How the media shafted the miners
Will the mainstream media ever report a big strike in a fair manner? Peter Arkell, co-author of Unfinished Business, reviews a collection of essays by journalists and other commentators on the part played by the press and TV in the miners’ strike of 1984-5.
The old question of whether the mainstream media can or will ever report a big strike in a fair manner is taken up in a new book analysing the part played by the press and TV in the miners’ strike of 1984-5. Shafted: the Media, the Miners’ strike & the Aftermath, edited by Granville Williams, takes the form of a series of essays by journalists and other media workers and commentators.
Williams, a national council member of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom (CPBF), writes about his conversations with miners in the introduction: “It is extraordinary how, after 25 years, anger and bitterness well up about the Tory government, the bullyboy tactics of the riot police and the bias in the media. The wound is still raw and pressing.” He recalls the “bitter disparity” between the treatment meted out to the miners and the recent extravagant state support for the bankers.
He quotes Dave Douglass, former NUM branch secretary at the Hatfield pit in Yorkshire, now a writer: “There is a collective bereavement here which is still raw. Grown men, who have faced great hardship and courage, can now be moved to tears while reflecting on the last two decades and its impact on them, their families and their communities. There were more than just job losses.” And Williams concludes his introduction with: “Yes, we should look back in anger, and hold fast to the force of memory.”
The sense of a great historic injustice permeates all the essays and several of the contributors remain angry and even bewildered that the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, in their hatred of the NUM, went to the lengths of devastating an entire industry and the communities around it.
For every miner in work, several other jobs were dependent on the coal industry, so the destruction of the industry cost well over half a million good, well-paid jobs. In addition to the pits themselves, the workforce and the communities, the government also threw away the £1bn investment in the new Selby coalfield. The destruction of the industry was finally sealed with the closure of the clean coal technology research plants, on which the future of coal depended.
No wonder so many of the writers in the book return to the theme of the “popular memory”, of the “historical memory” and the importance of socialists “taking control of that memory” by analysing and recording what happened for the benefit of future generations and industries.
The mainstream press, radio and television may be privately owned and “independent” of government (apart from the BBC that is), but they nonetheless form an important and reliable part of the state apparatus. Proprietors and editors alike, with all their contacts to the ruling elites and to governments, are trusted, with good reason, to find the best way of discouraging and then de-railing any kind of revolt or rebellion such as the miners’ strike. They do not even have to be told to do this, as it has become standard practice over the years, allowing apologists of the system to claim that there is a free and independent press in Britain.
As for the BBC, its so-called “independence” is also a myth, as is proved by its actions in all the great crises since its formation as a public corporation in 1927, including its role in the miners strike itself and most recently during the Iraq War when it was slapped down by Tony Blair for daring to question the lies of government.
That said, the essays do provide an insight into the workings of the “capitalist press” and also highlight the alternative media — words and films — that always spring up in times of great crisis.
Paul Routledge, who worked for The Times until refusing to cross the picket lines of the Wapping printers in the lock-out of 1985-6, describes how the old camaraderie that had existed between the industrial correspondents of the newspapers and the NUM leaders, disappeared at a stroke when most of the papers and much of radio and TV “hastened into an alliance with the Thatcher government”. The strike, he writes, demonstrated the “pivotal function of the media, but also exposed the weakness of trade union public relations.”
In the end “public relations disappeared in the gun smoke of power relations. No amount of publicity, even favourable, could hold back the juggernaut of a government with quasi-wartime police controls”. But Routledge then seems to place his faith for the future of trade unions in the new-found practice of doing battle with “words and pictures rather than placards and pickets”.
BBC correspondent Nicholas Jones, amid much hand-wringing and soul-searching, admits that he was “ensnared in the seeming inevitability of the Thatcherite story line that the mineworkers had to be defeated in order to smash trade union militancy”.
He writes: “With the benefit of hindsight and the subsequent evidence of a vindictive pit closure programme which continued in the decade which followed the strike, perhaps the news media should own up to a collective failure of judgement comparable to that during the build-up to the Iraq War.”
He, like Routledge, criticises the failure of the miners’ union to “to devise a communications strategy to counter the far superior news management being orchestrated on behalf of the government.” And he writes that “no union has ever repeated the mistake of alienating a group of reporters assigned to cover a strike”.
Peter Lazenby, of the Yorkshire Evening Post, describes the very difficult atmosphere encountered by journalists working for “establishment” papers who supported the miners or who wanted to put forward their case. He tells many amusing incidents and positive stories of selflessness by miners, other workers and people in the communities.
Some of these got into print, but this was, he writes, “more despite the system than because of it”. He was himself arrested with other miners in a car trying to get to Nottinghamshire pits that were working. He also had his phone tapped and writes that many other journalists had the same experience. He accuses the government of lying over the pit closure programme and of “unforgivable venom” in its destruction of the industry. And he accuses the NCB of black propaganda in its campaign to get miners to return to work.
“The media in general,” he concludes, “and the press in particular, had played their role in the destruction of a workforce and an industry whose like will probably never be seen again in Britain.”
An essay on the alternative media – described as a counter-weight to the lies and distortions of the mainstream media – by Tony Harcup, a senior lecturer in journalism at Sheffield University, makes the point that these local publications provided not only the means for readers to find out what was really happening in the coalfield communities, but also provided a way for “observers to become actors”. He draws attention to Leeds Other Paper, Other Voice, Brighton Voice, The Lie Machine amongst the printed media and the Miners Campaign Tape Project (which had a big impact and won awards), Northern Newsreel and Undercurrents as films.
Patricia Holland, vice-chair of CPBF and a writer and researcher at Bournemouth University, takes a look at the films inspired, in one way or another, by the strike, not just the famous ones such as Billy Elliott, Brassed Off and The Full Monty, but those made some time after the strike, exploring the legacy of bitterness and social collapse in the former coalfields.
“A Billy Elliott of 2004”, she writes, “might end up like Gary of Children of the Miners’ Strike (BBC 2004) whose mother is engaging in a heroic struggle to keep him off heroin; or like Darren of Wasted (C4 2002) a school boy who felt he had nothing to look forward to.” Children of the Miners’ Strike, she writes, “begins with newsreel footage of picket-line confrontations while introducing a generation that has turned to drugs. “In the pit villages they used to say that coal ran in their blood,” says the commentary, “Twenty years later it’s heroin.”
A chapter by Granville Williams analyses the relationship between the media and the miners, outlining the crucial ways in which the forces opposed to the strike, including most of the mainstream papers, were able to put across a distorted view of the dispute — a view that went largely unchallenged by the labour and trade union movement.
He also looks at the “outpouring of creative expression from miners and their families about the impact of the powerful life-changing struggle they were involved in” and the books, films and photos that reflected this. And he quotes Dave Douglass’s hilarious story about the snowman from All Power to the Imagination beginning: “The miners from Silverwood, having been told they were confined to six pickets only, built themselves a seventh comrade in the shape of a large snowman, wearing for good measure a plastic policeman’s helmet.” The snowman had, however, been constructed around a three-foot high, two-foot thick concrete post, and, yes, the police tried to knock it down by driving a Range Rover at it.
There is a contribution by Robin Ramsay, editor of Lobster magazine, that traces the activities of the spooks from the 1950s through to the miners’ strike and beyond. “The operations by the British secret state against the NUM in 1984/5”, he writes, “were the climax of almost two decades in which the growing presence of the left in politics and trade unions was met, investigated, surveilled and countered by an alliance of politicians, employers’ organisations, anti-communist and anti-socialist trade union officials and state officials in what we might call an anti-subversion network.” He details some of their activities.
An essay by Huw Beynon, a professor at Cardiff University, considers the social consequences of the wipe-out of pits in South Wales and Durham, where the majority of the country’s most deprived wards are now located. He demonstrates the inability of the free market to replace these jobs and quotes the estimate by Dave Feickert, former NUM research officer, of £28bn of public funding that has been spent in an attempt to compensate for the loss of mining employment.
An essay by Hilary Wainwright, editor of Red Pepper, follows the stories of several of the women who became active during the strike. “With the defeat of the strike”, she writes, “and, in many cases, the fragmentation and steady disintegration of their communities, a common experience gave way to many individual paths…” She relates the “interweaving of the personal and political” in the case histories of some of the women.
There is a moving description by Joe Owens, once a miner in Scotland and now a writer, about his arrest and the “carefully thought-out strategy of the authorities to inflict defeat and humiliation.” He relates the stories of two of his friends, who were both broken by the defeat of the strike and who both died young. “There are communities in Scotland that will never recover from that time, where too much was taken and little remains. As I write there is a noise about credit crunches and crises. But you can’t take anything away from where nothing is.”
Although there is very little put forward in the essays by way of a solution or a perspective for the future to prevent this kind of state vandalism from ever happening again, the book is a powerful reminder of what took place 25 years ago and of the need for a comprehensive strategy to defeat renewed state and media attacks.
15 October 2009