Evidence-free yelling; arguments based in emotion, not fact. I'm not talking about Channel 4's Benefits Street debate which I appeared on Monday night, as predictably disorderly as it was. I mean the whole so-called debate about social security that this country has endured since the financial sector plunged Britain - and much of the world - into economic disaster.
The Government and much of the media have fed us a relentless, poisonous diet of “skivers” and “'scroungers”, of the feckless and workshy hiding behind blinds, subsidised by you, the hard-working taxpayer, who have to get up in the morning and slog your guts out. It was the behaviour of those at the top of society which led to a surge in unemployment and underemployment, the longest fall in living standards since the Victorian era, and hundreds of thousands driven to food banks in one of the richest countries on earth. But it is the behaviour of those at the bottom of society that has been scrutinised, poked, criticised, and demonised ever since.
That's partly why Benefits Street has caused such a furore. The producers cannot pretend they have nothing to do with this wider context: of a government slashing the welfare state, intentionally fuelling resentment towards benefit claimants as it does so. This is just the latest such programme - Channel 4's Skint, Channel 5's On Benefits and Proud, BBC 3's People Like Us being others - which present an entirely distorted picture of what our welfare state is, much to the benefit of our political elite. No wonder so much of the public is left unaware that social security mostly goes to elderly people who have paid in all their lives; that millions of low-paid workers depend on in-work benefits because their pay is too low; that sick and disabled people receive support that is in too many cases is being tragically taken away; and that 6.5 million people are looking for full-time work.
When I learned that the Telegraph's Allison Pearson was appearing on Monday’s show, I thought there was a good opportunity to make a point about how cynical and distorted media coverage of social security is. Pearson wrote a piece entitled “Mick Philpott, a good reason to cut benefits”, one of many tawdry interventions last year that attempted to use the monstrous Philpott's killing of his six children to make a political point about the welfare state.
What Britain thinks of benefits: perception, reality and winning votes
What Britain thinks of benefits: perception, reality and winning votes
1/9 We think more immigrants claim benefits than they do
A YouGov poll for the Sunday Times earlier in January showed that the British public are way off with their estimation of how many immigrants claim jobseekers allowance
2/9 Immigration and benefits
Three quarters (76%) of us oppose immigrants being allowed benefits in their first year of residency
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
3/9 Two thirds of us don't like the system as it is
Two thirds (66%) of us think the benefits system is unfit for purpose.. something the Conservatives have saying since they first unveiled the cuts
4/9 Benefits Street documentaries don't help
Nearly half of us (45%) think people on benefits are portrayed unfairly. In Scotland, 62% think the portrayal of people on benefits is unfair (compared to 45% in the whole of the UK). In London this changes to 40%
5/9 Toughen up benefit rules
Two-thirds (66%) want tougher rules about who can claim benefits (picture shows James Turner Street in Birmingham, the setting for Channel 4's documentary series 'Benefits Street')
Creative Commons/Peter Whatley
6/9 We're wrong on benefit fraud
According to a study published by Royal Statistical Society and King's College in July, the public think that £24 of every £100 of benefits is fraudulently claimed. Official estimates are that just 70 pence in every £100 is fraudulent - so the public conception is out by a factor of 34
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
7/9 We would prefer to make it harder for immigrants to claim benefits
A similar poll by YouGov for the Sunday Times in January showed that support for limiting migrants' benefits was widespread
8/9 Poverty and inequality is a big issue for us
An Ipsos Mori poll from January showed that poverty and inequality is becoming increasingly important for British people
9/9 Benefits is less of an issue than it has been
The same Ipsos Mori poll from January showed that pensions/benefits and social security was by far a more pressing issue for other governments, at least by the British public's perception
But that wasn't what I wanted to take Pearson up on. In her piece, she had claimed that "we need to acknowledge that 837,000 people who were claiming incapacity benefit failed the new tests and were found to be fit to work immediately". In a further attempt to associate them with the child-killing Mick Philpott, she added: "That's nearly a million Britons who were taking the Mick." Her employer, the Telegraph, was forced to issue a clarification, pointing out that these were new claimants, not existing claimants, and "that while there is no official data as to why they withdrew their claims, important reasons could include that they recovered, returned to work or claimed a more appropriate benefit."
Now I'll give Pearson some leeway: the Tories' Grant Shapps had made a similar claim - and had been rebuked by the UK Statistics Authority as a result. As they pointed out, there is a natural churn in the system - there are improvements in people's health, because only some conditions are permanently incapacitating, and people end up getting jobs.
It was astonishing, then, that Pearson would attempt to make the same claim on television again, which is what she did - repeating discredited claims that help to stigmatise benefit claimants. And yes, these claims do have consequences. Disabled people's charities have highlighted how they have provoked a surge in abuse towards disabled people. That's why I believe Pearson had to be publicly challenged.
But Pearson showed that these "journalists" are ferocious in attacking voiceless, struggling people when they're behind their keyboards, but cowards in real life. When she was asked on the programme to respond to my rebuttal, she said at least she hadn't stolen £13,000 from her employer, a reference to the star of Benefits Street, “White” Dee, who was convicted in 2007. I beg your pardon? It's OK for journalists to say things which are untrue about disabled people because someone stole money seven years ago? And then, when the show went to a commercial break, Pearson simply walked off the set, and the discussion carried on without her.
It was a rowdy, chaotic show, based on the formula of "who shouts loudest". But the response to the arguments put by me and the Huffington Post's Mehdi Hasan - we were a tag team - showed that this is a debate than can be won. Why isn't the far more socially destructive behaviour of those at the top held to account, like the £25 billion lost through tax avoidance, like the bankers who have caused so much misery and yet continue to thrive? In a country where most people in poverty are in work, why do we so rarely see those who get up in the morning to earn their poverty, whose low wages we have to subsidise because bosses don't pay their workers properly? Why are we subsiding private landlords with housing benefit, rather than building homes which would also create skilled jobs? Why don't we have an industrial strategy like other countries to created secure, dignified jobs for people?
Without getting out the smallest violin in the world, rebutting the myths and lies about social security in the mainstream press has often felt like a lonely battle, as I'm sure Mehdi will agree. It's not just a fight against overwhelming odds: the other side don't play by the rules. But I'm genuinely starting to think this is a fight that can be won. It's truth and honesty against manufactured prejudice and ignorance. We know that when people know the reality of social security, they're much less likely to support Government attacks on it. There is an appetite to turn the focus away from those at the bottom, and on to the real villains at the top. With a bit of determination, courage and honesty, this whole poisoned debate can be turned around.