Creating consensus on food poverty

On Monday, the All Party Parliamentary Inquiry (APPI) into Hunger in Britain published their report, “Feeding Britain”. This focused media attention once again onto the issue of UK food poverty.

The report is interesting in the context of my recent study topics as it provides a credible basis to the stories that are told about food poverty. It also provides a counter to the dominant frame that the poor are ‘feckless’ or ‘scroungers’ – the report blames benefit delays, low pay, high utility costs and many other outside factors for hunger.

feeding-britain1-600x336

Chris Mould, Chairman of the Trussell Trust, widely regarded as the leading UK food bank charity, has written a blogpost on the publication. He talks of the narrative of food poverty – making the point that this report, worked on across political divisions, finally confirms that the narrative of UK hunger is real. This report could be an example of mobilising consensus – creating agreement over issues rather than encouraging participation [1].

There have been plenty of examples of storytelling in the media and by campaigning groups around food poverty, which can create consensus on how real the problem is by highlighting individual stories. They also frame subjects as appropriate for sympathy and inspire empathy: “that could be me”:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-30323682

http://www.channel4.com/news/why-do-people-use-food-banks

Oxfam GB also use such stories to mobilise action – encouraging people to donate and join their #clearaplate campaign: www.oxfam.org.uk/what-we-do/issues-we-work-on/poverty-in-the-uk.

Back in April, the Daily Mail attempted to reinforce the framing of the poor as ‘scroungers’ in line with the dominant government framing, sending a journalist to a foodbank:

mos

This story was considered by many to be mean-spirited and following a Twitter backlash was actually credited with increasing donations to the Trussell Trust – so possibly backfired and strengthened belief in the poor as needing support.

The above ‘microplay’, “Britain isn’t Eating“, by the Guardian and the Royal Court is powerful in consensus-building as it shows how the Tory frame falls apart when scrutinised practically. It illustrates through drama the idea that the stories of the poor as deserving of sympathy don’t resonate with Tory MPs – she exclaims in disbelief that there is no gas, for example.

Jack Monroe rose to fame through her budget food blog A Girl Called Jack. In an article about giving evidence for the report, she talks of the expectation of the public: “I’ve lost count of the number of people who tell me my poverty wasn’t real enough, or long enough, or whatever their particular factors deem to be poor enough” – not fitting with their ‘schemas’ or expectations of genuinely poor people [2].

@mx_475

We know from research such as the NEF’s report on The Austerity Story that facts are ignored if they don’t fit with the dominant frame. Anecdotes alone may not be trusted, particularly if they don’t fit the dominant framing of an issue – in Jack’s case, perhaps the dominant frame of the poor as ‘undeserving shirkers’ was too strong for these people to accept her as genuine? Or perhaps The Austerity Story is so strong that people feel that it should be painful?

 Resonance = Credibility + Salience [3]

“Feeding Britain” arguably has a high level of credibility as it is within political structures, cross-party, and the result of an inquiry. The messengers are legitimate political figures. Salience with people’s everyday lives can and has been created by storytelling as seen above, but the difference now is the credibility these stories have.

Perhaps now the plight of those in food poverty will gain more resonance in public discourse, leading to greater mobilisation of actors trying to eradicate it.

 


  1. Klandermans, 1984, cited by Robert D. Benford and David A. Snow in Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and Assessment, Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 26 (2000), p615
  2. Tannen & Wallat, 1993, p60 cited by Benford and Snow, 2000, p614
  3. Benford and Snow, 2000, p620

 

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The “Tarpaulin Revolution” and media bias

On Saturday, 18th October the TUC-organised “Britain Needs a Pay Rise” march took place, with somewhere between fifty and one hundred thousand participants.

Following this, Occupy London set up at Parliament Square on Saturday night, with a programme of events planned for this week. The aim: to create a movement of citizens with an alternative idea for how society should function. There have been allegations of over-policing: signs, food and tarpaulins(!) have been confiscated, and so far one arrest has been made.

parliament-square

“Robust” policing of Parliament Square, 18th October 2014. Photo: Demotix (http://www.demotix.com/news/6036433/robust-policing-occupy-democracy-camp-parliament-square#media-6036389)

However, you’d be hard-pressed to come across much coverage in the UK mass media. This story doesn’t appear on BBC or Sky News’s websites, or unsurprisingly, the Daily Mail. Even the Guardian website has run just two stories on the latest developments on its dedicated “Occupy London” page (http://www.theguardian.com/uk/occupy-london)

 Why?

In terms of the media’s potential selection of this story for coverage, the Occupy event is:

  • in Central London, and highly visible
  • arguably interesting: people camping out in poor weather, with some reported actions of the Police as possibly violent – and now tarp-gate
  • fairly relevant to people’s lives – it’s politics, in the home of politics, at a time when we’re seeing furore about parties’ participation in TV debates, ‘theme songs’ and pay strikes
  • organised by the same group that were responsible for lots of press 3 (?) years ago
  • raising the prospect that there’s a problem with democracy in the UK smack bang in between a sovereignty referendum and a general election.

So the lack of media coverage seems a little strange, no?!

Looking at the big stories of the day it’s easy to see why there might be selection bias against Occupy Democracy:

  • Ebola
  • ISIS/ISIL
  • an incoming hurricane
  • the death of much-loved actress, Lynda Bellingham
  • Oscar Pistorius’s sentencing

The media can afford to ignore the stories that they feel won’t sell – there’s more material out there than could ever be reported. But why wouldn’t a tale of people committed enough to their cause to sleep out in the tail end of a hurricane, without the confiscated tarps, sell? Is there a bigger bias at play?

Despite the lack of mass media coverage, the Occupy Democracy are trying to get their message out to would-be supporters. Their very presence at the gates (or bollards) of UK democracy surely allows them the opportunity to get their message to decision-makers and some members of the public, but to truly succeed in their vision of an alternative future they need mass support.

Looking at Dieter Rucht’s “quadruple ‘A'” idea (1), which tries to explain the different interactions movements may have with the media, we might conclude that Occupy are trying to ‘adapt’, but are also using ‘alternatives’ here.

Indymedia, for example, are following the story closely (http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2014/10/518468.html?c=on).

We could argue that social media isn’t controlled in the same way as the mass media, as it is user-generated, and so could qualify as either an ‘alternative’ to the mass media, or an ‘adaptation’ of it. One one hand, Facebook, Twitter etc are corporate-owned, but on the other, content is produced by anyone, including campaigning groups.

Occupy Democracy’s Twitter, with 1,249 followers (https://twitter.com/occupydemocracy, as of 20/10/14 at 11:30pm) has been created specifically for this event. There is an Occupy Democracy YouTube channel. Occupy are also using a site called Bambuser at http://bambuser.com/v/5013694 to stream videos from the event via mobile phones. This is significant as it allows many participants to produce the media message and use social media to promote it – no media experts needed. Bambuser also allows comments on the video stream – in Occupy’s case this is being used by supporters to encourage and offer advice.

The horizontal organisation of Occupy doesn’t lend itself well to a firm media strategy, where you need media-trained professionals and spokespeople. In the Occupy London protests of 2011, where St Paul’s Square was occupied, there was hostile media coverage – including thermal imaging camera use to ‘prove’ tents weren’t occupied. Perhaps these factors contribute to the inevitability that Occupy Democracy will at times ‘abstain’ from utilising the mass media to convey its message altogether, preferring self-made media such as Tweets and video blogs.

 

Edit: after writing this post last night,the BBC have (finally) featured a story about the events on Parliament Square – however this simply pointed out that Baroness Jenny Jones of the Green Party was arrested, then “de-arrested” – perhaps this ramped up the media interest?


(1) – in “Cyberprotest: New media, citizens and social movements”, 2004, Edited by Wim van de Donk, p31-32