There are probably armies of beardy weirdy pinko-liberals like me all over the UK (or at least in Hackney) already furiously typing blog posts about this topic, and I feel like I'm slightly taking the bait here, and I suppose I've lived in the UK long enough now not to be shocked by anything The Daily Mail comes out with...but I have to say that their most recent headline ("Vile Product of Welfare UK") - which attempted to pin the blame for Mick Philpott's children's deaths on the benefits system - really, really got to me.
Firstly, with this headline, the paper lets the bastard off the hook for the deaths of his children. It essentially says he's not to blame; the welfare state made him who he was, and led to him killing them.
Secondly, it's outrageous that a newspaper - particularly in the wake of the phone hacking scandal and Leveson inquiry - would try to take advantage of the deaths of six little kids to push a political agenda (and a controversial one at that). How the welfare state operates and how generous it should be is obviously and properly fair game for debate, but this tragedy says nothing about the benefits system. You don't have to be a defender of the welfare state to see that fundamentally, this is simply the a story of a jilted, violent lover who burnt down his house in a stupid bid to gain revenge on an ex-girlfriend, killing his kids in the process. Yes, Philpott was on benefits. But he might as well have received his income from being an astronaut, or selling double glazing; because contrary to what The Daily Mail might have its readers believe, violent behaviour and stupidity are by no means the exclusive preserve of those in receipt of benefit payments, and trying to pin the blame for this terrible - but unique - tragedy on the welfare state is ridiculous. We may as well say that participating in the Paralympics leads to girlfriend-murdering (that's Oscar Pretorious off the hook); that all doctors are serial killers (Harold Shipman is clearly a vile product of medical training); or that being an American makes it a dead cert that you will enter a cinema and mow down a bunch of movie-goers with a machine gun. The arguments that the newspaper is making about the welfare state would be laughable, were they not succeeding in turning dead children into pawns in a horrible political game. This kind of journalism is up there with the hacking of Millie Dowler's phone, and it's depressing to see mainstream news channels use the controversial headline as an opportunity to host a 'debate' about whether the welfare state created Mick Philpott and led to his actions. It didn't. We may as well debate whether or not the welfare state was exclusively responsible for the enormous success of former benefit-recipient JK Rowling's Harry Potter franchise, or indeed, whether the earth is flat.
Thirdly, the headline is a huge insult to anyone who receives benefits. That would be most (if not all, at some point) of the population, including the overwhelming majority of Daily Mail readers. Receive any child benefit? A state pension? Tax credits? Winter fuel allowance? Disability allowance? Do you visit a GP from time to time? Ever used an NHS hospital? If so, by the Mail's logic, you are now to some degree or other a vile product of the welfare state. Exactly how vile you are is no doubt dependent on the amount you receive in benefits, or the number of annual trips you make to your doctor's surgery, but most of us are clearly a step further along the road to becoming a child murderer. We are all vile products together, to coin a phrase.
Fourthly, it's a classic example of a newspaper taking the most extreme / unusual examples of benefit recipients and using them them to draw wide (and invariably false) conclusions about the whole system. As statistics from the ONS show, most people who receive benefits do not have 25 kids. They do not live in huge mansions. They don't drive BMWs. We can debate the welfare system and dependency traps until the cows come home, but the debate will be meaningless if we take hyperbole designed to sell newspapers or win votes as the starting point for the discussion.
Ultimately this headline, and George Osborne's effective endorsement of it, confirms something very nasty about the UK in 2013. There is a war being waged on the most vulnerable people in the country - and it's being waged by a cabinet of millionaire politicians and their political sympathisers in the press, few (if any) who have ever experienced what poverty really means. There's no 'all in this together' to be heard any more this war. No compassion in the conservatism. No hoodies being hugged. Just constant, relentless talk of chavs, scoungers and skivers. A huge divison between 'us' and 'them'. It's hate. Daily hate. But the sad story of the deaths of Mick Philpott's children does not represent a parable for our age, and the man himself is no poster boy for benefits receipients.