Who decided Newsnight shouldn’t look at low wages?

Yesterday, Shadow Minister Toby Perkins tweeted:

Shanene Thorpe says

I got a call from my supervisor asking if I’d be happy to be filmed at work to show the side of the working single parent/ young person. Of course I’d be happy to do that, being a working mum is something I’m proud of… Its not been all plain sailing.

Turned out that was Newsnight actually intended, in a duplicitous move fully in the Daily Mail tradition, was to broadcast an interview with a young single mother who was claiming Housing Benefit in order to send the message that this kind of person is a benefit-scrounger who ought to be living at home with her mother.

Allegra Stratton says

“The government is thinking of saying to young people: if you don’t have work, don’t leave home.”

Shanene Thorpe says she’s worked since she was 16, in retail, she says, though she now works for Tower Hamlets council.

In January this year, the Fair Pay Network published a report on the impact of low pay in national supermarket chains. The report

looks at the big four supermarkets: Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons – the largest employer block in the country outside of the NHS. The report finds that the working poor now dominate poverty equations, with nearly two-thirds of children in poverty living in working families. It gives case studies for individual members of the 900,000-strong supermarket workforce: workers such as the mother who has to hold down two part-time jobs, never sees her kids, and still can’t afford to use the tube – so they probably end up blowing what quality “me-time” they have schlepping across town on a bus. Life would be untenable for many families without in-work benefits, and even with them it is back-breakingly hard.

Who wins, when the government makes up the shortfall, between the poverty pay a shelf-packer earns and what he or she needs to live on? Not the worker, evidently; not the taxpayer, who may get a certain empathy boost from the fact that nobody’s starving, but reaps no economic advantage from this bizarre system; not the supplier to the supermarket, who often has his or her own case to make about deals so bad they often amount to a mugging.

Thorpe got a flat with council help, not having the money for a deposit: the rent is too high for her to pay on her wages, so she claims housing benefit. None of this is an unusual story. The policy for many years has been to allow private landlords to profit hugely from the state, because of the lack of social housing for low-income tenants. Most people who claim Housing Benefit aren’t unemployed. Shelter warned back in June 2010

‘Shelter has been calling for housing benefit reform for years, but this debate must not be muddied by the use of an extreme example from one area in the country.

‘The vast majority of housing benefit claimants are either pensioners, disabled people, those caring for a relative or hardworking people on low incomes, and only 1 in 8 people who receive housing benefit is unemployed.

Renter Girl writes:

We have created a system where rents are so ridiculously and unsustainably high, that they need state subsidy for tenants to afford them. Most claimants are employed. This again raises the spectre of low wages, which in turn means that the state is propping up the profits of companies who are cynically raking in profits while paying low wages (the minimum wage, and even the so-called living wage are both too low for long term survival, to rent, let alone buy a home.)

I have little sympathy for profiteering buy-to-let landlords who are cranking up the rent when interest rates are still so low. Yes, mortgages are hard to come by, but as I have said many times before: profit was once, and should be again, made by accruing equity long-term rather than screwing and squeezing renters, who must beg the state for help.

This is the problem with the housing Benefit issue: the money goes not to claimants, but to bail out and landlords. The money is paid to the person who owns the place and rents it out. They charge what they want, and where demand is high and supply low, they even accept sealed bids on rented properties; the highest bidder wins.

Thorpe says her supervisor told her this was going to be a Newsnight story about the life of a working single parent – was her supervisor lied to by Newsnight? Did Newsnight plan from the start to make this a story about demonising single mothers and knew they’d have to be duplicitous about the story they actually intended to run in order to score an interview? Looked at in one light, that is what investigative journalists sometimes do: but it looks something less than heroic to target a young working mother because she’s not being paid enough and rents are high.

Thorpe reports that Stratton also asked her

“Do you think you should have had your daughter”

because in Stratton’s world if you get pregnant without a mortgage you abort. Anyone has the right to decide to do that, but it’s fundamentally no one’s business but Thorpe’s own, a thoroughly hurtful thing to say, and a clanger of Not The Nine O’Clock News proportions to ask it of the mother of a three-year-old.

Newsnight obviously assumed they could get away with this (and in the world before Twitter, they certainly would have – Thorpe’s only recourse then would have been to go to another tabloid newspaper to try to get her story out, any of the Murdoch papers would have been delighted to run yet another anti-BBC story for a day) because Shanene Thorpe isn’t the kind of person who can afford to sue the BBC for libel.

Lenin’s Conspiracy makes a good point about how the official line these days is to make disreputable everyone who’s claiming benefits:

Since paid work guarantees the demarcation, Shanene Thorpe had every reason to expect that she would be treated as a respectable person by the BBC. She could not have anticipated that the boundaries of respectability in popular culture are being shifted by a considerable ideological effort. The ideologically coded but otherwise far-from-subtle reason for this shift is an attempt to suppress the wage bill. The accent may fall on benefits, but these are merely a social wage: the costs of the reproduction of labour, however they are covered, are to be reduced through this expedient of forcing millions of young people and their parents to share cramped accomodation. Even having paid work isn’t a guarantee of respectaility, now, if soaring living costs mean that you still partially depend on the social wage.

The official line that it’s only the unemployed who claim benefits, that hard-working people can look down on “scroungers”, makes comfortable tabloid reading. But everyone who needs to get tax credits or claim housing benefit to help with high rent knows it’s not true. It’s just that there isn’t any national story being pushed – as the BBC could have pushed it – to say otherwise.

The Pay Up campaign points out:

In the 30 years after the end of the second world war, inequality actually gradually decreased as the welfare state was constructed and the labour movement took home a steadily increasing share of the economic pie. Today, there is a real crisis of in-work poverty. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation puts the number of children living in “in-work” poverty at 2 million and rising. David Cameron repeats that the government is cutting welfare “so it pays to have a job” but for millions of people, work does not pay. Wages do not cover household bills, let alone provide a decent standard of living.

Instead of pay rises, we have helped pay our own wages through the £20bn of in-work tax credits spent each year. While tax credits are a lifeline to the 5 million households in the UK that rely on them, they have allowed private companies to shirk responsibility for wage bills, shifting it to the public instead and creating a subsidy for private sector profit. The problem is not tax credits and welfare, but the fact that the market is not delivering even the most basic standard of living for millions of working people.

Shanene Thorpe definitely deserves an apology – I signed the Change petition she set up, and if you haven’t already, please do so now.

But the question is wider than a personal apology for a thoroughly rude and deceitful interview. We should ask: why did Newsnight decide they weren’t going to do a hard-hitting programme on the subject of low wages and people who work hard but have to claim benefits just to get by?

BBC investigative journalism has changed the national dialogue before. This government demonisation of the working poor is huge and only going to get worse.

Why did the BBC decide they weren’t going to go there?

Samira Shackle notes:

More widely, it raises some troubling questions about the way that the media and politicians talk about poverty and benefit claimants. While outrage has, rightly, been focused on the fact that Thorpe was misrepresented since she is not unemployed, that is not the only problem with the interview. It perpetrates lazy assumptions about single mothers: scroungers who should hide themselves away and not ask for anything.

Instead, we’re getting stories like Are women their own worst enemy when it comes to the top jobs? Why is someone like Shanene Thorpe – someone with grit and flair enough to take on a major news programme and demand an apology – why is she not in the fast stream heading for a top job before she’s forty?

Apparently, the BBC’s only answer is because she doesn’t have enough confidence. Class, racism, sexism, child care costs, low wages, housing costs, none of those could be barriers: Shanene Thorpe just needs confidence-building.

Oh. Really. Come off it, BBC.


Message from Shanene Thorpe via Change.org at 15:52:

I got an unexpected call at work yesterday — from Newsnight Editor, Peter Rippon. (So they do know I’ve got a job after all!)

He congratulated me on the petition, and apologised “if I’d been misrepresented” on the show. But they refused to accept responsibility and even tried to blame my employer.

The BBC are finally feeling the pressure to do the right thing. But this phone call isn’t enough, Newsnight didn’t just insult me, they insulted every viewer and working single mums all over the country. Their apology should be as public as my humiliation.

If Thorpe’s report of the conversation she had with Peter Rippon is accurate, Newsnight’s story is that they asked Thorpe’s employer to find them an unemployed single mother, and it would follow that Allegra Stratton is a Hari-level interviewer – she didn’t discover while talking with Thorpe that, though a single mother, Thorpe wasn’t actually unemployed. But why contact the Tower Hamlets council? Wouldn’t they expect that they would then be put in touch with a council employee? Did they think that they’d been found someone on workfare – who was “working” for the council, but technically still “unemployed”?

How does anyone not a complete Johann Hari manage to carry out an interview about a person’s life and never find out that they’ve got a job?

—31st May: Shanene Thorpe: I felt judged and victimised by Newsnight:

I feel strongly about these issues, so when my workplace approached me to ask whether I’d be happy to be interviewed by Newsnight, I was happy to agree. My assumption was that since it was a BBC news programme, they would tell the story straight, and I would have an opportunity to put my point across. Colleagues who’d spoken to the people at Newsnight told me: Newsnight are on your side. They want you to put forward a good argument against the cuts to housing benefit. When I arrived for filming it was obvious I wasn’t what they were expecting. They went ahead anyway. I didn’t need to be in it: the story had been told anyway, of young people adopting a certain lifestyle, and being a drain on the state. They could have put a screenshot of my face up: my lifestyle was irrelevant. I was asked: “Don’t you think you should still be at home with your mum?”; “Do you want any more children?” and worst of all, “Do you think you should have had your daughter?” I felt judged and victimised. I feel the fact I was working should have been clearly mentioned and I told them I was uncomfortable with the way filming was going.

Immediately after filming I was upset: I felt as if I’d been mugged. I’d been led to believe I’d be defending young people from benefit cuts, not defending my family. I’m so far from the scrounger benefit-claimant stereotype it seemed ridiculous. I am one woman working hard to raise my daughter. When I was ready to return to work not long after my baby was born, the benefits office did a “better off in work” calculation. They worked out that I would be a mere £20 better off a week by working. Dropping my daughter off at daycare every morning is heartbreaking, but because of my principles, I do it.

—1st June: Following a complaint from Shanene Thorpe about the way she was portrayed on the programme on Wednesday 22nd May Newsnight has issued an apology.

Part of Peter Rippon’s answer:

The government is considering making a further £10bn of savings from its Welfare bill.
Some of the ideas being considered are controversial including restricting housing benefits for young people who it thinks could be living at home and encouraging people to have fewer children.
It is these ideas we wanted to explore. We especially wanted to get reaction from people who could be affected.
We approached Tower Hamlets press office to see if they could find case studies. You were put forward to us as someone who fitted the bill and with strong and articulate opinions on why the Government would be wrong to introduce such limitations.

Apparently the reason no one bothered to explain to Thorpe that she was there to be asked why she wasn’t living at home with her mother and why she hadn’t had an abortion, was because of “time constraints”.

But Peter Rippon does apologise for one thing:

It would not be defamatory to imply someone is unemployed but we should not have allowed that impression to be created so I apologise.

Update, 30th August

Over three months after the original broadcast, Newsnight finally apologises.

The full apology broadcast on BBC Newsnight, Thursday 30th August:

“On the 23rd May during an item on welfare reform we broadcast an interview with Shanene Thorpe that unfairly created the mistaken impression that she was unemployed and wholly dependent on benefits and suggested that she was living off the state as a “lifestyle choice”. She has asked us to make clear she has been in work, or work related education, since leaving school. Shortly after the programme we published an apology on our website for the unmerited embarrassment and any distress the item caused her. We are happy to make this broadcast apology as well.”

Update, 31st August

I still want to know why Newsnight decided not to look at how low wages in London mean people in full-time employment have to get housing benefit to help pay the rent.

Meanwhile, Chris Grayling has made policy based on a bartender he spoke to once, and has decided to make all 18-24 year olds who can’t find a job work for £1.87 an hour, paid for by the state. Because that’ll help push up wages, yes indeed.

He denied that it was “slave labour” and insisted it would help young Londoners improve their career prospects.

They will do ‘work experience placements’ in charities or social organisations – such as care homes – for 30 hours a week over 13 weeks. It is unclear how much real work these ‘placements’ will involve, but given that the idea is to banish the “something for nothing culture” that he feels is so prevalent among workless under-24s, we assume these will look very similar to proper jobs (only they will be unpaid, of course). The scheme will be tested this year in 16 London boroughs including the riot-hit areas of Croydon and Haringey. The Government then hopes to roll out the scheme across London and the rest of the UK.


Filed under Economics, Poverty, Supermarkets, Women

4 responses to “Who decided Newsnight shouldn’t look at low wages?

  1. Catherine

    It really is about time the BBC started putting the blame for rising costs where it belongs – at the feet of greedy private landlords and hugely wealthy companies that pay poverty wages.
    I bet Shanene Thorpe is a licence fee payer. She, and all of us, deserve better than the BBC’s seemingly constant stream of “scrounger” stories. John Humphrys’ programme was another shocker.
    What is happening to the BBC? The dismantling of the NHS is ignored, as is the destruction of state support for the elderly and disabled. We expect this kind of mendacious ignorance from the Daily Mail, not the Beeb.

    • In the article Thorpe wrote for CiF, it seems Newsnight interviewers understood when they met her that she wasn’t unemployed, but they had a plan for a segment talking to an unemployed single mother and they just used her for it. Quite appalling. They owe her a public apology.

  2. I saw the piece on Newsnight, and I was rather disgusted at the time by the tone of the questioning, but when I saw Shanene’s side of the story, my trust in the BBC already dented by their staunchly royalist, Unionist bias, took a further knock. I joined the torrent of people who signed her petition (it went up thousands within minutes!)

    • They really, really seem to have behaved with shocking bad faith – they had a bad government propaganda episode planned, and they made use of Thorpe for it regardless of her actual circumstances.

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