simplifying it all, so helpful amongst all the wordspeak. Keep it up!

Joseph said...

Excelent post! BBC should take care more of their online activites.

Oh, and serem ti se u carapu! Keep writing!

Anonymous said...

Excelent post! BBC should take care more of their online activites.

Oh, and serem ti se u carapu! Keep writing!

NBWK said...

I hear from a lot of Brits with disabilities (other club footers as meself) about all this NHS claptrap, but I don't hear anyone saying its time to have 10,000 wheelchairs and 50K crutch-riders show up outside the H of L and Numero 10 Downing and putting on a real stink of an upset-we-are-and-ain't-leavin'-soon to-do. Letters get you nowhere, calls get put on hold, email - a joke, ya? But clog the streets, make the Bobs haul folks off in their wheelchairs by the hundreds, and all on the evening telly - guess what? That is how you get some real awake-time from those sleepy-minded MPs.

Mary said...

NBWK, there *have* been disabled protests. I'd like to refer you particularly to this Latent Existence post about a fairly recent protest relating to the Spartacus Report. The pictures, words and videos show wheelchair users chaining themselves together across Regent Street with other disabled people doing a "slow walk", clogging the streets just as you suggest.

Journalists attend, but it barely scored a blip on the media radar.

It also explains that being, y'know, disabled, protesting in the capital isn't quite as simple for many of us as taking one day off work and hopping on a train with a Cheap Day Return. Ramps and spaces need to be booked in advance, medication and care schedules need to be worked around, many of us would need a carer accompanying us (at best, an extra train fare and lunch, at worst, having to pay a PA's hourly rate) and the physical impact of spending a full day out and about can last days or weeks.

An additional issue is that we cannot ask a PA to assist us to do something illegal (so once the police say "move" we have to agree or be abandoned) and that those of us who are dependent on state benefits fear that they may experience financial consequences should they take the risk of being marked as a "troublemaker".