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Stop demonising disabled claimants: an open letter to Richard Desmond

You acted with generosity in sponsoring my daughter's hospital. Now it's time for your words to catch up with your actions.

Dear Mr Desmond

Just over a year ago, my daughter Eve, then aged three, was diagnosed with chronic uveitis, an inflammation of the eyes that can cause blindness. Eve had showed no symptoms – as is common in children with uveitis – so I was shocked to discover she had no vision in one eye and the other was deteriorating.

But 12 months, two operations and approximately 2,000 eye drops later, her sight is improving and her condition is stable. You will be familiar with the specialist clinic that treated her: it's called the Richard Desmond Children's Eye Centre, the purpose-built paediatric wing of London's Moorfields Eye Hospital that bears your name in recognition of the £2.5 million you donated.

Some might balk at seeing your name over a children's hospital, given your ownership of adult TV channels like Television X and, before that, top-shelf titles like Horny Housewives. Yet I remain immensely grateful for the bright, colourful, award-winning building you helped fund – and even more grateful to the expert and dedicated NHS staff within.

But it is another of your business interests that I find more difficult to square with your support for Moorfields: the Daily Express – and its relentless war on sick and disabled benefit claimants. Recent front-page headlines include:

Each was based on briefings from the Department for Work and Pensions, keen to whip up support for welfare reforms that the RNIB and other sight-loss charities have labelled "a major assault on blind and partially sighted people’s incomes and independence".

Your report a couple of weeks ago, "Blitz on benefits: 887,000 fiddlers exposed", contained two glaring errors just in the first two sentences:

"Fresh outrage over Britain’s sicknote culture erupted last night after new Whitehall figures showed three-quarters of Incapacity Benefit claimants are not entitled to the money."

WRONG: These weren't existing Incapacity Benefit claimants – they were new applicants seeing if they were eligible for benefits.

"Nearly half a million people receiving the cash were exposed as being fit for work after undergoing medical tests in a Government crackdown on welfare scroungers."

WRONG: As new applicants, they hadn't received any cash. The reference to "fiddlers" in the headline was entirely fictitious.

Of course benefit fraud exists – just as there are those at the top who dodge their taxes (at far greater cost to the Exchequer). But your paper's insistence that almost everyone is at it has fed a climate of intolerance and fear – and paved the way for bad legislation. Don't take my word for it: go and meet the thousands of disabled people who will march on Westminster this Wednesday under the banner "The Hardest Hit".

The Express is not the only newspaper to eagerly recycle DWP press releases. The Daily Mail, Telegraph, Times, Sun and your other national newspaper, the Daily Star, have all joined in – but only the Express has made each into a front-page splash.

Daily Express front pageThe formula rarely changes: an incendiary headline followed by an indignant comment from rent-a-quote Tory MP Philip Davis or the TaxPayers' Alliance (the "independent" campaign whose former campaign manager, Susie Squire, is now a special advisor at the DWP on a £50,000-plus salary).

So here's a novel idea. The next time a DWP briefing comes your way, instead of repeating it, scrutinise it. In these austere times it needn't cost your newsroom extra cash. The Express recently complained that, according to DWP figures, "spots, indigestion and sunburn" were among the reasons claimants received benefit, while the Daily Mail mocked other ailments such as "diarrhoea" and "nail disorders". But a glance at the DWP survey's footnotes would have revealed that these conditions were not necessarily the reason benefits were given.

And a quick call to a knowledgeable blogger like Sue Marsh, rather than a rent-a-quote MP, would have explained why diarrhoea is no laughing matter:

"I have 'diarrhoea'. But why? Because I have severe bowel disease. I’ve had 32 growths removed from my guts, 7 major operations to save my life and I inject myself with chemo. If we’re going to cherry pick random symptoms we must be very clear what they relate to."

You could point out, too, that disabled people are twice as likely to live in poverty as non-disabled people. Or that the government's Work Capability Assessment, the computerised test aimed at getting people off disability benefits, has been criticised not just by disabled claimants, but by independent experts and the DWP's own researchers. Some 40% of appeals against WCA decisions are successful – an astonishing rate.

In recent years the Daily Express has suffered its own apparently chronic condition: acute circulation loss. By taking a more probing approach, occasionally stepping outside the shadow of the Daily Mail, it might even win back some much-needed readers.

You have said that it was your own treatment at Moorfields for acute glaucoma that prompted your donation. Such events are a reminder that serious illness and disability can affect us all. You acted with generosity in sponsoring my daughter's hospital. Now it's time for your words to catch up with your actions.

Yours sincerely,

Clifford Singer

Clifford Singer is campaign director of False Economy.

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