Regrettably I don’t have that much time to be writing stuff these days. But I must make time to say a few words on the RTE Prime Time Investigates programme on social welfare fraud last night.
The first thing is the context in which it was broadcast: a couple of nights before the formal announcement of cuts in social welfare payments. This context was explicitly incorporated in the report – the reporter confronted one person who had been charged with fraud with the claim that if it wasn’t for fraud of an estimated figure of €2bn, there would be no need to cut the social welfare budget.
The second thing is the focus on immigrants. Roughly half of the people doorstepped were immigrants. The programme managed to give the impression that when it comes to welfare fraud, the proportion of immigrants engaged far exceeds that of the general proportion. But the people doorstepped by the programme were people who had already been investigated for welfare fraud. I suggest that it is easier to catch immigrants on account of the fact that they are already subjected to specific targeting measures not applied to the general population. In the closing sequence of the programme, brief shots were shown of all the people identified by the programme as fraudsters -this on the back of readily available information: to call this ‘investigation’ is hyperbole- while the reporter summed up the general importance of cracking down on welfare fraud. The denoted message here was obvious: these people featured are broadly representative of the people engaged in welfare fraud. Of the ten or so shots, four were black Africans, and another two or three were Eastern Eurpoeans. The connoted message was just as obvious: here are the people responsible for your child benefit getting cut. One detail which might strike the casual viewer as minor, but a vital component to the complete message delivered by the programme, was the moral stance adopted by the reporter on behalf of ‘the Irish taxpayer’ as he approached immigrants who had already been found out by the authorities. ‘The Irish taxpayer’ is a fairly common figure of political media discourse, and its use does not always entail an opposition between Irish taxpayers and people who are not Irish taxpayers, but in this context, it certainly does. So the denoted message here was that the immigrants in question were defrauding a taxpayer who was specifically Irish.
Unfortunately I do not have access to the programme today, but I would like to remark on other apparently minor detail. There was a graphic employed at one stage, with pins stuck in border areas, showing how welfare claims had gone up 98, 99, 100%. This is hardly remarkable in areas where lots of young men were previously employed in construction, but the implication was that there was widespread fraud being conducted by cross-border ‘welfare-tourists’. No doubt such people exist to some extent, but there was no investigation of the real extent, only conjecture. Ed Walsh, a well-known advocate of eviscerating the public sector and cutting ‘the extraordinary gulf’ between Irish welfare benefits and that in other countries (see here, comprehensive critique here)- in this context cited the case of Drogheda, where welfare claims had doubled. You need to be standing a long way off to see Drogheda as a border town. If someone can correct me on my account of this, I shall delete this paragraph. You could also read Michael Taft’s post on the details of the ‘border town’ phenomenon.
All in all the programme consisted of mobilising popular prejudice against immigrants, with a strong dose of tried and tested barbarian-at-the-gates border phantasmagoria, in the service of a state that preserves the interests of the rich as it slashes the wages and welfare payments of people on low incomes, driving them into deeper precariousness. I suggested on Twitter last night, the chief error for the doorsteppees -none of whom appeared to live in conditions of conspicuous opulence- was in not having sponsored a flagship RTE programme.