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Second newspaper group could be targeted over universal credit articles

A second national newspaper group is facing a boycott and possible direct action protests over a Department for Work and Pensions campaign that aims to improve the reputation of its “toxic” universal credit benefit system.

Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) is calling for a boycott of Reach, the largest national and regional news publisher in the UK, while other disabled activists have called for direct action aimed at the publisher.

A campaign of direct action is already underway against the publisher of the Metro free newspaper, which is being paid hundreds of thousands of pounds by DWP to publish a series of advertorials praising UC (see separate story).

Now Reach, the newspaper group which publishes titles such as the Manchester Evening News, Birmingham Mail and Bristol Post, but also the national Daily Mirror, Daily Express, Sunday People, Daily Record and Daily Star, is also facing the possibility of a boycott and direct action protests.

Last week, Disability News Service (DNS) reported how regional Reach newspapers were criticised for running at least three positive and misleading articles about universal credit, which all focus on local DWP staff praising the impact it has had locally and either dismissing or ignoring its well-publicised flaws.

Two of the articles were re-published by other newspapers in the same group, with one of them published by at least 15 other newspapers.

Now another article published by a regional Reach newspaper has emerged, which gives a glowing account of the efforts of DWP staff to support disabled people who have been found fit for work, and the impact of universal credit (UC).

In the wake of the articles, Bob Ellard, a member of DPAC’s national steering group, said: “DPAC has seen the succession of articles, which are little more than advertisement pieces for universal credit, copied across local titles owned by Reach. 

“People need to be informed that this is a campaign of propaganda rather than news and we suggest that people do not buy Reach titles.”

And Sheffield DPAC, which has led the campaign against the Metro, said it would also like to see action taken against Reach publications.

Another leading disabled activist, who tweets at @imajsaclaimant, also called for direct action protests targeted at Reach publications.

He said: “I am so angry about it. The thing is that Reach seem to have got away with it [compared with the Metro].

“I see what Sheffield DPAC have been doing [with the Metro]. We should be doing the same [with Reach publications].

“They should not be able to get away with it.”

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has made it clear that it will not support calls for boycotts of newspapers because they may affect the livelihoods of fellow journalists, including disabled journalists.

But Natasha Hirst, chair of NUJ’s equalities council, who also has the disabled members’ seat on the union’s national executive council, said: “We are concerned that the integrity of journalism could be called into question by biased and uncritical features in publications.

“It is vital that journalism remains independent of political interference.

“The erosion of trust created by orchestrated visits to jobcentres and government-placed advertorials that dismiss people’s harsh experiences of universal credit is something we must all fight.”

The concerns about the Reach articles come as DPAC is set to release a report detailing “the reality of universal credit”, with links to hundreds of newspaper articles from across the UK that have reported on the real damage caused by UC, and were published over a period of just 16 weeks between 20 January and 12 May 2019.

The report contains “harrowing stories of people forced into debt, rent arrears, homelessness, crime, prostitution, hunger, people unable to afford fares to get to food banks, parents unable to get essentials for their babies, child poverty, worsening mental health, ex-service people considering suicide and even cases of actual suicide”.

The Newcastle Chronicle article – which was also published by the Bristol Live website, with minor amendments – is headlined: “What happens when the DWP deems a disabled person fit for work – according to Jobcentre worker.”

It says the government has “come under fire for deeming people who are living with disabilities fit for work”, while the paper has “reported numerous stories about North East residents being faced with the daunting prospect of returning after being declared fit for work” by DWP.

It then says: “As more people are put onto Universal Credit, we met with staff at Newcastle Jobcentre to find out what happens when a person with a disability is deemed fit?” [sic]

The rest of the article is a series of comments by a DWP disability employment advisor, with no attempt to put them into context, or secure comments from welfare rights experts or campaigners who have spent years highlighting the flaws and dangers of universal credit.

The advisor even suggests in the article that, rather than disabled people found fit for work being forced unfairly into employment, they are often just asked to attend “pie and socialising” clubs or walking groups.

She insists that DWP “have to go with what people are telling us they feel able to do”.

The reporter who wrote the article, Kali Lindsay, told DNS she had written numerous articles over the last four or five months that were critical of DWP and UC – including one just three weeks ago about a man with a chronic lung condition who had his benefits cut after being found fit for work.

She said DWP had invited her paper to send a reporter to speak to jobcentre staff, which had allowed her to “find out what they were saying and put to them what people’s criticisms were of the service” and “explain how they felt about it”.

She said that DWP had a “right of reply” to the previous stories that had been written by her newspaper.

Lindsay said she did not believe there had been any pressure placed on her paper by DWP to run the articles, which were part of a series being published by the Chronicle on various aspects of the jobcentre’s work, and that her paper had seen it as a “good opportunity to go inside the jobcentre and find out more details”.

But she insisted that she was personally angry with how DWP treated people, and will “fight their corner”, and that she had put questions from stories she had covered over the last two years to the advisor when she spoke to her, with the advisor’s answers appearing in the article.

Lindsay said she had not yet seen a leaked DWP memo which revealed that the department was engaged in a “front-footed strategy” to fight back against what it called “negativity and scaremongering” by the media and “tackle misconceptions and improve the reputation of UC”.

The memo said this included writing to journalists like those at the Chronicle to “come and see for themselves the great work we do”.

Reach refused to comment on its latest article, but said it stood by last week’s comments, in which it defended its decision to run one article, and said the company frequently syndicated articles of interest, while it had published more than 1,100 articles in the last 12 months on UC, most of them “critical”.

But it has still refused to respond to questions about the DWP memo, and suggestions that the company has become caught up in DWP’s “myth-busting” campaign, and it still insists that there has been no “undue pressure, financial or otherwise” to publish any of the stories.

The positive account given by the disability employment advisor the Chronicle spoke to about DWP’s fit-for-work processes contrasts with years of evidence linking the deaths of disabled people with DWP decisions to find them fit for work.

In 2015, government-funded research by public health experts from the Universities of Liverpool and Oxford concluded that the programme to reassess people on incapacity benefit through the WCA was linked to 590 suicides in just three years.

Only three months ago, the Independent Case Examiner concluded that DWP was guilty of “multiple” and “significant” failings in handling the case of mother-of-nine Jodey Whiting*, who had her out-of-work disability benefits stopped for missing a work capability assessment, and took her own life just 15 days later.

DNS has reported on many other such cases, including that of Alan McArdle, who had been placed in the work-related activity group of employment and support allowance and had a fatal heart attack an hour after being told DWP was threatening to stop his benefits.

Then there was Luke Alexander Loy, who died just three months after being found fit for work and then having his benefits sanctioned, despite his doctor explaining that he was not currently well enough to work.

Other deaths linked to DWP’s fitness for work process include that of Moira Drury, reported by the Guardian in 2015; Sheila Holt, whose death was reported by the Daily Mirror – part of the Reach group – in March 2015; Karen Sherlock, who died in 2012 after fighting for two years against the injustice of the WCA regime; and Mark Wood, who starved to death in 2013 after he was found fit for work through the WCA system, and lost his out-of-work disability benefits.

DNS also reported last month how DWP destroyed a damaging internal report about its failure to ensure the safety of benefit claimants in jobcentres, preventing it being released under freedom of information laws.

*To sign the Justice for Jodey Whiting petition, click on this link. If you sign the petition, please note that you will need to confirm your signature by clicking on an email you will be sent automatically by the House of Commons petitions committee

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