John Humphrys evidently gets paid around £375,000 a year to be rude to people on the radio in the mornings, around £2,500 a show, and another £250,000 for presenting
Mastermind. Evidently he charges the equivalent of a year’s Jobseekers Allowance for an after dinner speech.
Radio 4 is intolerable in my view when he is on. I suspect the ancient Greeks invented the word hubris with Humphrys in mind. But for some reason he and the BBC feel that he is particularly well qualified to spend a year researching and then presenting a documentary on the welfare system and the ‘benefit dependency culture’. No doubt he has some insight because he is dependent for his enormous income for doing next-to-bugger-all on the licence fee; it takes many people on very low incomes to fund his grand lifestyle.
Humphrys trails his views in advance of the programme, which goes out tonight, in the
Daily Mail, well known for its balanced view of welfare recipients. With the kind of originality and sublety that Humphreys himself is noted for, they give the article prominence by including a large picture of the Gallagher family and the headline ‘Our Shameless society’.
His basic premise is 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.’ He travels the country searching out people who are happy not to work. And he visits Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice, no doubt to get a balanced view (why not Child Poverty Action Group?). And then he goes for single parents, with no context, no information, no acknowledgement that most single
parents exist because of failed relationships rather than ‘Shameless’ families.
Cutting benefits evidently works in Poland and in the USA – our hero visits the USA (at our expense) and talks to Larry Mead, the ‘godfather of workfare’, who tells him cutting benefits works. To give him credit, he does note that destitution and hunger are also rife in the USA.
Humphrys writes about the Ipsos Mori poll done for the programme which showed that 92% agreed that there should be a benefits safety net, but that ‘only’ two-thirds* think it is working effectively. Only? I’d like to see the questions and the figures, but evidently people were ‘particularly suspicious’ about sickness benefit and ‘pretty hawkish’ about housing benefit, with a lot of support for forcing people living in expensive areas to move to cheaper accommodation.
At least Humphrys offers more balance than is normal in the Mail, by saying: ‘The problem is, for every claimant who makes you want to scream in frustration because they’re perfectly happy to be living off the State, you meet another who makes you want
to weep because they are so desperate to find work. Any work.’
But he ends firmly in Mail territory: ‘Beveridge tried to slay the fifth evil giant (idleness) and, in the process, helped to create a different sort of monster in its place: the age of entitlement. The battle for his successors is to bring it to an end.’
For a genuine counterpoint, I strongly recommend Declan Gaffney’s retort to Humphrys on Left Foot Forward. Gaffney is a real expert and doesn’t need to spend a year and a lot of licence fee payers’ money to find out about the welfare system. He destroys Humphrys’ use of the statistics of modern worklessness, incapacity, and single parenthood, and demonstrates that ‘welfare dependency’ has not, in fact, grown. He demonstrates that areas with concentrations of benefit recipients, like Humphrys’ birthplace Splott, which he revisits, are ‘highly responsive to labour market conditions: the opposite of what is
suggested by the ‘welfare dependency’ theory’.
I have argued before that debate about welfare policy and housing policy has become dominated by right wing language and stereotypes of the Shameless type, talk of chavs and the rest. It is so pervasive that Labour often falls into the Tory trap: attacking the unemployed is so much easier than attacking unemployment.
But the welfare system is viewed differently from the rest of the welfare state. As Declan Gaffney argues: ‘When there is a major scandal in the NHS, this does not lead people to question the principle of healthcare free at the point of delivery; when schools send young people out into the world without qualifications, pundits don’t line up to argue it’s time to drop the idea of universal education. But any evidence, however anecdotal, of failure on the part of the social security system leads to calls for its very existence to be put into question.’
I hope Humphrys’ programme isn’t as prejudicial as his Mail article and that the presentation is more balanced. I guess I’ll have to force myself to watch it to find out. And I hope to hear Declan Gaffney on Newsnight and the Today programme putting him right.
*Update – some people might notice that the figure used in the documentary is different from the one I have quoted here (two thirds). That’s because I used the figure quoted by Humphrys in his Mail article. Either the Mail article or the film must have been wrong. Shoddy – like the rest of it.