Working-class misrepresentation by middle-class journalists and the hatred they create – MA Essay

George Orwell in 1937 wrote, “Every middle-class person has a dormant prejudice which needs only a small thing to arouse it … The notion that the working class have been absurdly pampered, hopelessly demoralised by doles, old-age pensions, free education etc. … is still widely held; it has merely been shaken perhaps, by the recent recognition that unemployment does exist.” (page 123). He wrote that in chapter 8 of The road to Wigan Pier, in which he discussed how class was viewed in England at that time. On the portrayal of the working class, Orwell wrote, “An attitude of sniggering superiority punctuated by bursts of vicious hatred. … You will find it everywhere taken for granted that a working-class person, as such, is a figure of fun, except at odd moments when he shows signs of being too prosperous, whereupon he ceases to be a figure of fun and becomes a demon.” (page 116).

The first quote was used by Owen Jones in Chavs: The demonization of the working class as an epigraph for Jones’ chapter on how journalists in Britain portray the middle classes and the working classes. Jones describes the differences in the coverage of two child abductions, the middle-class Madeleine McCann and the working-class Shannon Matthews and how the McCann’s case was given more media attention because of her class background. Jones (page 16) writes, “Shannon’s background was just too far removed from the experience of journalists who covered such stories”. If all the journalists who reported on a working-class child’s disappearance have no understanding on what that class has to deal with, then it would be difficult for them to connect with them. David Weaver (making journalists, 2005, page 45-46) says, “one recurrent criticism of journalists is that they no longer come from working-class backgrounds, but rather from professionals or upper socio-economic families, and are therefore less able to emphasise with the concerns of working-class people”.

Michael White (The Guardian, 5/12/2008, http://www.theguardian.com/politics/blog/2008/dec/05/shannon-matthews-kidnap-madeleine-mccann) reported that the managing editor of The Sun, Graham Dudman believed “that the Madeleine McCann kidnapping had been generating vast publicity for months, that no one was interested in the fate of little Shannon, the wrong kind of kid, except the Sun – “we felt good about it”. “the wrong kind of kid” is the most important part because why would middle-class journalists care about a working-class child going missing, when one of their own is missing. It is this apathy towards working-class communities by journalists that leads to stereotypes and generalisations of communities that have no real basis in fact and can lead to further consequences such as the development of class hatred.

Jones points to Melanie Philips on the topic (Chavs, page 18), “Phillips argued that the affair helped to ‘reveal the existence of an underclass which is a world apart from the lives that most of us lead and the attitudes and social conventions that most take for granted.’ … ‘whole communities where committed fathers are so rare that any child who actually have one risks being bullied’, and where ‘boys impregnate two, three, four girls with scarcely a second thought’. No evidence was given in support of these allegations.” However, the creation of an “underclass” by some of the middle-class media could be down to a political agenda to discredit such systems as the welfare states and benefits and that leads to a misrepresentation of the working-class because they are the people most in need of those systems.

In April 2013, The Daily Mail ( http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2303120/Mick-Philpott-vile-product-Welfare-UK-Derby-man-bred-17-babies-milk-benefits-GUILTY-killing-six.html, 3/4/2013) published the headline “Vile product of welfare UK” and opened the story with “The drug-taking layabout, who embodies everything that is wrong with the welfare state”. The journalists decided to twist the focus of the story to the political message they wanted rather than concentrate on reporting the crime. The political focus was to generalise that the welfare state develops people like Mick Philpott and therefore insinuate that all members of his community and class are similar. The newspapers use of the word “Bred” on the front page, “man who bred 17 babies by 5 women to milk benefit system is guilty of killing 6 of them” dehumanises the victims and portrays those who seek benefits as merely animals trying to squander money from the state.

Considering the majority of those seeking benefits are the poor and working-class, this front page attempts to portray the entire class like that. As Owen Jones points out in an article for The Independent, “The truth is that the Philpotts say nothing about anyone, except for themselves, just as the serial murderer GP Harold Shipman said nothing about middle-class professionals.” (http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/philpott-verdict-blame-the-man-not-his-class-8557509.html, 2/4/2013). Journalists should not generalise any community whether that be race, sexual orientation, gender or class because the majority of the time, the stereotypes are untrue and it is lazy thinking. The middle classes are not stereotyped by the crimes of their members as Jones points out, but the working class is portrayed as all being feckless, benefit claimants with criminal intent.

This portrayal continued in the Channel 4’s documentary series Benefit Street (http://www.channel4.com/programmes/benefits-street/4od#3633547, 6/1/2014). Within the first two minutes of the first episode, the makers had showed James Turner streets as filthy, covered in rubbish, with a woman walking along saying “unemployed” while pointing at different doors before the narrator stating that the majority of residents are claiming benefits. In those two minutes, the stereotypical portrayal of the working class as feckless benefit claimants was shown, which gives the tone for how the documentary continues.

Andrew Gilligan (making journalists, page 229) said, “Journalists are seen as holding power to account. But many actually find themselves allies of the powerful – transmitting their spin, accepting their assumptions, rarely enquiring beneath the surface” which is what has happened with this class debate about benefit claimants. The British public have failed to be informed because of how skewed the debate on welfare has become because of the coverage by middle-class journalists who do not understand the pressure that most working-class people live with. This is raised in the BBC Newsnight debate about Benefit Street (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mszhESGvE_c, 9/1/2014), where Owen Jones raises the fact that the public believe 27% of social security is lost through fraud when it’s actually 0.7%. If the public isn’t being given the facts by journalists then they are not going to be correctly informed as an electorate and therefore the journalists are not completing their job to the correct ethical standard. The misuse of statistics (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/20/benefits-street-james-turner-birmingham-channel-4) and the choice of which residents to use (http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/why-channel-4s-benefits-street-misrepresents-uk-welfare-unemployment-1431345) because not all agreed on to be in the documentary is an ethical decision that has been taken to drum up controversy rather than to aid the discussion about the debate. The fact that they cut out the episode in which a working couple was to be shown suggest that they are only trying to add to the stereotype of working class communities and those that need benefits for supports (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-birmingham-25750475).

The ethical crime that has been committed by Benefit Street and other portrayals similar to it is the hatred worked up towards the people in the shows and news. The damage that these portrayals can do to communities and families must be taken into consideration before aired. The Independent reported, “Becky Howe, 23, is also “fuming” over her presentation on Benefits Street. “Half of my family and friends have already disowned me because of it,” she said. “Some want me to change my name on Deed Poll. We might be on benefits but everyone has got to start somewhere.” (http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/news/benefits-street-residents-subjected-to-death-threats-after-channel-4-show-airs-9043932.html, 7/1/2014). The death threats towards the residents that featured in the documentary that followed the first episode should be taken into consideration as the whether the producers are held to an ethical standard. I believe their standard is extremely low because of how residents of the street (99 houses, but only a few residents were shown) especially the ones who were not featured are treated because of it. Children of residents who refused to be a part of the documentary are being bullied because they live on the street that all the hatred, about benefits and those that claim them, is being focused on (http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/benefits-street-kids-attacked-school-3026469#.Ut5-6Hk4leU). The responsibility for these hatred lies on the shoulders of the journalists who caused it.

The representation of class, especially in Britain is crucial to the national debate and journalists have a responsibility to keep everyone informed of the facts. However, it appears that many are ignoring their ethical duty and prefer to spread hatred towards the working class and those on benefits in particular. This is partly down to the fact that many of the journalists are from middle to upper-class communities and they have no real understanding of the lives of those they are reporting on. The other is political and it is easy to instil hate towards a community because it helps your political aim rather than reporting the facts.

Bibliography

 

Books

De Burgh, Hugo(ED), making journalists, Routledge, 2005

Jones, Owen, Chav: The demonization of the working-class, Verso, 12th March 2012

Orwell, George, The walk to Wigan Pier, Penguin Classics, 2001

 

Web articles

BBC, Benefit Street: Working couple ‘cut’ from Channel 4 show, BBC.co.uk, 16th January 2014, URL: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-birmingham-25750475

Baker, Paul, The Guardian, Benefit Street? It’s nothing like James Turner Street we researched, 20th January 2014, URL: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/20/benefits-street-james-turner-birmingham-channel-4

Croucher, Shane, International Business Times, Why Channel 4’s Benefit Street misrepresents UK Welfare and Unemployment, 7th January 2014, URL: http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/why-channel-4s-benefits-street-misrepresents-uk-welfare-unemployment-1431345

Denham, Jess, The Independent, Benefit Street residents subjected to death threats after Channel 4 show airs, 7th January 2014, URL: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/news/benefits-street-residents-subjected-to-death-threats-after-channel-4-show-airs-9043932.html

Dolan, Andy, Bentley, Paul, The Daily Mail, Mick Philpott, a vile product of Welfare UK: Derby man who bred 17 babies to milk benefits guilty of killing six, 3rd April 2013, URL: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2303120/Mick-Philpott-vile-product-Welfare-UK-Derby-man-bred-17-babies-milk-benefits-GUILTY-killing-six.html

Fricker, Martin, Lyons, James, The Mirror, Benefit Street kids attacked by school bullies – even though they weren’t on the Channel 4 show, 16th January 2014, URL: http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/benefits-street-kids-attacked-school-3026469#.UuIma3k4mM9

Jones, Owen, The Independent, Philpott Verdict: Blame the man, not his class, 2nd April 2013, URL: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/philpott-verdict-blame-the-man-not-his-class-8557509.html

White, Michael, The Guardian, If we’re so smart, why cant we all tell a Matthews from a McCann?, 5th December 2008, URL: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/blog/2008/dec/05/shannon-matthews-kidnap-madeleine-mccann

 

Websites

BBC Newsnight, Youtube, Is Channel 4’s Benefit Street ‘poverty porn’?, 9th January 2014, URL: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mszhESGvE_c

Channel 4, Benefit Street, episode 1, 6th January 2014, URL: http://www.channel4.com/programmes/benefits-street/4od#3633547

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