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The Mail on Sunday and the Trussell Trust

Guest post by Sackcloth & Ashes

Harry’s Place was kind enough to include a brief guest post from myself about the hit job that The Mail on Sunday did on the Trussell Trust and the food banks (appearing on an Easter Sunday, of all days).

Predictably, some of HP’s resident trolls didn’t like a post attacking the MOS for its gutter journalism. There were however some reasonable comments from individuals like ‘billm99uk’ and ‘thomask’ asking what the paper had done wrong. Here is my reply, which incorporates some of the remarks provided by HPers, with my apologies if I do not attribute them directly.

As a reminder, the centrepiece of the MOS’s ‘exclusive’ was from a ‘journalist’, Ross Slater, who approached the Citizen’s Advice Bureau in Nottingham claiming to be an unemployed father of two. He was questioned in detail about his circumstances (which he had of course concocted), and was referred to a food bank run from a local church, where he picked up about £40 of food and was (shock, horror) invited also to help himself to hot dog rolls, soap and toothpaste that the volunteers had spare. The food was subsequently returned, although not after Slater had his story on how he had acquired it under false pretenses with ‘no questions asked’.

Journalists have employed deception to get a story before, particularly in the case of the fake lobbyists who have ensnared bent politicians in ‘cash for access’ scandals. In instances such as these, there is indisputably a public good done in exposing corruption and malpractice. But as ‘Colin’ has noted, it is one thing to use deceit to expose a crook, and entirely another to do so to exploit the goodwill of the philanthropic. Contrary to his paper’s claims, Slater did not expose any malpractice by the food banks. Despite the MOS’s scaremongering and claims about abuse of the food banks, the only example it exposed of an individual claiming free food fraudulently was its own man. Unless it is an offence to fail to realise that the destitute individual in front of you is actually a tabloid hack, all the individuals from the CAB and the food bank involved followed the rules and did nothing wrong.

The volunteers who work for charities, and indeed those who contribute to them, are motivated by altruism. One consequence of this is that it is easy for unscrupulous individuals to con and defraud them. To take an example from the Trussell Trust, there have been documented cases of fake veterans ripping off military charities. What that does not, and should not, detract from is that in the same way that there are genuine ex-servicemen and women who need the help of the Royal British Legion and other like-minded groups, there are also people on their uppers who need the food banks to survive. If you are arguing that they are in fact unnecessary, and that the people taking food from them are actually not on the breadline, the onus on you is to substantiate that with some hard evidence. The MOS did not do so with this ‘story’.

It is also reasonable to ask what volunteers and CAB workers are supposed to do with the people they encounter who ask for their help. Unless they take Sybil Birling from An Inspector Calls as their role model, they will be conscious that destitute individuals may be turning to them as a last resort. When approached by Slater, ‘Katherine’ was told a grim tale of a family on its uppers because of high fuel bills, both of whose wage earners were long-term unemployed. If you were in her shoes, would you with a clear conscience turn away someone who (along with his/her dependents) was asking for help, or would you have given them the benefit of the doubt? What course of action would you have legitimately expected ‘Katherine’ to do to expose Slater as a fraud?

The MOS could have approached this story in a legitimate manner. It could have openly approached the Trussell Trust, sent Slater to interview its senior management and also its volunteers, and it could have pertinently enquired as to what measures it and its partners took to ensure that the recipients of its food parcels actually needed them, and were not playing the system. If it had decided it would treat the story with Woodward and Bernstein-style subterfuge, it could even have produced a story expressing concern that the goodwill of a charity and its donors could be exploited by dishonest claimants, to the detriment of those who are on their uppers. It could even have asked one of the columnists on Viscount Rothermere’s payroll to write an angry op-ed blaming the food bank crisis on the profligacy that Labour showed in government, and its mismanagement of the economy, promising that if the Coalition government turns the economy around and ends the recession that everyone – including the bottom 10% – will benefit as a result. All of the above would have been fair game.

Instead, what we got was an innuendo-ridden piece which stated that with ‘no checks’ (which is a misrepresentation) and ‘no ID’ (as ‘Alec’ notes, we do not carry ID cards in the UK) you can get free food. The reference to ‘sob stories’ in the headline was also telling – for anyone unfamiliar with it this a slang term for false tales of woe. The message behind this hit-piece is an obvious one: there is no crisis of poverty in Britain which forces people to ask for free food, and the food banks are ripe for exploitation by workshy and feckless layabouts. The people who run them are either naïve do-gooders who are being taken for a ride, or that they are actually complicit in embellishing and exaggerating the extent of impoverishment in Britain today by handing out free food willy-nilly and claiming that this is all due to a grave social crisis; that in fact the Trussell Trust is crying wolf. It is a contemptible smear against not only those who are referred to the food banks, but those who operate them. It is beyond despicable.

Unlike Owen Jones, or Mark Steel, or Polly Toynbee, I do not believe that being on the centre-right is synonymous with being evil. There is an established tradition in British Conservatism which is ideologically compatible with compassion and philanthropy, from the era of Lord Shaftesbury to David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’. It can come from religious faith, from the principle that private initiative and charity is to be encouraged, from life-changing experiences which promote a sense of social conscience (as was the case with Harold Macmillan’s command of a platoon of guardsmen during WWI), or even from a more pragmatic calculation that acting like a callous douchecanoe who is indifferent to human suffering is not exactly a vote winner. It can even come from recognition that in times of economic stress the alleviation of poverty is a vital source of social stability – that hungry people who feel that they’ve been thrown on the scrap-heap are more likely to riot or (at certain points in the 19th century, or in the immediate aftermath of WWI) provide the potential for insurrection. Whatever the factors involved, there is a strand of centre-right politics in Britain that can combine a social conscience with a small government and pro-free market agenda. Whether it delivers the goods is of course another matter, but one cannot deny that it exists, and that the intentions of its adherents are genuine.

However, this is not a strand of conservatism that the Rothermere press approves of. The MOS and its daily counterpart present their readership with a world in which poverty is a myth, and in which scroungers on benefits rip off the taxpayer and thrive off the contributions of pinkos. It is a world in which everyone on welfare is Mick Philpott, every asylum seeker a terrorist or a criminal, every immigrant a simultaneous drain on the social services bill and a job thief, and everyone referred to a food bank is a chiseller. The MOS and The Daily Mail do not believe in the ‘Big Society’. They have a mindset which pisses on Christian values whilst proclaiming to uphold them, and which spits in the faces of the impoverished and those who wish to help them. They represent the politics of viciousness and spite, of stamping on the fingers of those grasping to the lower rungs of society’s ladder. In short, they are cunts.

There is a divide over food banks, but it is not between left and right, but over those that are humanitarian, and those who are not. If there was any doubt before this Easter on which side of that dispute that Paul Dacre, Geordie Grieg and those who work for them sit, there is none now.