In this guest opinion, independent researcher Mo Stewart identifies the ease with which public behaviour can be manipulated and changed by government when aided by the press
It is the welfare service users’ behaviour that government seeks to change with government policy when linked to harsh sanctions. But, in reality, public opinion and behaviour has also changed when influenced by political rhetoric.
Behaviour change is not difficult to achieve when there is full access to the national press and media and when unfounded political claims, which are guaranteed to be reported, can manipulate public opinion. Over time this eventually creates a behaviour change in society.
This has come to pass in recent years within state-funded welfare in the UK. Welfare reform, together with austerity measures introduced by the Coalition government in 2010, and the preventable harm created by government knowingly demonising claimants of long-term disability benefit by suggesting widespread welfare benefit fraud, now sees welfare dependent chronically ill and profoundly disabled service users living in fear of the British government and the British press. In reality, the published government figures have demonstrated welfare fraud at 0.7%, not 75% as claimed in the national press to influence public opinion.
The political manipulation of public opinion was at its most fierce during the Coalition government’s term in office, for five years from 2010. As the introduction of austerity was destined to cause distress, so it was necessary for the government to offer the public someone else to blame. The very easy targets of a quickly evolved political smear campaign were the long-term chronically ill and disabled people, who were totally dependent upon welfare funding for their financial survival.
This relentless political attack against those in greatest need was created to suggest that the UK could no longer justify the welfare budget, that following the 2008 banking crisis suddenly the UK was required to ‘live within our means’, with the suggestion that the public sector deficit should be completely removed. In reality, this situation was planned many years ago to justify the eventual removal of the welfare state en route to the adoption of private healthcare insurance. The banking crisis was the excuse needed to introduce policies which are identified as the legacy of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Fed by rhetoric by the Coalition government, sections of the national press provided banner headlines insisting that 75% of claimants ‘languishing on the state’ were faking, and this relentless government smear campaign worked very well. There was a reported 213% increase in prosecuted disability hate crimes during the Coalition government’s term in office, which the national press willingly reported. But they disregarded any responsibility they may have had from demonising service users and suggesting that the majority of benefit dependent disabled people were unworthy of state financial support. This behaviour by people who felt able to commit disability hate crime was not unexpected, and was inevitable following the successful smear campaign supported by the majority of the national press over a sustained period.
Grave societal outcomes with large social financial inequity were guaranteed during austerity measures which were identified as being based on political propaganda, and totally unnecessary. Academics noted that the austerity measures were adopted by right-leaning governments, and not by others. This gave way to the confirmation that austerity measures were a political choice and not a financial necessity when introduced without any ethical approval.
At the same time as this travesty of justice was being created, chronically ill and profoundly disabled people, who had been deemed by all previous medical and administrative opinion as being unfit to work, were suddenly all under suspicion. In a measure masquerading as welfare reform, all 2.8 million claimants of Incapacity Benefit were to be reassessed while being migrated to the new Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), as introduced in 2008 by the New Labour government. In order to qualify for the new ESA, all welfare dependent chronically sick and disabled people were required to submit to the Work Capability Assessment (WCA). The scope of the assessment was increased in 2010 and coincided with the introduction of austerity measures. State crime by proxy began in earnest as corporate welfare crime was created.
The relentless claims that a majority of welfare claimants were unworthy, as regularly promoted by Conservative politicians and sections of the national press, witnessed a behaviour change towards sick and disabled people with concern and empathy replaced with suspicion. Even drivers using blue badges for access to disabled parking could be harassed by onlookers.
These behaviour changes in society were created by neoliberal politics, with materialistic individualism blessed as a virtue, with an acceptance of tolerated harshness. This legacy of greed meant that there was ‘no such thing as society’ and the sense of community evaporated as demonstrated by total indifference to human need.