Leicestershire Live editor responds to The Guardian’s Universal Credit claims

When a piece appeared on The Guardian website during Friday morning, it’s shown how an assumption by national media can lead to allegations against a regional title which is working hard to hold both the government on a local and national level to account. Here George Oliver, editor of the Leicester Mercury and Leicestershire Live, takes up the story about their .

The Leicestershire Live piece by a Local Democracy Reporter published during Tuesday (14 May).

I’m not usually one to comment on how national newspapers do their job. They serve their readers and we at the Leicester Mercury and Leicestershire Live serve ours.

But when our readers start (correctly) holding us to account for something they’ve read about us in the nationals then I think I’m entitled to offer a view.

The Guardian has . I don’t accept the way it’s been done. I’ll explain why.

The Mercury’s readers have a strong interest in the issue of Universal Credit. That’s why we report on it in some detail. For example, since Christmas, we have published three stories based on interviews with people whose lives have been impacted very negatively by Universal Credit. There was the man who would , the dad who and the volunteer who says that universal credit could lead to .

This doesn’t include all of the stories we’ve written about homeless people who have had issues with the benefits system. We have also published explainers to try to assist claimants with how the process works. There’s also been data-led pieces about the numbers of people on UC.

There’s been a common response to these articles from the DWP. Each time we approach them for comment they refuse to provide a statement unless we can provide an NI number, DOB, address and other personal details of claimants. When we don’t (for obvious reasons) they send out a standard ‘universal credit is a force for good’ response.

So when we were invited to attend the job centre — as indeed were other journalists in what is a common method for issuing invites — we accepted the offer as a way of speaking to people who work with UC every day. It presented the opportunity of speaking to Leicester people about the way UC is administered in Leicester. It presented the opportunity to describe the local impact of UC in a another way.

Our reporter spent about two hours at the job centre. At one stage she was in a room with upwards of 12 people, all repeating DWP lines about the benefits of UC. Yet she didn’t use that. Instead we reported her candid chat with Steve — a Leicester man administering UC to Leicester people in Leicester — after the mass interview had finished.

Our view was that his thoughts on UC were the ones which would matter most to our readers. Our reporter put to him the man who’d rather be in prison, the dad who can’t feed his kids. He responded with his own opinion. It was published accordingly.

Steve told us what he thinks in the way others have told us what they think. Our report wasn’t for an advert or advertorial. We went knowing what the likely setting would be but with the aim of speaking to the Leicester people that impacted. We found that Leicester person, interviewed him, then used his opinion for a story. This is the same as always.

Without wishing to labour the point, the Guardian described the subsequent report as ‘sympathetic’. It also noted that we failed to mention the Guardian’s PR campaign story. The reason for that was that we didn’t know about it when we published ours. The Guardian, in turn, omitted to mention — as well as omitting a comment supplied by our publisher Reach PLC — that the Mercury’s story contains:

  • The headline being a direct quote. It was clearly someone’s own opinion and not ours
  • The introduction stating: ‘Steve Bruce is aware that his thoughts on Universal Credit might go against popular opinion’
  • This paragraph: ‘Since it was introduced, local claimants have spoken about hardships they have experienced after being transferred from the old system to the new. Problems include claimants having difficulties managing a budget, and claimants receiving less money than they did under the old system.’
  • This paragraph: ‘However, one man said he would rather be in prison, and another dad told LeicestershireLive that he could not afford to feed his son.’
  • This paragraph: ‘A volunteer at city-based charities also claimed the benefit could lead to “civil unrest”
  • On the information panel: ‘The brainchild of the Conservative Government, [UC] is theoretically meant to make claiming benefits easier. But the policy has been bereft with problems since it started being rolled out across the country and has been blamed for pushing many vulnerable people into hardship and poverty.’
  • The interview stating that: ‘Steve, a former Army dog handler, says he is encouraged by the response to Universal Credit from most claimants.’
  • This paragraph: ‘One of the main criticisms of the new system has been the delay between applying for Universal Credit, and the first payment. Most claimants wait five weeks for a payment. Some wait even longer.’
  • This paragraph: ‘Another downfall according to claimants is receiving the money monthly. The old benefits were paid more frequently.’
  • This paragraph: ‘It is something that Steve acknowledges is a struggle for some people who have been used to living and budgeting from week to week.’
  • There were various links included, such as one on a grid which features
  • Finally there was this paragraph: ‘LeicestershireLive was invited by Secretary of Work and Pensions Amber Rudd MP to the Job Centre to meet the staff and first-hand the day-to-day delivery of the policy.’

As a newspaper and website editor, I accept that people will not always agree with what my title does. I have corresponded with lots of readers about Brexit, for example. However, in this case I feel that we have been caught in the middle of a political story playing out at a national level. To return to the point made at the top of this page, I have no issue with national newspapers campaigning for their readers. However, when that content casts shadow over the integrity of Mercury colleagues — colleagues who are completely committed to Leicestershire and its people — then it would be remiss of me not to respond. Hopefully readers will make up their own minds as to our motivation.

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