I was seven years old when I first discovered that I was a thief.
During a heated playground debate, one of my primary school classmates hurled the word at me like a stone, with much the same stopping effect.
When I asked him what he meant he looked baffled for a moment, then announced that I was ‘stealing his dad’s taxes’. I was utterly confused, not least because I thought he’d said taxis and I couldn’t even drive, never mind hot wire a black cab.
Don’t get me wrong, I was under no illusion about how poor we were. Being the daughter of an unemployed single parent in the 80s was pretty gruelling; it wasn’t as if I hadn’t noticed that I lived on a council estate and wore second hand clothes. However, being marked out as a burden and a thief was certainly a new concept, one that – even to this day- I’m not sure that I’ve entirely digested.
The boy’s family ran the local newsagents, something that possibly explains the unusually political nature of his schoolyard taunts. In 1987, the tabloids were full of stories about how unmarried mothers were a scourge of society, a burden on the state and a corrosive threat to the traditional family unit (an argument that - funnily enough - closely resembles the current debate on gay marriage equality).
Had my eight year-old classmate read the papers? Possibly, possibly not, but he could read lurid headlines and he was surrounded by them whenever he was at home. To this day, I believe that particular playground row was fuelled by the right wing tabloids of the time. Luckily for me, back in those days newspapers were the following days chip wrapping, so he quickly forgot whatever overdramatic story it was that made him shout at me. We were friends again the following week.
Many things have improved since 1987. Single parents receive more help from the government; they’re accused of destabilising society (slightly) less often and receive tax credits towards childcare if they work for more than 16 hours per week.
What hasn't improved is the attitude of the right wing press. The 'unmarried mothers' rhetoric might have fallen by the wayside, but to fill that gap they've turned their attention to unemployed parents in general, single or married. And what’s particularly worrying is the way their collective focus has now shifted to the children.
Sorry, did I say children? I meant ‘benefit broods’, a phrase that’s now as widespread as it is degrading. Out of ten tabloid articles I researched that covered the issue of large families on state support, all ten used the phrase ‘brood’ (and on one occasion ‘feral brood’) as if these families were spawning mutant ASBO scum rather than human children.
Take Mick and Mairead Philpott, convicted yesterday of killing six of their seventeen children in a house fire. Instead of reporting solemnly and respectfully on a horrific tragedy that resulted in the deaths of six innocent children, the Daily Mail splashed that the crime was an ‘evil product of Welfare UK’ and accused Mick and Mairead of ‘breeding children to milk the nation’s finances.’
Even in death, they’re still being reported as a drain on society. You’d almost be forgiven that the real crime here was having too many kids in the first place, rather than murdering them. God only knows how the surviving children feel.
It’s certainly telling that nearly all tabloid articles about ‘benefit broods’ (as the Philpott children were described as by the Mail in 2006 in an article since deleted from their website) are illustrated with a posed photo showing the parent(s) on the sofa with all their children assembled around them like evidence in a court case.
The adults are one thing, but how dare these papers trot non-consenting children out in front of the cameras in such a negative way, particularly now that news stories are so widely read - and permanently searchable - thanks to the internet?
Even if the parents have made poor choices (which frequently wasn’t the case - one single mother with ten children was recovering from cancer) the children had no choice or control over their lives. To use the traditional cry of teenage rebellion, they didn’t ask to be born.
My mother was on disability benefits, but that didn't matter. We were an unemployed single parent family and I was therefore a thief, a scrounger: someone who would almost certainly grow up to claim benefits myself. It's a feeling I carry with me to this day, but at least I don’t have a record of that aspect of my childhood hanging around my neck in the form of a savage and visceral tabloid article - permanently available online - that includes my name and home town, with hundreds of unpleasant and aggressive user comments underneath.
My playground experience is one thing, but these kids are being bullied by the Sun, the Mail and, crucially, their readers, and that bullying includes the exposure of their upbringing whenever a potential employer or other interested party Googles their name for the foreseeable future.
The ongoing issue of post-Leveson media regulation isn’t something we have time to debate here, but surely much more could be done to prevent the privacy and future of innocent children being sacrificed on the altar of the right wing anti-benefits agenda.