A niche housing blog like Red Brick doesn’t expect any story to go viral – that’s reserved for royalty, pop stars and funny animals doing tricks. But in October 2011 our attack on a programme on welfare researched and presented by Radio 4’s John Humphrys became our biggest ever hit.
The Red Brick piece – ‘John Humphrys, hubris, and welfare dependency’ – criticised the basic premise of his hour-long BBC documentary – a year in the making, we were told, and involving a (no doubt) all-expenses paid trip to the USA – that ‘a dependency culture has emerged….. A sense of entitlement. A sense that the State owes us a living. A sense that not only is it possible to get something for nothing but that we have a right to do so.’
We pointed out that Humphrys apparently got paid nearly £400,000 a year to be rude to people on the radio in the mornings, which didn’t seem to make him particularly qualified to comment on the incomes or behaviour of the extremely poor.
But our ire was stirred most by the fact that he trailed his programme in a feature article in the Daily Mail built around a large picture of the fictional Gallagher family and the headline ‘Our Shameless Society’. He knew exactly what he was doing. He knew what the Mail stands for, he knew what message the ‘shameless’ imagery would convey, and he knew which audience he was pandering to.
Now, nearly 2 years later, in a rare victory against the forces of darkness, a complaint made by the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) about the programme has been upheld by the BBC Trust, which concluded that the programme breached its rules on impartiality and accuracy.
CPAG Director Alison Garnham commented: “This programme, like too many media stories, failed the public by swallowing wholesale the evidence-free myth of a ‘dependency culture’ in which unemployment and rising benefit spending is the fault of the unemployed.’
The Trust however rejected part of the complaint that Humphrys had presented a personal view in contravention of guidelines for senior current affairs presenters on controversial issues, stating that the sentiments he expressed were: “…judgements based on his personal experience rather than opinions which could be interpreted as a personal view.”
This is arrant nonsense and a whitewash. The programme started with a highly personal recollection by Humphrys of his own background in Splott in Wales and his poor upbringing; it followed him around as he personally visited various (I would suggest carefully researched and selected) claimants to discover their attitudes; and it included a visit to the Centre for Social Justice, the think tank most closely associated with the views and prejudices of Iain Duncan Smith, but no other organisation with a countervailing view – for example CPAG. As most of the controversial comments were made by Humphrys direct to camera, to claim that this was not a personal view is ludicrous. I cannot think that this conclusion is anything other than an attempt to draw a line to prevent calls being made for Humphrys to be sacked.
Based on watching the programme and reading the Daily Mail piece that launched it, I think that CPAG were spot on in their complaint:
The programme explored the topic from within a partisan and politically interested framing that purports there to be a ‘benefits dependency culture’ and an ‘age of entitlement’.
This framing precluded the exploration of opposing views and relevant factual information, and led to the mischaracterisation of benefit claimants interviewed by John Humphrys as ‘victims of the benefit system’ despite their own focus on problems such as low pay and the high cost of childcare.
The failure to include any expert voices from the UK with views diverging from those of the government compounded the inaccuracy and impartiality and prevented salient facts being brought to the audience’s attention.
These failings resulted in breaches of BBC Editorial Guidelines on both accuracy and impartiality.
Furthermore, the programme gave the appearance of presenting the personal views of one of its senior news and current affairs presenters, in contravention of guidelines. This was compounded by the publication of an article in the national press, authored by the presenter, John Humphrys, and with the headline “JOHN HUMPHRYS: How our welfare system has created an age of entitlement’ (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2052749/Our-Shameless-society-How-welfare-state-created-age-entitlement.html).
This programme was a biased, sensationalised and prejudiced attempt to portray people in receipt of benefits as undeserving scroungers. It was obviously a personal view developed by the presenter, who took a year to research and prepare the programme for broadcast. . The BBC has admitted that it breached its standards for impartiality and accuracy. Their argument that it did not breach their standards relating to senior presenters, who normally have the trust of the public, is flimsy in the extreme.
John Humphrys should be sacked.