Entertainment & Arts

BBC welfare reform show breached impartiality guidelines

John Humphrys
Image caption The documentary was fronted by the Today programme presenter, John Humphrys

A BBC documentary on the welfare state breached impartiality and accuracy guidelines, the BBC Trust has found.

The Future State Of Welfare, presented by John Humphrys, was shown on BBC Two in October 2011.

Broadcast during the passage through Parliament of the government's welfare reform bill, it considered the arguments for and against reform.

But the BBC Trust found that the programme failed to back up controversial views with statistics.

The documentary saw Humphrys travel around the UK, including a visit to his birthplace, Splott, in Cardiff, and to the US to assess the future of welfare.

Speaking to people on incapacity benefit, the long-term unemployed, people on housing benefit and lone parents, Humphrys concluded that the public did not like what they saw as a growing sense of entitlement among some groups claiming benefits.

Misled viewers

The Trust's editorial standards committee said that while there was no evidence that Humphrys advocated the coalition government's reforms, viewers were likely to have formed the impression that there was a "healthy supply of jobs overall" in the UK economy because no information was given on the ratio of jobs to applicants.

Trustees also said that the programme was "fair" and "open-minded" in its examination of the evidence, that there was a "wide range of significant views" and that it "gave due weight" to the different sides of the argument.

However, they found that viewers may have believed that the benefits being targeted by the government "were largely responsible for the view held by some that 'the welfare state is in crisis'.".

It also concluded that due to "the absence of sufficient complementary statistical information to underpin contributors' accounts, viewers were left unable to reach an informed opinion and the accuracy guidelines had been breached".

The Child Poverty Action Group, which brought the complaint along with an unnamed individual, welcomed the Trust's findings.

"We welcome the BBC Trust's recognition in its ruling that the programme broke rules on accuracy and impartiality in ways that fundamentally misled viewers," said Alison Garnham, chief executive of the charity.

"This programme, like too many media stories, failed the public by swallowing wholesale the evidence-free myth of a 'dependency culture' in which unemployment and rising benefit spending is the fault of the unemployed.

"The reality needs to be reported that only 3% of welfare expenditure goes on Jobseekers Allowance, and that aside from the direct effects of the recession, social security expenditure on working age benefits has not increased as a proportion of GDP in recent years," she said.

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