LITERATURE REVIEW 1
Kayleigh Garthwaite . (2011). ‘The language of shirkers and scroungers?’ Talking about illness, disability and coalition welfare reform. Disability & Society28. 26 (3), p369-372. Disability Benefits
Garthwaite’s (2011) article explores the portrayal of welfare benefits claimants within the UK media amidst the emergence of the Liberal Democrats and Conservative Party coalition in 2010. In her critical reflection, she is keen to highlight the issue of negative representation in political discourse, mass media and within public opinion, particularly with regard to disability claimants.
While my documentary project, looks to primarily explore those claiming work benefits, there are broad overlaps between this and disability benefits in terms of a perceived disjuncture between representation and reality. Of particular interest is Garthwaite’s focus on the language associated with sickness and welfare reform, where she is keen to note overtly negative representations:
“Terms such as ‘culture of worklessness’, ‘dependency’, ‘workshy’, and ‘unwilling’ are often used without question when talking about sickness benefits and those who receive them” (Garthwaite, 2011; 370)
Garthwaite lends further weight to her argument by providing numerous examples of headlines within mainstream UK newspapers such as the Daily Mail and the Daily Express. These include ‘Incapacity Benefit to be axed in four years in crackdown against workshy’, ‘Just one in six incapacity benefit claimants “is genuine” as tough new test reveals TWO MILLION could be cheating’ and ‘State-funded idleness: 1.5m are spending fifth Christmas in a row on benefits’ (2011; 371). Such examples provide further evidence of an overridingly dubious portrayal of those claiming benefits, which she argues is mirrored in political discourse and, consequently, public opinion.
Arguably of most concern to Garthwaite is the emergence of an ‘othering narrative’ aiming to highlight difference between those who are on benefits and those who are not. Though she expressly relates this to disability benefits, she also states that this ‘social sorting’ can be applied across all economically inactive groups (2011; 370).
While not offering rigorous research to underline her argument, there are still important points emerging from Garthwaite’s article with regard to my own project. This comes primarily through her assertion that there is an overridingly pejorative portrayal of benefits seekers, with a tendency to ignore the thoughts and experiences of real people who have been or are currently within the system:
“What is missing from the discussions of the government, media and public alike is the actual lived experience of people receiving sickness-related benefits.” (Garthwaite, 2011; 372)
In my project this is the gap that I am looking to address. The central themes of my research are to explore the lived realities of those who have been or are on benefits, as well as how they navigate the repeatedly negative media representations of them as a social group. Through highlighting specific examples of these representations within newspapers, Garthwaite helps to illuminate the manner in which representation and reality can deviate, as well as a link between media coverage and public opinion.
LITERATURE REVIEW 2
Emma Briant, Nick Watson & Gregory Philo. (2013). Reporting disability in the age of austerity: the changing face of media representation of disability and disabled people in the United Kingdom and the creation of new ‘folk devils’. Disability & Society. 28 (6) Reporting Disability
As with Garthwaite’s (2011) article, this paper is concerned with the representations of disabled people and those claiming disability benefits in the UK. That said there are numerous differences between the two articles, largely due to the varying methodologies at work. Garthwaite generally offered anecdotal examples of negative media representations, alongside speculative evidence that this was mirrored in public and political discourse. Based on the methodology adopted by Briant et al (2013), the grey areas outlined by Garthwaite begin to gather more clarity.
In seeking to investigate their topic, Briant et al sought to measure the frequency and type of terminology used to describe benefits claimants, as well as how this media representation had changed over time. To do this, they carried out a comparative content analysis on samples of five newspapers in 2004/05 and 2010/11. Ultimately this led the writers to conclude that ‘many disabled people are being marked out as a new folk devil; putting disabled people at the front of the queue of people bearing the brunt of recent austerity measures’ (2013; 885).
The article found that the broad coverage of disability within articles had risen by 43 percent amidst the politicized ‘age of austerity’. Beyond this the use of negative terminology, previously highlighted by Garthwaite in relation to benefits claimants, also saw notable rises. The authors state that the use of phrases such as ‘handout’, ‘scrounger’, ‘workshy’ and ‘cheats’ increased from 12 to 18 percent between the two samples (2013; 880). The statistical edge that Briant et al’s methodology provides here helps to enhance Garthwaite’s initial point regarding the use of negative terminology in the mass media. In doing so, it also aligns with my own project in which similar negative phrases have been reported by interviewees in their day-to-day lives.
Briant et al also set out to more fully explore the interaction between mass media representation and public opinion. By conducting several focus groups, the attitudes of disabled and non-disabled people were explored and, subsequently, comparisons could be made to the representations provided by the media. An example of this came when focus group participants were asked to describe a typical disability story one would find in a newspaper. In this process the most common responses incorporated benefit fraud into them, as with the example below:
“I think it’s all benefits. There was one that’s just done a marathon and he was claiming that he could barely even walk and that’s dishonest. (Focus Group 3)” (Briant et al, 2013; 881)
As with Stanley Cohen’s (1972) seminal text ‘Folk Devils and Moral Panics’, Briant et al demonstrate how the media can contribute to shifts in public perception. While Cohen saw the same effect in relation to the Mods and Rockers of the 1960s, for Briant et al the moral panic is emerging around those seen to be exploiting the welfare system. Underpinning this, as with Garthwaite, is a disjuncture between representation and reality. Recent statistics suggest no increase in the number of benefit cheats. Yet, in spite of this, media coverage of benefit fraud saw a marked rise.
With regard to my own project, the key points to be taken from both Garthwaite and Briant et al are that there is a clear misrepresentation of the benefits system within large sections of the UK mass media. There is also evidence that this misrepresentation is being taken up by at least some portions of society and being repeated as their own opinion. This ongoing repeated representation further has the potential to provoke extremely damaging self-perception of those within the system, be that for health reasons or any other.
LITERATURE REVIEW 3
Bill Nichols (2001). What gives documentary films a voice of their own? In B. Nichols Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington. Indiana University Press. Chapter 3. Nichols_Introduction+to+Documentaries_Voice
Garthwaite (2011) and Briant et al (2013) were primarily focused on the issues associated with representations of the benefits system, and those engaged with it, in mainstream UK newspapers. While Nichols’ (2001) chapter does not explore the same topic directly, it is useful for establishing how similar discrepancies between representation and reality can occur in other cultural forms. Nichols examines this effect in the particular realm of documentary making showing that documentaries, much like newspapers, are expressing a certain standpoint to their audience:
“Documentaries seek to persuade or convince us: by the strength of their argument or point of view and the appeal, or power, of their voice” (Nichols, 2001; 43)
In talking about the ‘voice’ of a documentary, Nichols is providing a comparable point to the choice of language in the newspapers highlighted by Garthwaite and Briant et al. Both cultural forms deliver their own discursive message and have the capability to offer warped or imbalanced perspectives based on the view of the world they are trying to promote:
“The fact that documentaries are not a reproduction of reality gives them a voice of their own. They are a representation of the world, and this representation stands for a particular view of the world. The voice of documentary, then, is the means by which this particular point of view or perspective becomes known to us” (Nichols, 2001; 43)
My own project’s research involved watching several documentaries relating to benefits, including ‘Benefits Street’ (Channel 4) and ‘On Benefits And Proud’ (Channel 5). These examples were notable for their overtly negative representations of the benefits system and those receiving welfare support. As was seen in the newspapers of the previous articles, the ‘voice’ coming forward was heavily reliant on the familiar rhetoric of ‘undeserving’, ‘scroungers’ and ‘workshy’, but also complimented by uncompromising visual representations, narrative tone and editorial choices.
The disjuncture between these representations and the statistical reality of the issue has already been highlighted in the previous reviews. It is worth noting, though, that the techniques deployed to give weight to a particular representation remain consistent between cultural forms. Both newspapers and documentaries offering these styles of negative representation suggest an exaggerated view of the scale of the issue, while simultaneously providing the most extreme individual cases to justify their position.
When considering these points in terms of my own research project, they were helpful in guiding the type of documentary film I would hope to make. Through careful consideration of my own film’s ‘voice’ and how I would set about achieving it, my overarching aim was to offer a more nuanced and balanced perspective on the issue of benefits than the mainstream UK media provides. As suggested by Garthwaite, this would encompass and include the often-silent thoughts of the statistical majority who legitimately are or have been on benefits. In giving voice to their lived experiences of being on benefits, as well as the impact that other negative representations have upon them, my project aims to offer a counter-argument to the discursive status quo.
Emma Briant, Nick Watson & Gregory Philo. (2013). Reporting disability in the age of austerity: the changing face of media representation of disability and disabled people in the United Kingdom and the creation of new ‘folk devils’. Disability & Society. 28 (6)
Stanley Cohen. (2011). Folk Devils and Moral Panics. London. Routledge.
Kayleigh Garthwaite . (2011). ‘The language of shirkers and scroungers?’ Talking about illness, disability and coalition welfare reform. Disability & Society28. 26 (3), p369-372.
Bill Nichols (2001). What gives documentary films a voice of their own? In B. Nichols Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington. Indiana University Press. Chapter 3.