Leveson is showing ‘wilful blindness’ towards disabled people


Published: 7 May 2012

Region: UK

By Katharine Quarmby for Guardian

When the select committee on culture, media and sport wrote in its recent report: “In failing to investigate properly, and by ignoring evidence of widespread wrongdoing, News International and its parent News Corporation exhibited wilful blindness, for which the companies’ directors – including Rupert Murdoch and James Murdoch – should ultimately be prepared to take responsibility”, I couldn’t help but smile.

We all look to Lord Justice Leveson to clean out our stables in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal – after all, he is investigating “the culture, practices and ethics of the press” – arising from it. Yet he, like Rupert Murdoch, also appears to be “wilfully blind”; he too is failing to investigate properly; he too is ignoring evidence – in this case that some journalists, fed by unscrupulous politicians, are whipping up a perfect storm for disabled people.

The organisation Inclusion London, along with 10 disabled people’s groups, the Disability Hate Crime Network and several individuals, including myself, submitted evidence to Leveson, arguing that media reporting on benefits reform has started to affect disabled people. (The journalist John Pring and I also submitted evidence on this to the NUJ, which has core participant status – but the union failed to mention hostile media reporting on disability in any significant way in its submission to the inquiry.)

Submissions on disability from members of the public to the inquiry outnumbered those from any other equality strand, such as transgender, migrants and refugees, except that of women. Yet the Leveson inquiry decided that no disability organisation or disabled person would give oral evidence, we were told late last week.

Four women’s groups, one transgender group and one refugee group gave oral evidence. I’m really glad they did. But I’m astonished that disabled people were not invited to do so, given the number of submissions – and the salient fact that, unlike any other group, they have been targeted by newspapers in an orchestrated way. Indeed two newspapers – the Sun and the Express – have launched campaigns against “scrounging”, in which they encourage the public to shop people they judge to be disability benefit fraudsters.

The government has played its part in this too. Lies, damn lies, and statistics are being peddled – such as claiming that 75% of people on incapacity benefit are faking it, when the real figure is likely to be less than 1%. Such lies have an effect – focus group research from Glasgow Media Group confirms that the general public believes that 50-70% of those on disability benefits are fraudulent (they also found that there has been a tripling in the use of words such as “scrounger” in the last five years in media reports).

This campaign of misinformation is having its intended effect. When the Treasury website invited comments from the public on how to reduce welfare spending in 2010, the comments about disabled people (which were not moderated) were vicious.

One argued that all disabled people should be sterilised. Another suggested that disabled people should be used as weapons of war: “Those who can work that upon rigorous medical examination turn out to be just thick or bone idle to undertake intesnive [sic] course in employability, where they will learn to be punctual, meticulous, smartly dressed, articulate, and gain working attitude. Those who repeatedly fail the course to be deployed in Afghanistan as IED deterrents.”

No government ministers have apologised for this. Nor have they disassociated themselves from pernicious rhetoric linked to the government crackdown. Leveson should therefore question ministers too, in module three, for their part in whipping up this dangerous mood.

It is not surprising that this climate of suspicion and hostility is feeding through to actual abuse. One mother, who is deaf, told me that another mother, in front of other parents, had accused her of faking her condition.

She no longer attends school events, such as her child’s assembly. Then there is Peter Greener, who has MS and who was harassed for three months by his neighbour, who called him a scrounger because he had once been seen walking.

Recent polling by the charity Scope found a 50% increase in verbal abuse and intimidation on London’s public transport – in the last two years – around the time that the coalition launched its campaign for welfare reform, backed by certain newspapers. Coincidence or not?

It’s wrong that the government won’t denounce this poisonous campaign against disabled people that they have kickstarted. It’s appalling that some journalists have joined in the witch-hunt. Someone has to challenge this. It should be Leveson, and Inclusion London, and many other groups, are asking the inquiry next week to reconsider – and hear the voice of disabled people.

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