The BBC Trust has ruled that the programme The Future of the Welfare State with John Humphrys, broadcast in October 2011, has breached its rules on impartiality and accuracy.
The programme, on a subject that the BBC Trust decided met its criteria for being a ‘controversial subject’ and a ‘major matter’, postulated that there is an ‘age of entitlement’.
The BBC Trust considered an appeal brought by Child Poverty Action Group and an unidentified individual complainant – ‘complainant A’.
The BBC Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee concluded:
- “That the absence of sufficient complementary statistical information to underpin contributors’ accounts, viewers were left unable to reach an informed opinion and the Accuracy guidelines had been breached.”
- “That viewers would likely form the conclusion that the benefits being targeted by the government were largely responsible for the view held by some that “the welfare state is in crisis”.
- “The Committee also concluded that viewers would likely form the impression, despite the anecdotal testimonies of job seekers heard in the programme, that there was healthy supply of jobs overall.”
- “That, as both issues [the lack of context on the benefits bill and the failure to provide information on the number of job seekers] are central to the viewers’ understanding of the key issues discussed in the programme, and because this was a controversial issue which was also a major matter within the meaning of the Editorial Guidelines, the failure of accuracy had also led to a breach of impartiality.”
The Committee also issued a reminder to programme makers:
- “That, in choosing to present a programme on a highly controversial issue, such as welfare reform, in a less formal style, using presenters and correspondents better known as mainstream news and current affairs practitioners, producers need to be particularly sensitive to the impression that might leave the audience. Regardless of any signposting as to the nature and content, judgments reached or observations made are still required to be based on the evidence and should not give the appearance of presenting a personal view on a controversial subject.”
However, the Committee rejected the complaint that Mr Humphrys had presented a personal view, in contravention of guidelines for senior current affairs presenters on controversial issues, stating that the sentiments he expressed were:
- “…judgements based on his personal experience rather than opinions which could be interpreted as a personal view.”
Alison Garnham, Chief Executive of Child Poverty Action Group, said:
“We welcome the BBC Trust’s recognition in its ruling that the programme broke rules on accuracy and impartiality in ways that fundamentally misled viewers and favoured the government’s controversial positioning.
“These are major issues of public interest deserving of robust debate and challenging media coverage but which, crucially, also require journalists to speak truth to power, rather than speak untruths about the powerless. If they don’t, television audiences and the public at large will continue to be denied the debate they deserve.
“This programme, like too many media stories, failed the public by swallowing wholesale the evidence-free myth of a ‘dependency culture’ in which unemployment and rising benefit spending is the fault of the unemployed.
“As well as telling the truth about the lack of evidence for the ‘dependency culture’ narrative, media coverage on social security must give due coverage to important matters like the lack of jobs, poverty pay, zero hour contracts, the high costs of childcare, the high cost of housing and the disappointing performance of the Work Programme.
"The reality needs to be reported that only 3% of welfare expenditure goes on Jobseekers Allowance, and that aside from the direct effects of the recession, social security expenditure on working age benefits has not increased as a proportion of GDP in recent years.”
Notes to Editors
- The full text of the BBC Trust decision can be found on their website: http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/assets/files/pdf/appeals/esc_bulletins/2013/may_jun.pdf
- The BBC guidelines on accuracy and impartiality can be found here: https://www.bbc.com/editorialguidelines/guidelines
- CPAG first submitted its complaint in November 2011 and has been pursuing it through the different stages of the BBC’s complaints process. The key points of CPAG’s complaint were that:
- The programme explored the topic from within a partisan and politically interested framing that purports there to be a ‘benefits dependency culture’ and an ‘age of entitlement’.
- This framing precluded the exploration of opposing views and relevant factual information, and led to the mischaracterisation of benefit claimants interviewed by John Humphrys as ‘victims of the benefit system’ despite their own focus on problems such as low pay and the high cost of childcare.
- The failure to include any expert voices from the UK with views diverging from those of the government compounded the inaccuracy and impartiality and prevented salient facts being brought to the audience’s attention.
- These failings resulted in breaches of BBC Editorial Guidelines on both accuracy and impartiality.
- Furthermore, the programme gave the appearance of presenting the personal views of one of its senior news and current affairs presenters, in contravention of guidelines. This was compounded by the publication of an article in the national press, authored by the presenter, John Humphrys, and with the headline “JOHN HUMPHRYS: How our welfare system has created an age of entitlement’ (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2052749/Our-Shameless-society-How-welfare-state-created-age-entitlement.html).
- The programme, and what was seen as John Humphrys’ conclusions on a ‘shift in culture’ were directly praised by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. In an interview for the Today Programme on 25 October 2012, Ian Duncan Smith told John Humphrys:
“Actually I remember the programme that you did, excellent programme, when you went back to your roots and looked at what was going on and what you then reported as the ‘shift in culture’ from people who had got used to two, maybe three generations out of work and no longer wanted to go into work.”
- The BBC Trusts’ Editorial Standards Committee consolidated the CPAG complaint with a further complaint from an individual at the appeal stage. ‘Complainant A’ complained that the failure to provide factual information about the availability of jobs resulted in failures of accuracy and impartiality; and that the reliance only on interviews with claimants, instead of UK experts with differing views to the government, made the claimants views appear as merely ‘special pleading’.
- The BBC Trust upheld the complaints in relation to accuracy and impartiality, with particular regard to the failure to provide the necessary labour market information that would allow audiences to come to balanced judgments about the reasons why claimants had not entered work.
- The ruling follows the on air apology made to Shanene Thorpe in August 2012 after a hostile interview as part of a Newsnight report on the government’s programme of welfare reforms that falsely described her as making a lifestyle choice to live off the state. The programme apologised for the inaccuracy and the distress caused to Ms Thorpe (See clip of apology: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-wMU8J5IF0E).
- The ‘age of entitlement’ or ‘benefit dependency’ framing seeks to represent claiming of benefits as a ‘lifestyle choice’. However, the evidence for this claim does not exist, as shown by this TUC report which draws on the relevant academic research: https://www.tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/extras/welfare_benefits_a_nec...
- Total expenditure on welfare was 11.6 per cent of GDP in 1996/97. Under the previous government, it averaged 10.7 per cent up to the crash, after which the direct impacts of recession meant that benefits for children and working age adults rose from an average 4.9 per cent of GDP up to 2007/08 to 6 per cent.
- CPAG is the leading charity campaigning for the abolition of child poverty in the UK and for a better deal for low-income families and children.
- CPAG is the host organisation for the Campaign to End Child Poverty coalition, which has members from across civil society including children’s charities, faith groups, unions and other civic sector organisation, united in their campaigning for public and political commitment to ensure the goal of ending child poverty by 2020 is met.
For further information please contact:
CPAG Press Officer
Tel. 020 7812 5216 or 07816 909302