I remain a big fan of the BBC, but last month’s BBC NI “Spotlight” programme on welfare reform was, I’m afraid, an example of non-investigative journalism where real investigative journalism was called for.
The programme began with two pensioners in Rathcoole. I am unsure why, state pensions for current pensioners have nothing to do with the reform.
It continued with a blind couple. Again I am unsure why, their benefits will be unaffected by the reforms because they will clearly qualify. This point of clarity was not made.
It then moved to a single mother struggling to make ends meet in Newtownards, and to the father of her child in nearby Donaghadee. He explained that 69 quid jobseekers’ allowance was nowhere near enough to live on; but it was not clarified that, in addition to that money, his child’s mother receives benefits both to look after the child and to provide it with shelter (a large percentage of any working parent’s income, in fact almost certainly the vast majority, would go on mortgage and children, so this is a point of high relevance). It was then revealed that he was 24, had never really worked, but had three children – never was the obvious question asked as to why he had seen fit to have three children, with no apparent means of supporting them.
In the midst of it all we had an interview with a so-called “benefits expert”, but it was never clarified how that title had been earned; she managed, incredibly, to bring global warming into the debate without challenge.
Into the mix also were thrown figures without any detail – we were told we spend 5 billion on benefits in NI (in fact 5.23 billion in 2011/12), but nowhere was it clarified this is a quarter of all public spending (I may note in addition, on that subject, that nearly a quarter of our taxes currently go to pay interest on the national debt rather than to provide any public service or benefit), nor was it clarified that this excludes annually managed expenditure on pensions (another 2.24 billion). Is it not incredible that barely half the tax we pay goes on actual public services?!
Essentially, what had happened was this: a journalist had been asked to do a piece about welfare reform, and he had gone off and selected people in receipt of various benefits at random, interviewing them without challenge, while then inserting the odd note from an economist (that’s the right covered) and a “benefits expert” (that’s the left).
In the meantime, what precisely is being reformed was left unclarified; the relevance of some of the interviewees was left in doubt; and no one anywhere was challenged about anything.
If that is the best the BBC can muster, is it any wonder the “traditional media” is in such trouble? Newspaper reports range from the made-up to the erroneous; television documentaries completely miss the point; the press in general is hit by scandal. Good journalists are paid the precise same salary as poor journalists, meaning many of them leave the profession for much less important (but bizarrely better paid) press office jobs or such like. As journalism thus declines in value, so does journalism training, with some turned out too often unable effectively to challenge and cross-examine subjects, to analyse and report accurately information, to research and clarify facts. Meanwhile the public loses all faith, and switches over – stopping buying newspapers and moving from television to, well, blogs and such like…
The media industry has to sort its game out, or it will simply cease to exist. Good journalists need to be valued, and paid proper wages; bad journalists simply should not exist (training should see to that); an understanding that journalism is about a lot more than a quick trawl through the internet for a story must be promoted. I wonder is there a gap in NI for a “premium newspaper”…?