A Brit buying the Daily Mirror in 1976 would have come across an article entitled 'Cheated by the dole queue fiddlers'. Now, in 2018, a recent headline in The Sun screamed 'Hod a Liar: Benefits cheat who swindled $67,612'.

In 40 years, little has changed and, as the headlines suggest, the coverage of welfare is and was designed to outrage.

The 'benefits cheat' is one of a few cliche characters that the British media rely on when covering the state welfare system. There is the 'single mum with lots of kids' trope - especially popular around Christmas; and the immigrant moving to England, just for free money. There is also the alcoholic wasting his or her money on drink or, as the media would put it, wasting your money on drink.

These characters are recycled over and over.

"Those narratives and those kinds of images create and sustain divisions between deserving and undeserving populations, between workers and shirkers, between welfare dependents and hardworking families," says Ruth Patrick, a researcher at the University of Liverpool.

The whole set up of these programmes is around there being like a 'them' and 'us'. The reality is that we're all welfare dependent in different ways, so we all interact with and use the welfare state at certain times in our life.

Ruth Patrick, researcher, Liverpool University

The rise of reality TV has given these stereotypes new life and has also turned some benefits recipients into celebrities. The BBC's 'We All Pay Your Benefits' started the trend in 2013, and similar offerings followed on other channels.

Along with millions of viewers, the programmes attracted plenty of criticism for the exploitation of people's hardship for entertainment - which has come to be known as 'poverty porn'.

"The whole set up of these programmes is around there being like a 'them' and 'us'," Patrick adds, "The reality is that we're all welfare dependant in different ways, so we all interact with and use the welfare state at certain times in our life."

Bob Jefford, the co-executive producer of Benefits Britain told The Listening Post that "casting" is a very important part of putting a TV show together and that the characters they choose need to be interesting.

However, the most "interesting" characters may end up skewing reality.

Rossalyn Warren, a freelance journalist, knows this from having reported on the subject and from personal experience. "I grew up on benefits in the UK with a single mother and she supported myself and seven other siblings," said Warren. "How the media depict people like myself growing up is not the reality that I saw. The characters they follow will say, 'Oh, I spend it all on presents or I go to the tanning salon'. They give these outrageous comments that [are] great sound bites but not reality."

Barry Tomes, a PR agent, saw an opportunity in the poverty porn industry and took it. He has a book of clients who are on benefits and he says that when journalists and TV producers need help with some kind of benefits story - they call him. He knows that being outrageous is the way to make the news. And if it doesn't quite reflect reality? He says that's just a part of the game.

"Any story that looks like a benefit recipient is spending big money, that's the key," says Tomes. "So just take one of our clients, Marie Buchan, as a good example. Marie Buchan hadn't been in the press for a while, and she wanted a horse. I said, well, people are going to go nuclear about you having a horse."

They did go nuclear. Buchan was invited on talk shows, and she and her horse were given page spreads in newspapers. The horse was reported to cost $98 in some papers, $5,634 in others.

"Everybody comes to the conclusion the horse must cost thousands of pounds. The facts that were printed were nothing like the truth, but I was happy to run with that because that's what we do. I don't decide if it's fact or fiction, that's for the publisher to decide."

Contributors:
Rossalyn Warren, freelance journalist
Rachel Broady, lecturer, Liverpool John Moores University
Bob Jefford, co-executive producer, Benefits Britain 
Barry Tomes, PR agent
Ruth Patrick, researcher, Liverpool University

Source: Al Jazeera News