The Sunday People, May 12, 2013
When the most notorious tabloid stories about benefits claimants feature ‘folk devils’ such as Mick Philpott, it's easy to assume that populist narratives on welfare are necessarily reactionary, not least because of the emphasis on the personal failings of individual claimants over the social and economic context. Certainly stories like Philpott's reinforce stereotypes about the feckless, fecund and profligate poor who have never worked, which are assumed to reflect public attitudes on welfare and underpin support for benefits cuts, even by left wing commentators and, less surprisingly perhaps, Labour politicians as well as Conservative. However, there has been populist opposition to austerity in the left-leaning tabloids, including substantial campaigns against the 'bedroom tax'. These stories, too, relied centrally on personal narratives of living on benefits.
In January 2013, the Daily and Sunday Mirror and Sunday People launched campaigns opposing cuts to housing benefit popularly known as the 'bedroom tax'; the policy imposes cuts to housing benefit for social housing tenants who are deemed to have one or more spare bedrooms. The term was even credited to the Mirror by the Oxford English Dictionary when it shortlisted it as one of its 'words of the year'; it would be some months later before the government would try to rebrand it 'the removal of the spare room subsidy' or 'under-occupancy penalty', such was their surprise at opposition to a benefit cut.
The policy disproportionately affects disabled people, who find it particularly difficult to move, not least because their homes have often been adapted at great cost to enable them to live independently, but also because 'spare' rooms are often used to store medical equipment and for carers to stay over. Other groups with need of spare rooms include separated parents whose children stay with them on weekends and parents of serving soldiers who return home on leave. It was the latter case that first sparked controversy over the policy when Labour spin doctors capitalised on the Christmas news lull to embarrass the government, but a wide range of circumstances featured in the campaigns. However, there were also more general problems with the policy. Since there is very limited availability of smaller homes in the social sector, tenants can be forced into more expensive private rented accommodation, leaving larger social houses empty and potentially increasing the welfare bill.
Testimony from those affected was important in highlighting these reasons why the policy would be ineffective in tackling the social housing shortage and unfairly penalize people for health or family circumstances over which they had no control. Moreover, personal narratives of struggles with health and low-paid and precarious employment challenged government accounts of lazy benefits scroungers enjoying underserved luxuries like spare rooms that the working poor can't afford. This is significant because welfare reform was most commonly justified in terms of an imagined public resentment toward benefit claimants. As David Cameron wrote in The Sun, "no one wants to work hard every day and see their hard-earned taxes being used to fund things they themselves cannot afford."
A quarter of the campaign articles included at least one personal story, two-thirds of which allowed those affected to articulate their own story. Although they were presented as ‘victims’, they were neither depoliticised by taking their story out of the social context (reducing it to a personal struggle), nor presented as passively vulnerable and therefore tragic (in the mode of 'good' victims).
However, the campaign articles that featured personal stories focused more emphatically on personal circumstances (75%) over the general objections (40%) compared to those that didn’t (27% and 28% respectively), which brings the danger of distinguishing 'deserving' cases from the typical benefit claimant. Indeed, in its numerous editorials on the issue, the People called for exemptions rather than opposing the policy wholesale (until it became apparent that those cases were so numerous as to make mitigating them all unwieldy), and took credit for minor changes or 'easements', largely announcing that certain groups could apply for money from the wholly inadequate hardship fund. The newspaper accepted that welfare reform was necessary in general, but that this particular policy was punishing the wrong targets.
This suggests that we are right to be suspicious of human interest angles on political stories. Political engagement arguably requires generalization to establish that a fifth of housing benefit claimants are in work and that shortages in social housing have meant that only 4.5% of those affected have moved to a smaller home without resorting to the more expensive private sector. However, this doesn’t capture the hardship suffered by those who have been forced into debt for the first time, whether in rent arrears or through the cost of moving, or engage readers’ sympathy, or even better, their empathy.
Personal stories can be connected to the political arguments, and this was seen particularly strongly in the Mirror’s opinion columns. Various commentators related peoples struggles with unaffordable housing to the structures of power and ownership that explain the social housing shortage, such as the impact of Right to Buy and the preponderance of buy-to-let landlords in the cabinet that stand to benefit from policies that shift social housing and tenants into the private sector.
However, in some cases people affected by the bedroom tax were empowered to make that case themselves – Ros Wynne-Jones took politicized victims to the Labour party conference and to observe the opposition debate at Westminster. As a result, her columns didn’t just use victims’ narratives of suffering in the service of a campaign objective, but allowed them a political voice; spoke with them, not for them.
Tabloid human interest stories don’t always blame poor people for their poverty, and personal narratives can illustrate the gap between the government rhetoric around welfare and social housing and the reality of people’s experience more effectively than abstract generalizations. But journalists need to use them as testimony in solidarity with those affected, rather than as a tool to achieve a campaign win.