The BBC’s ‘Saints and Scroungers’ programme has been on my radar for a little while now. The programme aims to expose benefit fraudsters while highlighting ‘deserving’ cases that are ‘worthy’ of state help. Inasmuch as they help identify genuine fraudsters, who can argue? But I think a show highlighting benefit fraud cases has a massive duty to ensure that it makes very clear that actually only a minuscule proportion of benefit claims are fraudulent. Also, by portraying ‘deserving’ cases, the programme perpetuates the Victorian idea of the ‘worthy’ poor, which is problematic in itself, as I’ve written before.
However, in the latest episode, the BBC went a step further and joined in the active misinformation campaign that is being conducted by the Tory party via ministers such as Ian Duncan-Smith and Eric Pickles.
The show was building a case against a couple who were making false benefit claims for the husband’s non-existent arthritic condition, while at the same time he was working as a tram-driver under a stolen identity. As part of the background voiceover, presenter Dominic Little stated that identity theft costs the UK taxpayer £1.9 billion a year.
In the context of the programme, and by stating this as a ‘taxpayer cost’, this statement clearly implied that this is the cost of benefit fraud via identity theft. The statement was not only misleading, but factually wrong: the actual cost of benefit fraud via identity theft is £800,000 – or 0.04% of the figure mentioned by the programme. 99.6% of the cost to the UK is nothing to do with benefit fraud, and thus not a cost to tax-payers, making the show’s line completely, factually wrong.
This kind of misleading statement is on a par with Ian Duncan-Smith’s implication that 30% of disability benefit claims are fraudulent, when in fact the real figure is less than 0.5%. We’re not just talking about slanting things for political purposes, or some kind of theoretical importance of handling information properly. That particular reckless statement led to an increase in attacks on disabled people, who were already suffering because of other government pronouncements and the implication, demonstrated by the ATOS fitness for work assessments, that disabled people are ‘scroungers’.
The BBC has already been failing the UK people by failing to report on the destruction of the NHS, an absolutely crucial issue that is of vast importance to the majority of us. It was already on very thin ice in the way it treats benefit claimants of all types in its ‘Saints and Scroungers’ programme.
But in its behaviour in the latest episode, the Corporation has gone a step further. It has collaborated with the Tory right and the gutter press by actively, subtly demonising some of the most vulnerable sections of our society when they’re already under sustained attack. Whoever wrote and authorised this should hang their head in shame.