UK peer criticises the media for its attitude towards the poor

by - 29th October 2014

AS new figures reveal a quarter of UK children are living in poverty, a British peer has said that media narratives perpetuate the myth that those living in poverty are to blame for their plight.

Speaking at the launch of new book The Myth of the Undeserving Poor, which examines attitudes to poverty in the UK today from a Christian perspective, Lord David Alton of Liverpool said such narratives are damaging not just for those living in poverty themselves, but the nation as a whole.

During the launch at Westminster Central Hall, he said: ‘As well as risking the cohesion of our country, a failure to recognise and tackle poverty also offends basic principles of justice, fairness and decency.

‘The injustice is compounded when we either blame those who are poor for their own condition or delude ourselves into believing that poverty is an illusion.’

Martin Charlesworth and Natalie Williams’ book analyses perceptions of the poor in Britain and how they have changed since the global recession of 2007-8.

The authors took a snapshot of articles from a selection of media including the Daily Mail, BBC, Guardian, The Sun and The Huffington Post.  

Natalie, a communications specialist and former journalist from Hastings, said: ‘We were concerned about the influence of media narratives on poverty in Britain today – particularly the divisive ‘strivers versus skivers’ narrative – but we knew we needed to back up our commentary with research, so we examined 390 articles from January 2014. Our most troubling finding is that it is incredibly rare for those in poverty in Britain today to be given a voice by mainstream media outlets.’

Their analysis found that just over half (52 per cent) focused on benefits claimants as the main type of poverty mentioned, while immigration, unemployment and criminal activity also featured in several of the articles.

Their study revealed that 64 per cent of all negative articles about poverty came from the Daily Mail and The Sun. In the Daily Mail, 63 per cent of their negative articles were found in news stories, which, by their nature, should be neutral.

When looking at all the articles, 78 per cent gave no space for those living in poverty to tell their story or be quoted.

Incredibly naïve

‘We sometimes think of the media as noisy background to our lives, but in fact they decide which issues make it into the public domain and how they get presented,’ the authors write. ‘It would be incredibly naïve for us to believe that the media are just impartial bystanders merely observing what is happening and informing the public. Instead they not only control what makes it onto the agenda, but they also frame the way in which issues are presented.’

The years since the recession have seen an increase in poverty in the UK. Figures released this week by Unicef ranked the UK 25th out of 41 countries, with Chile, Poland and Slovakia all outperforming the UK.

Despite the perceived stigmatisation of the poor, post-recession poverty increases have led to a growth in the number of initiatives started by church groups and those of other faiths in helping people who are in need.

Alton, who is known for his human rights campaigning, said: ‘During the last few years we have seen the birth of the community franchising movement in which strategic and effective methodologies for tackling specific areas of social action have been reproduced rapidly and effectively across the nation.

'The speedy growth of such community franchises as Trussell Trust, Street Pastors, Community Money Advice and Christians Against Poverty are prominent examples, but many more - over 40 - are developing quickly. This process is set to continue for some time to come.’

He added:The authors of the The Myth of the Undeserving Poor book, Martin Charlesworth and Natalie Williams, have written boldly and passionately... They have analysed the emerging media narratives. They have looked again at the history of tackling poverty in the UK. They have analysed both the theology and the practice of the current upsurge of church-based social action. Most searchingly of all, they have challenged the "myth of the undeserving poor".

'They argue that both church and society respond best to poverty when we do not allow ourselves to be imprisoned by dubious and highly subjective moral judgements concerning the poorest in our society.’

The Myth of the Undeserving Poor is the first book by Jubilee+, a Christian organisation that enables churches across the UK to make a positive difference in their local communities, especially serving those in need.