Spinning like a top, Housing Minister Grant Shapps is such a busy media bee at the moment that I’m tempted to think that there may be a Ministerial reshuffle in the
air. Following his Twitter feed is a bit like being on a guided tour of the country’s radio stations with the occasional TV spot thrown in.
But this week he made an attack on the media that caught my interest because he is such a
media-savvy kind of guy. Speaking at a Conference of the excellent Homeless Link, he made a big thing about the media’s lack of interest in homelessness. Referring to his announcement of £42m funding for additional hostel beds, according to the Guardian he said “It’s almost impossible to get the outside world to take any notice of homelessness at all. You won’t have seen this information in a single national newspaper this morning and if I have a criticism of homelessness in this country, it’s not about all of you, it’s about them lot out there who just don’t seem to care about it…….I suspect even if I did press release it, no-one outside this room would give a damn.”
Taking up his theme, The Guardian conducted an on-line poll (still open if you want to join in) which so far has 84% of voters saying yes – the media fails to represent the issues around homelessness and rough sleeping – against only 16% saying no – the media carries stories about homelessness and housing need.
As I’m in training to become a curmudgeon, my response was to disagree with the question – the issue is more about the quality than the quantity of coverage.
There are lots of stories about street homelessness, especially in the run-in to Xmas,
but the imagery is invariably the same, cardboard cities and shop doorways in the Strand feature highly. It is good that both Shapps and the otherwise inept mayor Johnson have shown an interest in and made commitments about street homelessness. However, we will have to wait and see if they actually deliver, and a cynic might argue that it is the very visibility of street homelessness in some parts of London, and the imminent arrival of the world’s media for the Olympics, that have pushed it up the agenda.
But even on this aspect of homelessness, poor media scrutiny means that there is no
contextualisation of Shapp’s announcement and no analysis of how his new sum of money for hostels compares with the large amounts already lost to the homelessness sector due to cuts in Supporting People programmes and cuts in local support for homelessness projects.
Most homelessness is not very visible and the reasons for it are complex. Many homeless people have difficult back-stories but the underlying reason for homelessness is not social pathology: it is the housing shortage and the lack of access to affordable homes and, where necessary, support. Increasingly – and the blame here falls on some people within the industry and not just the Government or the media – homelessness is described as just one feature of welfare dependency, the failure of individuals within the system rather than the failure of the system itself. Worse, homeless applicants are characterised as ne’er-do-wells looking to exploit soft liberal rules, the undeserving poor that should be contrasted with the deserving poor who ‘do the right thing’ by working and sitting on housing waiting lists.
These simplistic characterisations are invariably wrong but they form this Government’s central narrative to justify welfare and housing reform. The assertion that allocating social housing to homeless people has somehow created housing estates where there are dangerous concentrations of poverty, dysfunctionality and criminality has allowed the Government to get away with making large holes in the homelessness safety net. Homelessness is rising rapidly, and I suspect the reason is not a sudden increase in fecklessness.
So I agree with Grant Shapps about the poor quality of media coverage. They love their scapegoats and their attacks on the feckless. But when he uses phrases like they just don’t seem to care about it and they don’t give a damn, he should try looking in a mirror.