March 29, 2013 5:08 pm

Poverty’s poor show in the media

I’ve read columns by prisoners and by people with terminal cancer, but I’ve never seen one by someone living on benefits
An illustration that depcits how media continue to ignore the poor©Luis Grañena

An actor recently left France after the government tried to raise rich people’s taxes. Gérard Depardieu moved to Belgium (to be near friends, excellent meat and Paris’s airport, he explained), acquired a Russian passport, and made friends with Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile earlier this month an unemployed father became the fourth Bulgarian to burn himself to death since February in despair at poverty. Guess which victim of the economic crisis got more publicity?

The media have probably always ignored the poor, but we continue to do so even as poverty becomes the most pressing problem in developed countries. One in seven Americans now lives below the official poverty line, ever more jobless people kill themselves, and my colleague Gillian Tett recently wrote of a child in Liverpool chewing the wallpaper as hunger rises in the city. Yet the media still look away. I’m as guilty as anyone. But we can change.

Poverty has never been sexy. In 2008, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation analysed 40 hours of British TV, and found that “the word ‘poverty’ appeared only twice, both in Shameless”, a comedy drama. One reference was to the Live Aid concert; the other to Comic Relief. When poor people did get airtime, it was often as objects of derision on Jerry Springer-like shows.

You’d have thought the economic crisis would have made poverty newsy. “If it bleeds, it leads” is a journalistic maxim, and the Cambridge sociologist David Stuckler found sharp increases in suicides in recession-hit European countries after 2008. The crisis arguably caused 1,000 “excess” suicides in England alone.

But they weren’t news. The global poor – 2.5 billion people living on less than $2 a day – are considered even more boring, due to the triple whammy of being non-white, non-Anglophone and poor. To become news, poor people have to cause disorder. Middle-class people raise issues by writing; poor people do it by rioting. I’ve read columns by prisoners and by people with terminal cancer, but I’ve never seen one by someone living on benefits.

The neglect isn’t because journalists hate poor people. As the Tea Party likes to point out, most journalists are liberals. However, most are also upper-middle-class folk who never visit the poor areas of their city. We tend to interview people like us. There are rightwing media and leftwing media, but all are controlled by the well-fed. So are social media. On a map measuring global Twitter activity, the Netherlands dwarfs India, South Africa and Nigeria put together. And though journalists may be liberals, our proprietors and advertisers mostly aren’t.

It’s easier to meet a corporate PR for coffee in a nice hotel lobby near the office than to trek out to a chilly ghetto with poor transport links to find interviewees. Even when you get there, you don’t always end up using their quotes. Something that’s taboo to mention: poor Europeans (if asked) often express views on immigration that most journalists consider racist.

Poor people’s analyses rarely fit neatly into the formats through which the ruling class interprets the world. A colleague told me how in Tunisia recently he’d interviewed a poor man who said he supported the ruling Islamist party. Then the man said he might vote for the secular far left. And then he expressed nostalgia for the departed dictator Zein el Abidine Ben Ali. These were probably valid responses to Tunisia’s turmoil, but they didn’t sound politically sophisticated, and my colleague was baffled.

I blame myself too. In the Palestinian West Bank this winter I interviewed a poor Bedouin family harassed by the Israeli authorities. I didn’t write about them. Casting poor people as victims is boring. Anyway, nobody pressures you to quote them. Journalists get called up by corporate PRs, not by Bedouins.

Despite everything, there is a vigorous media debate about inequality. However, it focuses on the 1 per cent at the top. Most people profiled in the media – artists, athletes and many politicians – are millionaires. Depardieu probably received more coverage as an individual than the bottom 2.5 billion combined. That humanised him. Even when attacked, he gets a platform to complain about tax rises; people hurt by benefit cuts are rarely interviewed. It’s as if you covered the Great Depression only by speaking to rentiers. In fact, we’re exactly the media that an unequal world requires.

We don’t have to be. We could take our lead from historians, who generations back dropped their exclusive focus on kings and queens to write “history from below”. Fifty years ago E.P. Thompson, in The Making of the English Working Class, famously set out to rescue long-dead workers “from the enormous condescension of posterity”.

Journalists still condescend, when we bother to notice the poor at all. Rather than presenting them only as victims, we could copy the narratives of triumph over adversity used in working-class women’s magazines, suggests Amina Lone, social researcher in Manchester. It worked in Educating Rita, a film about a Liverpudlian hairdresser who goes to university. Morals aside: by ignoring the poor we are missing the economic story of the decade.

simon.kuper@ft.com

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