This essay will examine and delineate the spectacle of the so-called ‘benefit scrounger’, a fictitious character, born from hyperbole and exacerbation, which often saturates the frontpages of British newspapers. Furthermore, Stanley Cohen’s processual model of a moral panic will be harnessed to examine relevant news articles, considering the effects of hyperbolic mediation and, consequently, deviancy amplification.
Cohen’s theory was inspired by ‘what seemed to be a massive overreaction to seaside skirmishes in the early 1960s between members of two youth subcultures: Mods and Rockers. Of the various theories utilised by Cohen, the most important was the labelling theory of deviance, derived from the socio- logical theory of symbolic interactionism’ (Critcher, 2008, p. 1128). This is important when considering the mediation of the term ‘benefit scrounger’. This is emblematic of a social construction of deviance. A ‘benefit scrounger’, quite literally, doesn’t exist – the term ‘scrounger’ is born out of hyperbolic mediation and by the right-thinking ensemble that dominate the British press as a way to describe those who excessively use, and perhaps abuse, the British welfare state.
To analyse this example effectively, and to consider it as a moral panic within Cohen’s (1972, p. 1) scaffold, we must consider it using the six-step framework devised in Folk Devils and Moral Panics. These six junctures are as follows: 1) ‘A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests’. 2) ‘Its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media’. 3) The moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people’. 4) ‘Socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions’. 5) Ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to’. 6) ‘The condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible’.
‘After the Second World War, an incoming Labour government introduced the Welfare State […] it aimed to wipe out poverty and hardship in society’ (The National Archives, 2019). In recent years, though, the British press coverage has attempted to inculcate the idea that some people are not simply using the Welfare State as a route out of poverty, but as a way of ‘scrounging’ off the state rather than working and earning a wage which is seen as the correct thing to do in our modern, capitalist, post-Thatcher society.
Of course, there are people in the United Kingdom who are inherently dishonest in their claim for benefits, exploiting the welfare state for their own selfish remuneration. One example is that of Mick Philpott in 2012. A claimant of six child-support benefits, as well as a disability benefit and job seekers allowance, unemployed Philpott was dissatisfied with the council house which had been provided for him and his family (which included the aforementioned six children, his wife and mistress who was also living in the family home). He decided to take matters into his own hands. To force a move to a larger council house, Philpott set fire to his home, with all six children inside. His plan was to rescue his family and emerge the paternal hero – instead, all six of his children perished. Of course, the child-centric nature of this story caught the imagination of the press and Philpott was duly chastised with specific focus on his ‘£100,000 a year salary of benefits, his nickname “shameless Mick”, an appearance on the Jeremy Kyle Show’ (Dixon, 2013) and the additional fact that Philpott ‘didn’t bathe for twelve weeks’ (Cooke, 2013) – further compounding his image as a ‘scrounger’.
Returning to Cohen’s processual model – the first section revolves around the ‘emergence’ of a new social issue. This is where the ‘benefit scrounger’ is somewhat incongruous. This is not a new social problem, nor has it emerged recently. Perhaps a change in public opinion could be linked to Thatcherism in the late 1980s – ‘there is a pervasive idea that Margaret Thatcher brought about an increase in individualism in British society; in the eyes of many on the left, a selfish, materialistic individualism’ (Braithwaite-Sutcliffe, 2013). Perhaps this libertarianism is responsible for the agenda, which remains pervasive, towards the unemployed and welfare claimants. As mentioned previously, there always has, and always will be, those who are dishonest in regard to the welfare state. Instead of the conception of a new social issue, we are instead concerned with the perpetuation and exacerbation of an existing one.
As with every moral panic, the issue of the social construction of deviance is important. Therefore, the contribution of the mass media is vital in regard to setting an agenda – whether they condone or recriminate. Public opinion can so easily be controlled by the information of the British press. The ‘benefit scrounger’ is often a hot topic, particularly with the right-leaning newspapers to whom working and the economy are at the crux of British capitalism. To highlight the press’ appetite for this issue, a simple search of the newspaper database Nexis collates almost 2500 reports featuring the words ‘benefit’ and ‘scrounger’ in just the last five years. This paragraph will analyse a selection of articles subpoenaed from the right-leaning, British tabloid newspaper The Sun.
The rhetoric utilised by The Sun seems not only to recriminate ‘benefit scroungers’, but also to besmirch their character and deny their existence as legitimate human beings. An article entitled Sun, Sand and Swindle, tells the story of a ‘benefits scrounger’ who ‘raked in thousands while going on luxury holiday using £400k nest egg’. A woman from Leicester, who had been illegitimately claiming a host of benefits was exposed by social media. This article, like many others, is an exercise in agenda setting using a combination of repeated emotive and hyperbolic lexicography such as ‘fraud’ and ‘dishonest’, whilst also pointing out her spending of ‘taxpayers’ money’ (Burrows, 2018). These terms are used intentionally to set the agenda of the reader and perpetuate the right-thinking stance of the individualistic, post-Thatcher society. Furthermore, an article entitled Ignoring the Neighsayers which states a ‘mum of eight who gets £26,000 a year in taxpayers money has bought herself a horse costing more than £100 a month to help her beat depression’ continues with a similar rhetoric, repeating emotive terms such as ‘outrage’ and ‘controversy’ whilst continuing to relate to the taxpayer with the line ‘at a time when the tax burden is at a 40-year high, taxpayers certainly shouldn’t be saddled with thousands of pounds for someone to have a pet horse’ (Kerr, 2017).
The Sun further castigates ‘benefit scroungers’ by defaming their image, as referred to previously; an attempt to deny them as legitimate human beings. For example, to turn a benefit claimant into the fictitious ‘benefit scrounger’, peripheral narratives have to be included, designed to intentionally malign the ‘scrounger’. This was the case with Mick Philpott, discussed earlier, whose children, television appearances and personal hygiene were included in the spectacle of this horrific story. Further examples can also be found in The Sun: for instance, the headline ‘My Lad is a Bad Dad’ was harnessed to describe a benefit claimant who receives child support for his twenty-seven children. Furthermore, ‘Mr Big’, the ‘benefits scrounger unmasked as the head of a multi-million pound organised crime gang’ is also referenced in an article by The Sun.
These are all examples of agenda setting. A moral panic is something that is born out of society and threatens our fabric of morality. To counteract this, powerful voices such as newspapers must continue to fabricate the right-thinking moral structure of society or else would we all sink to such depravities? This agenda, though, is set through the use of hyperbole and exacerbation from the mass media, in reality, the ‘benefit scrounger’ could in fact be a ‘myth’. Described as the ‘bogeyman of British politics, stalking the corridors of Westminster’, the ‘benefit scrounger’ is nothing more than ‘a hardening of public attitudes’. Mulheirn (2013) describes how ‘63% of Job Seekers Allowance claimants have spent no more than six months of the previous four years out of work’ and that only ‘11% of claimants have a history of spending more than half of recent years on the dole’ – he claims that ‘the idea that claimants are trapped in a dependency culture is absurd’.
Here, there are three ways in which the processual model can be described as crude in relation to the way in which new social problems are mediated. Firstly, the model does not legislate for any varying level of deviance; Jewkes (2004) describes how it is ‘unfair to compare the moral panic about cannabis to child sex abuse, so a negative reaction to some issues may well be justified’. Secondly, Cohen characterizes the media as one entity rather than a collection of communicators whose stand-points are often influenced by so many social and political factors, thus altering their agenda and reporting of a story. Lastly, Cohen’s framework seems to imply that the reader will simply consume any information that a newspaper communicates and that an audience can be easily indoctrinated. This, in more recent times, is no longer the case as journalists are becoming less-and-less trustworthy and seem to have lost a lot of credibility amongst the public.
Cohen’s third, fourth and fifth points are somewhat interrelated. The ‘moral entrepreneurs’ in this instance are the newspapers themselves. They are responsible for setting the agenda and inculcating whichever opinion they choose to perpetuate. Whilst we do not see any obvious experts in this area, there has been some exercise in power in regard to a solution to ‘benefit scroungers’. Firstly, an increase in the custodial punishment was implemented in 2013, ensuring that ‘new guidelines could […] see a maximum sentence of ten years dealt and a removal of the £20,000 threshold for prosecution’ (Reality Check, 2013). In addition – and whilst cutting fraudulent benefit claimants is certainly not its primary aim, it may be an subsidiary consequence – we consider the slashing of the welfare budget. ‘Welfare spending for UK’s poorest’ shrank by ‘£37bn’ in 2018 leading to a ‘plunge in living standards experienced by the worse off’ (Butler, 2018). This harsh reality is further fuel for the fire of The Sun and, via their hyperbolized spin, they do seem to resonate with the mass, working public. This leads on to Cohen’s final point: dissolution. As mentioned earlier, there have always been ‘benefit scroungers’ and there probably always will be – even if the number of fraudulent and excessive benefit claims were to dissipate, the insatiable appetite of the press for a story which threatens the morality of society will never do the same.
To conclude, whilst the ‘benefit scrounger’ is not a new entity, modern mediation and the stereotypical hyperbole surrounding excessive claimants at a time of financial uncertainty and fiscal inequality has led to a modern-day moral panic. Cohen’s theory is a useful framework when it comes to analysing the press’ response and, perhaps, dissecting the fact from the fiction. Whilst not all facets of his scaffold are applicable here, Cohen does help to recognise certain elements of a moral panic in this example, though, alas, there seems to be no imminent solution.
Braithwaite-Sutcliffe, F. (2013, April 15). Margaret Thatcher, idividualism and the Welfare State. Retrieved from History and Policy: http://www.historyandpolicy.org/opinion-articles/articles/margaret-thatcher-individualism-and-the-welfare-state
Burrows, T. (2018, June 16). Sun, Sand and Swindle. Retrieved from The Sun: https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/6546644/benefits-scrounger-raked-in-thousands-while-going-on-luxury-holidays-using-400k-nest-egg/
Butler, P. (2018, September 23). Welfare Spending for UK’s poorest shrinks by £37bn. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/sep/23/welfare-spending-uk-poorest-austerity-frank-field
Cohen, S. (1972). Folk Devils and Moral Panics. London: MacGibbon and Kee Ltd.
Cooke, J. (2013, March 14). Derby Fire Deaths. Retrieved from BBC News: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LDgv-qHbsc8
Critcher, C. (2008). Moral Panic Analysis: Past, Present and Future. Sociology Compass, 1127-1144.
Dixon, H. (2013, April 4). Unemployed Mick Philpott on £100,000 a year salary. Retrieved from The Telegraph: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/9970619/Unemployed-Mick-Philpott-on-100000-a-year-salary.html
Kerr, C. (2017, August 19). Ignoring the Neighsayers. Retrieved from The Sun: https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/4279364/marie-buchan-octomum-benefits-buys-horse-depression/
Mulheirn, I. (2013, March 15). The Myth of the Welfare Scrounger. Retrieved from New Statesman: https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2013/03/myth-welfare-scrounger
Reality Check. (2013, September 16). Longer Sentences for Benefit Fraud: will it work? Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/reality-check/2013/sep/16/longer-sentences-benefit-fraud-will-it-work
The National Archives. (2019, December 8). The Welfare State – The Cabinet Papers. Retrieved from The National Archives: https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/cabinetpapers/alevelstudies/welfare-state.htm