How hostile media coverage can fuel disability hate crime

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Hate crime is on the rise

The Crown Prosecution Service reports that hate crime has almost doubled as a percentage of its caseload in the past 10 years, while the Home Office says that hate crimes in England and Wales rose by 29% last year alone.

7% of these hate crimes in 2016-17 were disability hate crimes. Amongst all categories of hate crime, this was the biggest percentage rise over the previous year, with a 53% increase.

How reporting fosters a hostile environment

Bad News for Disabled People, a report published in 2011, found that in recent years there had been an increase in coverage of disability-related issues. This came with a focus on “bogus claimants” and “scroungers”, despite the fact that there had been no real-life increase in fraudulent claims. When focus groups were asked to describe a typical story in the newspapers on the theme of disability, the most popular topic that came to mind was benefit fraud.

A Disability Rights UK report in 2012 found that over three quarters of people with disabilities surveyed (76%) said the volume of negative media coverage was ‘significantly increasing’. 91% believed there was a link between negative press portrayal of disabled people and rising hostility/hate crime.

Some respondents drew a direct link between press coverage and their personal experience of hate crime. For example, after the Daily Mail ran a misleading article saying that disabled people get free BMWs paid for by the state, one respondent’s car was vandalised. Another person reported: “After articles calling disabled claimants scroungers, I was followed by a group of youths in the street and called a scrounging disabled bastard.”

Of the newspapers most cited by survey respondents, The Sun was named by 26.6% of all respondents, with the Mail, highlighted by 21.2%. The next highest publications were the Daily Telegraph and Daily Express with 6% and 4.5% respectively.

Hate crimes “don’t occur in a vacuum”

Speaking to Stop Funding Hate, Professor Neil Chakraborti of Leicester University’s Centre for Hate Studies also highlighted the role the media can play: “Many victims of hate crime that we’ve spoken to from different backgrounds and walks of life have referred to sensationalist media headlines… often perpetrators might hurl an accusation at a victim of hate crime that has just been borrowed from a sensationalist media headline”.

He went on to say that in his research, he’s found that abusive comments directed at disabled people tend to follow a pattern: terms like “scroungers” and “benefits cheat” echo the wording that some newspapers use in their portrayal of disabled people.