The Guardian’s coverage of the UN visit is pathetic

The Guardian and UN logos with a man burying his head in the sand
Steve Topple

You may well have read about the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty Philip Alston’s visit to the UK. But if you’ve read about it in the Guardian, I’m afraid you’ve probably been fobbed off. Because so far, its hand-wringing coverage is a pathetic excuse for journalism.

Convenient ignorance?

As The Canary‘s excellent Frea Lockley previously wrote, Alston began his investigation into poverty and the effects of austerity on 5 November. She noted that:

While his visit has received some press coverage, many outlets continue to skirt around some of the most significant reasons for his visit. And much of the media seems to have conveniently ignored the fact that this is the fifth UN investigation under this Conservative government.

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The Guardian has been one of the offenders in maintaining this ignorance. Over the course of six articles, it has failed to mention the UN’s previous four reports. Nor has it said that Alston’s report will not be legally binding. And by apparently omitting both of these narratives from its coverage, it’s letting down the millions of people actually living the kinds of lives Alston is investigating.

Damning UN investigations

The four previous UN investigations, each of which I covered for The Canary, were by the UN committees on:

  • Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (UNCESCR).
  • Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).
  • Human Rights (UNHRC).

In June 2016, the UNCESCR said it was “seriously” and “deeply” concerned about the effects of austerity on the UK’s poorest people.

Next, in November 2016, the UNCRPD said successive UK governments had committed “grave” and/or “systematic” violations of disabled people’s human rights.

Then, in May 2017, the UNHRC released overarching criticisms of the UK government; right before the general election.

Finally, in August 2017, the UNCRPD issued its second damning report; accusing successive UK governments of creating a “human catastrophe” for disabled people and then trying to cover their tracks through “unanswered questions”, “misused statistics”, and a “smoke screen of statements”.

This background and its implications should be the foundation of the Guardian‘s coverage. But it’s not.

Hand-wringing from the Guardian

The context that this is now the fifth time the UN has investigated the UK government in less than 30 months is vital. It’s not as if it has suddenly looked to our shores and said ‘Hang on a minute! Something’s not right in the UK!’ The UN has been banging on, and on, and on about the damaging effects of Conservative-led policy. So this is the first point the Guardian misses: we’ve been here before – repeatedly.

Secondly, its coverage fails to mention that none of what Alston says will carry any legal weight. I would assume the Guardian knows this. But its readers may not. Alston’s brief is merely one of looking at whether the UK government is putting into practice a set of “guiding principles“. As the UNHRC itself says, these principles are:

a useful tool for States in the formulation and implementation of poverty reduction and eradication policies, as appropriate.

They are merely a goodwill “commitment” if you like. And as with the four previous UN reports, there are hens that have more teeth. The UN’s hands are effectively tied.

Thirdly, by omitting the two points above, the Guardian inappropriately leaves its readers thinking that the Tories might actually listen to Alston. I say ‘inappropriately’ because it is giving millions of people the impression that the Tories might give a shit. But as I repeatedly wrote with the UNCRPD report, they either ignored or misrepresented it. And it’s highly unlikely they’ll treat Alston’s any differently.

Let down

But it’s perhaps Guardian columnist Aditya Chakrabortty’s opinion piece on 14 November which I’m most upset by. He is, in my opinion, the outlet’s best writer – with far more depth of thought than a million Owen Joneses could ever have.

He rightly points out:

Like others at the Guardian, I have been writing on the debacle of austerity Britain for years now. Rather than the goriest details, what strikes me is how normalised our country’s depravities have become over the course of this decade.

Indeed, poverty, suffering and death in the UK have become ‘normalised’; the media’s flip-flopping between benefit-shaming TV shows and poverty-porn stories about the DWP’s most wicked acts have led to society’s collective shoulder shrug: ‘Here we go! Another disabled person left with no money!’ You can now hear the whole country sucking air through its teeth when a new story comes out.

But Chakrabortty still manages to play into this normalisation himself, saying:

This UN inquiry could prove one of the most significant events in British civil society this decade, for one simple reason: for once, poor people get to speak their own truth to power.

This is completely inaccurate. I know more people than I care to count who submitted evidence previously to other UN committees – and nothing has happened. Also, his statement implies we poor people are somehow ‘voiceless’. I don’t remember disabled people being unable to express their views when they were being manhandled by police in parliament or blocking Westminster Bridge.

Only we can stop this now

But it’s Chakrabortty’s statement that Alston’s visit could be “one of the most significant events” of the decade which really sticks in my throat. Because he is proffering a damaging false hope to millions of people who are at the ends of their tethers.

Alston can’t do anything. The Tories will laugh and sneer his report off. Labour, as with the previous UNCRPD report, will act ineffectively and can’t really do much either. So we need to face facts.

This UN visit will go the same way as the last ones: historical stains not only on our governments, but on us as a society for allowing ourselves to get to this torrid state of affairs in the first place. That is, of course, unless we the people actually do something about it.

As I told writer Alex Tiffin, we now have to work together collectively to change things in society. Because politicians, charities and corporations won’t do it for us. What this looks like and how it will work I’m not sure of, yet. But I do know that the more people who realise just how depraved the monsters that govern us are the better. Because more people may finally realise that everything we think is working is actually broken. Society needs a reboot. But sadly, this damning message won’t be coming from the Guardian.

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Featured image via Sander van der Wel – Flickr, Javier Leiva – Flickr and Wilfried Huss – Wikimedia 

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