Reporting on poverty: why the tone matters - Rethinking Poverty

Reporting on poverty: why the tone matters

Posted on 11 Jun 2019   Categories: Blog, Language of Poverty, Reports Related Tags:  

by Manny Hothi


Is the angry and exasperated tone of Phillip Alston’s report on poverty in the UK counter-productive? Let’s compare this with responses to climate change. For years David Attenborough and the BBC have made comfortable programmes about the wonders of the natural world. Was the very different tone of the recent ‘Climate Change: The Facts’ counter-productive? I don’t think so! Combined with Extinction Rebellion’s ‘disruptive’ occupation of key London junctions over Easter, and the school climate strikes inspired by Greta Thunberg, it seems to have succeeded in bringing the climate emergency on to the mainstream agenda at long last. Perhaps the time to be measured and polite about the terrible things happening in our country and our world is past. This was originally posted on the 23rd May on Trust for London’s blog.


Professor Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, has published a devastating report on the nature of extreme poverty in the UK.

It is a must read. He lays bare the shame of the treatment of those who lack the resources they need to make ends meet by one of the world’s strongest economies. He pulls no punches: his analysis is that the levels of poverty in the UK are a result of political ideology to “reshape the relationship between Government and citizenry”.

The angry and exasperated tone of the report is important. Alston wants the reader to know how unacceptable he finds the situation. This is surprising, given it has come from the bureaucratic United Nations, whose diplomatic tendencies probably lend themselves to more watered down reports.

It could be argued that the tone is counter-productive, that it lets those who deny there is a urgent problem off the hook by allowing them to claim the report is ‘too political’, as the Government has already done.

Is the tone wrong?

I think the best way to assess whether the tone of Professor Alston’s report is wrong is to look at the alternative. What would the response be if he written the report with the same findings, but more measured language and qualified assertions about government policy?

I am in no doubt that it would have been received in the same way that the countless reports on the state of UK poverty have been: denial that there is a problem and the assertion that absolute poverty is falling. Time and again this is the line that Government spokespeople take to evade responsibility.

We have a chorus of think-tanks, academics, faith leaders, civil society groups, local government officials, and business representatives speaking quite reasonably about the nature of poverty. Yet the Government response is the same: no problems here, absolute poverty is falling.

We have a chorus of think-tanks, academics, faith leaders, civil society groups, local government officials, and business representatives speaking quite reasonably about the nature of poverty. Yet the Government response is the same: no problems here, absolute poverty is falling.

Professor Alston’s report has angered the Government to the point of making a formal complaint to the UN.  The report is not being ignored or batted away by Government – instead they are keeping the story running, challenging what he has said and how he has said it. It has put a different kind of pressure on Government and engendered a different type of response.

How can he have reached these conclusions in just 12 days?

The Professor’s conclusions are evidenced based. His team analysed nearly 300 submissions to his call for evidence from civil society organisations, submissions which would have referred to the many hundreds of research reports on poverty in the UK. The body of research evidence here is robust.

But he also spoke to the people who experience poverty as a daily reality. He heard from those who are at the sharp end of changes to our system of social security and reductions to our public services – the two main tools that any government has to reduce poverty.

And herein lies the problem with the Government’s defensive reaction: poverty is affecting 14 million people in this country. Many of these people are working, doing what is considered to be the ‘right thing’, but still can’t make ends meet.

It is a serious political problem which can be evaded while Brexit consumes all the political oxygen. But when Brexit passes there will no hiding place. Government will not be able to tell 14 million people, faith institutions, civil society, and business that this country does not have a poverty problem, and get away with it. And this chorus will sing from Professor Alston’s report, again and again.

Manny Hothi is Director of Policy at Trust for London.


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Posted on 11 Jun 2019   Categories: Blog, Language of Poverty, Reports Related Tags:  

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