‘From Cathy Come Home to Benefits Street‘ – that was the title that caught my eye as I flicked through the National Union of Journalists’ (NUJ) magazine, the Journalist.
The article, by Rachel Broady, appeared to tie in very much with our own work on challenging the negative stereotypes portrayed by some of the media, in particular the recent work of our Poverty Media Unit and our campaign Real Benefits Street.
What was really exciting though, was that this was an article written by a journalist for journalists. It acknowledged that some areas of the media have been “demonising the poor”, and concluded that:
“Slowly but surely social security for the unemployed and underpaid was becoming welfare dependency, those in need were becoming charlatans, and articles about benefit recipients, be they working or not, revealed a new threat to the UK – the poor”.
Rachel Broady goes even further and points out that these headlines and Channel 4’s Benefits Street were used to political advantage, with the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, saying: “Many people are shocked by that they see… that is why the public back our welfare reform package which will get more people back to work and end these abuses”. The result, she says, is that:
“Newspapers and documentaries now echoed, even supported, an ideological government stance against the poor in the midst of austerity rather than challenge policy or highlight social concerns”.
This article is a challenge to journalists from a journalist – to examine the way in which UK poverty is reported by the media. As such, it is more powerful and more credible than the guidelines issued by charities such as Church Action on Poverty, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Media Trust.
The NUJ, alongside the article, also published guidelines on reporting poverty. The Union believes:
“the development of discriminatory language and the demonisation of the working poor and benefits recipients, through the use of stereotypes and misinformation, is an insult to workers, trade union representatives and readers”.
At the moment, the guidelines are voluntary and the NUJ is keenly aware of the need to report poverty without imposed censorship. However, it does say that: “press freedom must be conditioned by responsibility” and that “all media workers resolve not to allow press freedom to be abused to slander a section of the community”.
What does this mean for Church Action on Poverty, its partner organisations, its supporters and the grassroots people who are an integral part of our work? The NUJ guidelines now give us a credible platform to challenge the media’s reporting of poverty. The guidelines will allow us to engage in a conversation with journalists and editors who contact us for help, by asking them if they have adopted the NUJ guidelines on reporting poverty, and if not, why not.
We have also written a letter to the Journalist saying
“We welcome working with journalists and editors who adopt the NUJ guidelines when reporting on poverty, and who want to give people living in poverty a voice”.