Lies, damned lies and austerity: how consent is being manufactured for cuts and caps

We have been told how there is “massive public support” for benefit caps and on the rare occasion a newsreader interviews someone who is against cuts, whoever he or she may be,  will be hectored and bullied by the interviewer. Anti-austerity commentators will always be asked the same loaded questions about cuts. “You realize that there is a need for cuts” and “The country has no money to pay for x, y and z” are two of the most overused  questions in the mainstream media’s lexicon. The disabled and benefit claimants are in the government’s line of fire,  for it is they who have now been accused of ruining the economy along with the “bloated” public sector.

In 1988, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman put their heads together and wrote the highly influential Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media.  The right hate it. Not because it was co-written by Chomsky – they hate him too – but because it kicks a massive hole in their thesis that we live in a “free society” that has a “free press”, where all of us enjoy “free speech”.

The basis of Chomsky and Herman’s argument is that there is a propanganda model to which all corporate-owned media adheres. The four identifying features (filters) of the propaganda model are as follows:

  1. Ownership of the medium
  2. Medium’s funding sources
  3. Sourcing
  4. Flak
  5. Anti-communist ideology

With regard to 5, we can replace this with the more useful “ideological” in order to cover all forms of dissent from the government line. If we use the BBC as our exemplar, then the model is fleshed out as follows.

  1. Ownership: owned by the state in what is euphemistically referred to as an “arm’s length relationship”.
  2. Funding: the license payer and to some extent the state.
  3. Sourcing: ‘news’ often comes from government, corporate or City press briefings, press releases and so forth. A great deal of information is taken from pro-free market think tanks. Self-styled economic ‘experts’ like Ruth Lea or David Buik are brought into the studio to attack any dissenting point of view or to give ‘expert’ analysis.
  4. Flak: attacks on any voice that is not consistent with the government line. Viewers emails are aired to give an impression of consent. Example: “Major Payne of Tunbridge Wells emailed us to say, your guest was just as bad as the scroungers. I’d put them into forced labour camps”.
  5. Ideological: opposed to any alternative point of view on the economic crisis by spouting the government line and using government phraseology to rebut those points of view.

Examples of pro-austerity broadcasting includes programmes as Saints and Scroungers.

The BBC explains the show’s ‘mission’,

Dominic Littlewood follows fraud officers as they bust the benefits thieves stealing millions of pounds every year, while charities and councils track down people who actually deserve government help

Dominic Littlewood: the people’s champion.

Saints and Scroungers gives the impression that benefit fraud is widespread. Littlewood’s hard man voiceover adds drama to the footage.

This video gives a taste of the programme

Programmes like Saints and Scroungers  and Panorama insert the notion in the public mind that ‘your’ taxes are being used to support villains and parasites, some of whom own yachts and Bentleys.  The impression is often given by these programmes that every person on benefits is a potential criminal. The numbers of people wrongly claiming benefits is often exaggerated and there are some people who are reluctant to claim any form of benefit for fear of being accused of ‘scrounging’.

But the BBC isn’t alone in this assault on the poor or the disabled. The press, as we know, are guilty of this too.  In Thursday’s Sun, Rod Liddle claimed that “disability” was “fashionable” and told his readers that it was his “New Years resolution” to fake disability, citing ME and fibromyalgia  as those conditions that he’d most like to have.

Here’s an image of the article.

Delingpole defended him on Telegraph blogs with an article titled “The fake disabled are crippling our economy”. This is not only inaccurate; it is a part of an ongoing attempt to scapegoat the disabled.  The suggestion being made by Liddle and Delingpole is that all disabled claimants are cheating the system. They, of course, deny this and their legion of defenders respond by saying, “They’re only attacking the cheats”. The simple truth is that attacks on disabled people have increased sharply over the last few years, helped in no small part by a potent mix of negative news stories of ‘scroungers’ and ‘cheats‘ and government rhetoric.

Using scapegoats to deflect attention away from the real causes of the economic crisis is typical for a government of millionaires who are eager to present themselves as ‘caring’ and in touch. The real causes of the recession are never dealt with and are blamed on a variety of things from the disabled and unemployed to the Euro. Everything and everyone else is accused of “destroying” the economy but the real villain: free-market capitalism. This is a form of sociopathy; the lies, the deception, the bullying, the charm and the desire to dominate others are all characteristics exhibited by this Tory-led regime. However, Labour aren’t entirely blameless. The Blair and Brown governments were committed to reducing the numbers of people claiming Incapacity Benefit and forcing those people into work – whether they were capable of working or not. The press produced story after story of benefit ‘cheats’ who were caught scamming the system. The phrase  “sick note culture” had entered the popular vocabulary.

When this Tory-led government came to power in 2010, George Osborne made the bold claim that benefit fraud was costing the country £5 billion a year and evoked the magic words “costing the hardworking taxpayer”.  Peter Oborne wrote:

However that figure is not true. I have now been onto the Treasury and it is clear that the real figure for fraud in the benefits system is £1.5 billion a year, or less than one third of the sum which Osborne claimed in his spending statement. It is true that there were benefit overpayments of some £5.2 billion in the last financial year (2009/10) but the majority of these according to HMRC figures were error rather than fraud.

Even Citywire admitted that tax evasion cost the Exchequer more than benefit fraud:

At £30 billion per year, fraud in the UK is more than twice as high as thought, with tax evasion costing the public purse over £15 billion per year and benefit fraud just over £1 billion.

Aside from attacks on the disabled and the poor, the government has also insisted that Britain is “running record levels of debt” and that debt, it insists, will be passed on to “future generations”. The question that they and their partners-in-crime repeatedly ask is “Is it fair to saddle our children with this generation’s debt”? But this is a loaded question that is not based on fact rather, it is based on the notion that government finances and domestic finances operate in the same way. This fallacy is repeated by a number of people who accept the government’s position without question. In a recent interview on BBC News on an entirely unrelated issue (High Speed 2), the actor Geoffrey Palmer repeated, almost line for line, the government’s austerity message. “The country’s broke”, he said, adding that “we can’t afford it (HS2)”. If the country is broke, then it is unlikely to be able to raise money on the international bond markets, which it continues to do. Furthermore, it would be unable to continue the costly and disastrous war in Afghanistan, which cost Britain in excess of £20 billion in 2010.

The government and their media allies continues  to demonize and scapegoat the most vulnerable people in society. On last Thursday’s Question Time, Melanie Phillips repeated the topsy-turvy logic of the LM Network that the “bankers are being scapegoated”. This is what passes for morality in the eyes of those who take part in BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze, where those who comment on morality have no qualifications in the subject on which they pontificate – none of them are moral philosophers nor would it appear that any of them have as much as an undergraduate degree in philosophy.

The government hates the very thought of opposing points of view and we can see this in the way they will control discourse by accusing those who are anti-austerity of being “deficit deniers”, which is a phrase that is redolent of “Holocaust Denial”.  The Morning Star explains:

But unfortunately the word racist – like nazi or even Holocaust denier – is so emotive, connotes such horrible things and is so insulting that it can intimidate people into silence and shut down reasoned debate, much like deficit denier.

The Labour Party has fallen into the trap of not wanting to be seen as “deficit deniers”, which has brought them closer and closer to the government’s position on cuts. So much for meaningful and effective opposition to this government then. The phrase “deficit denier” is based on a logical fallacy.  It is a connotation fallacy; an appeal to insult – the classic ad hominem.  Unable to fashion a logical and coherent argument for their austerity measures, government ministers concoct insults to silence their critics.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, this government is philosophically bankrupt and must resort to bullying and outright lies to convince the public of the need for austerity, but it wouldn’t be able to do this without the media’s fawning complicity.



Filed under Bad philosophy, Media, Neoliberalism, propaganda, Television, Tory press

7 responses to “Lies, damned lies and austerity: how consent is being manufactured for cuts and caps

  1. Pingback: Benefit cuts fuel abuse towards disabled people | Guy Debord's Cat

  2. twotonestapler

    However…following the recent exposes of tax dodging and the workings of Atos/DWP on ‘Dispatches’ and ‘Panorama’, there might be an almost perceptible change as people who read this continue to bang on about the truth…

  3. twotonestapler

    Althought this coverage of the ‘miraculous’ turnaround at Hitchingbrooke hospital may prove your point.

    BBC Radio 4 Today programme gives a huge PR boost to Circle

    BBC Radio 4 Today programme gave a huge PR boost to Circle on 1st August.

    The Circle CEO, Ali Parsa, was interviewed on the reported “improved care” at Hinchingbrooke hospital since Circle took over the franchise.

    The problem is that much of what Parsa said was either speculative or aspiration and none of it was supported by evidence.

    Circle have no experience of running a large hospital with an A&E department and have not yet steered Hinchingbrooke through a winter, so it is too early to make any assessments on whether they have improved the hospital or not.

    Yet the BBC blithely repeat what is clearly a Press Release from the private healthcare company.

    The BBC online report says “Regional NHS officials monitoring Circle say the company has made a good start, while warning that improvements at the hospital must be sustainable” but it does not link to the statement and searches of the Strategic Health Authority (SHA) website return no results.

    Unattributed statements are not evidence, they are hearsay.

    The BBC go on to say “Before the takeover, ministers had described the hospital as a clinical and financial basket case”, it is true that Hinchingbrooke has and had poor finances (a historical debt of £40 million), but there is no evidence that it is a “clinical basket case”.

    The latest Annual Report (which covers ten months of the NHS administration and two months of Circle’s franchise) says that HSMR (the standardised mortality rate) is 77.8 compared to the national expected value of 100 (this is very good); C-diff cases are consistently below the SHA target and MRSA cases meet the national
    target. Other quality figures like reducing falls and medical errors are within the trust’s target or reducing.

    These are not exceptional values for Hinchingbrooke because earlier annual reports show that the trust consistently does well on all of these clinical quality figures.

    You have to question why a minister made out that Hinchingbrooke has clinical problems when it hasn’t, and you have to question why the BBC are reporting this without checking its veracity.

    Then we come to the finance situation.

    On the Today programme, Justin Webb, the interviewer, asks: “you have got more people coming through the hospital, is that the key to be able to turn it around, or begin to?”

    Parsa avoids the question by replying: “partly it is that” and then continued to talk about improving procurement. He had reason to avoid talking about patient numbers, because they are not going to plan.

    One point of Parsa’s 16 point improvement plan is to increase the number of patients treated each year by 5,000. This means increasing the number of elective (non-emergency) patients because it is much more difficult to make a financial surplus on treating an emergency patient.

    However, the finance report from June (remember, these are early figures) show that the trust is treating more emergency patients, and fewer elective patients than they had planned. Consequently the income from electives is almost 19% less than they hoped for.

    The finance report also says that for the first quarter of the financial year the trust generated a deficit of £2.3 million and this was £652,000 more than their financial plan. Clearly, their finances are not going to plan. Yet on the Today programme we were given the impression that Hinchingbrooke was doing well, and Parsa even said: “the hospital should finish this [financial] year on a balanced book”. You cannot deduce this on their first quarter results.

    There is no evidence that Circle will turn around the finances of Hinchingbrooke, yet the BBC allowed Ali Parsa to give the impression that they had changed the financial position. This is incredible PR for Circle delivered unchallenged by the BBC.

  4. timjj

    I think there are worse governments in power at the moment

  5. Alton Locke

    I despise many of the the panellists on the Moral Maze. The two worst are: Anne McElvoy, whose schtick is to call everything she doesn’t agree with ‘Marxist demons’ and is routinely wheeled out as some sort of genuine economist. Claire Fox who is merely a right-wing mouthpiece masquerading as some sort of liberal intellectual through her Institute of (no) Ideas. These and others like Phillips are invited back time and again to propagate the official line on economics and policy.

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