The Guardian’s inadvertent slur on workfare protesters

9 07 2012

Glorified high street herb-growers Holland & Barrett announced they were ending their involvement in the government’s unpaid work scheme late last week.

In a statement released on Thursday night, the firm stated: “…the 60 people currently undertaking the work experience scheme will be the last to complete the eight week placement. After this time Holland & Barrett will not participate further in that scheme.”

This, of course, is the Work Programme, the government’s much maligned attempt to abolish the national minimum wage by forcing unemployed people to work without pay. Anticipating a week of targeted protests by anti-workfare campaigners, Holland & Barrett ditched the government scheme in favour of their own ‘apprenticeship’ scheme, which itself will pay peanuts.

Shiv Malik, the Guardian reporter who has jumped on the bandwagon reported fearlessly and tirelessly on the workfare saga, filed a report the following evening. In it, he wrote:

“The health and nutrition specialists, owned by NBTY Europe, said the decision was due to pressure from activists, which it alleged included assaults on staff and the prospect of further disruption at its stores this weekend.”

Assaults on staff? Really? It’s true that the protests would have included peaceful occupations of shops, and it’s also true that by its legal definition, ‘assault’ doesn’t require the actual application of physical force (merely the fear of it) – but what evidence is there that activists had assaulted staff?

Imagine if it had been the other way round – if a workfare protester had accused Holland & Barrett staff of assaulting them. Neither the Guardian nor any other newspaper would have published a breath of it without documentary evidence, video recording, or at least corroborating eye-witness testimony.

But because the company was accusing unnamed protesters, the accusation ran with the meaningless word “allegedly” – a get-out clause to avoid having to ascertain its veracity.

I don’t believe for a moment that Shiv Malik intended to slur the protesters – not when Boycott Workfare are the source of half his stories. Partly this comes down to libel laws – a big, named high street chain can sue; unidentified generic protesters cannot.

But more than that, it is an example of one of the flaws of media coverage on a raft of matters – the favouring of ‘official’ testimony over that of protesters, the public, or anyone whose role in life does not start with capital letters.

This has happened before amid the workfare row. When a rash of employers pulled out (or pretended to pull out) of the Work Programme in February, employment minister Chris Grayling claimed that the protests were a front for the Socialist Workers Party. Right on cue, that night’s Newsnight had Emily Maitlis asking someone from the Socialist Party about workfare protesters being an SWP front (and if you know your hard left, you’ll know what a tangent that’s going down…). Grayling’s mere utterance of the allegation had the media scuttling around in his wake.

This can have a very damaging effect over an extended period. In the run-up to the Iraq War, official testimony as to Iraqi weapons of mass destruction went infamously unquestioned by many journalists and politicians.

Or there was the run-up to the credit crunch. The hard left warned for years about the growing debt bubble and over-reliance on the financial sector. It was all completely ignored, because all the ‘serious people’ were absolutely certain that debt-fuelled growth and an unregulated Square Mile were the tickets to eternal prosperity.

Listen to officialdom. Ignore the plebs. Apparently, the media has learned nothing since.

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