The More or Less ‘incapacity deaths’ saga: This BBC editor’s comments may infuriate

This is from Richard Vadon, editor of More or Less, in response to my email earlier today, following up on my complaints about the segment on Radio 4’s More or Less covering the DWP’s release of statistics relating to deaths of claimants of incapacity benefits – published as promised in a previous article.

I am the editor of More or Less and my series producer Wes Stephenson has passed me your complaint.

 In your reply to his letter you say that a Full Fact article is discredited, that Ben Goldacre has got the wrong end of the stick and you describe More or Less as making a proper mess of the story. I am full of admiration for the journalism done by Full Fact, Ben Goldacre and for that matter Tim Harford and the More or Less team (although clearly I’m biased in the last case). These are all independent minded and award-winning journalists but your position is that we are all wrong. I’m not sure I can say anything that could change your mind but I will make a few points.

 I’m sorry if the reply has confused things about the 2380 deaths but the programme’s script couldn’t be more definite, “We’re clear: these 2380 people were declared fit for work, and then they died”.

 The reference to deaths after breakfast is making a simple correlation is not causation point. This is a regular theme in the programme and maybe could have explained in a fuller way. I’m sorry if you find the breakfast point in poor taste.

 You say:

 “the figure you provided is only a fraction of the total number of deaths and you have misled the public. It would have been far better for you to have said that the DWP has provided this figure but we don’t know how many have died after its self-imposed time limits. You didn’t.”

 The script does make it clear that the figures released are a subset of those who are died and the true figure is almost certainly higher:

 TIM: But we don’t actually have the data we need to say whether something alarming is happening to people we seeking some kind of disability assistance, but who’ve been declared fit for work.

 WES: No. We don’t. One of the reasons we don’t is that the figure that the DWP released is only a subset of those who have died after being declared ‘fit for work’ it only includes people who’ve been assessed as fit for work and who are still on Employment Support Allowance – so people who are appealing the decision for example. Those people who had been moved to other benefits such as Job Seekers Allowance and had then died wouldn’t be captured in this figure so the figure is almost certainly higher.  So we can’t come up with a proper death rate.

 The claim that “the ‘fit for work group” contains a number of people who have an above average chance of dying” is not really contentious. When someone is found fit for work it does not mean they have been found to be in perfect health or even to be of average health.

 I was for five years the editor of Money Box and Money Box Live. I saw as the years progressed how we got more and more calls from people struggling with the Disability Benefit system. We covered the story many times and my presenter Paul Lewis always held the authorities to account.

 I am currently the editor of a Point of View on Radio 4 and agreed to broadcast this piece on disability benefit just before this year’s election:

 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05ns9mt

 I mention my previous history as an editor because I want you to understand that I believe the Government’s changes are an important issue. But I remain convinced by the final thought of the More or Less item that although it should be possible to come up with a much better figure, it’s hard to see how this sort of broad demographic information will ever tell us much about the question at issue – which is whether the test is fair.

I wrote a very quick response which I shall publish shortly. In brief, I thought this was an arrogant response from somebody who considered it beneath him to have to defend his decisions to a member of the public.

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7 thoughts on “The More or Less ‘incapacity deaths’ saga: This BBC editor’s comments may infuriate

  1. David Lowrence

    Mike – More or Less is a programme about the use of statistics, not a campaigning programme. I think you have the wrong target here, as the said what you have been saying – “The DWP has not given enough information to make a watertight case” Whether this is by design or their inability to understand anything they are asked is a moot point. I know what I think, I know what you think. In terms of the rights and wrongs, and the lack of any morality their processes, this programme is not mandated to have an opinion.

    1. Mike Sivier Post author

      The programme-makers deliberately decided to investigate the wrong aspect of this issue, though. Are you sure they should be let off the hook? I don’t think so.

  2. sarntcrip (@desabled)

    SICE BEFORE THE 2010 ELECTION THE BBC, TERRIFIED OF PRIVATIZATION, HAS DONE THE TORIES BIDDING FOR THEM ALONG WITH CHANNELS 4 AND 5 THEY HAVE BROADCAST SPURIOUS STORIES THROUGH PROGS LIKE SAINTS AND SCROUNGERSSTORIES, SOME OF WHICH ARE FICTITIOUS ALL TO BACK THE TORIY RHETORIC WHICH BASICALLY ENSURES MOST MEMBERS OF THE PUBLIC THINK WE DISABLED ARE BENEFIT CHEATING LOW LIFE WHO TAKE BENEFITS AS’A LIFE CHOICE IF A FEW MORE OF THE 6 FIG SALARIED PRODUCERS KNEW WHAT THEY WERE TALKING ABOUT,LIFE FOR DISABLED PEOPLE WOULD BE MORE ACCURATELY REFLECTED THAN IT IS . SORRY CAPS LOCK FAULT

  3. mohandeer

    Mike – Programmes these days have to appeal to the broadest spectrum of viewers and given the success of the Benefits Britain programmes as justifying the Tory position on their attacks against people, it also served to justify in the minds of the people who voted Tory, their excuse for their choice. It stands to reason that pandering to that broader viewer base by being totally non committal and not giving offence to all those Tory voters would be the way to go. In the end it’s all about self preservation as it always has been.

Comments are closed.