Nick Jones

Margaret Thatcher’s 1985 cabinet papers about the 1984-85 miners’ strike were a revelation for Nicholas Jones, as he explained when giving the annual lecture at the commemoration meeting to mark the death of two Yorkshire miners killed while on picket duty.

After a wreath laying ceremony, Jones told the gathering at the Barnsley headquarters of the National Union of Mineworkers that he had been misled and that an award winning programme was based on inaccurate information.

Jones, who was named the 1986 Industrial Journalist of the Year, asserted in his BBC Radio 4 programme Codename Tuscany that it was confidential advice from European banks that allowed the courts to seize the miners’ missing millions.

But Mrs Thatcher’s papers have revealed that in fact it was tip-offs from the Security Service MI5 – based on telephone taps and surveillance – that enabled the sequestrators Price Waterhouse to take control of £8.7 million deposited in banks in Luxembourg, Zurich and Dublin without the NUM’s knowledge.

Jones said his experience in being misled during the strike – as had also happened over denials of a secret hit list for pit closures – had made him all the more determined to unlock the secrets of the strike.

Address by Nicholas Jones at the 30th anniversary wreath laying ceremony at NUM headquarters in Barnsley (14.3.2015).

The wreath laying today in memory of David Jones and Joe Green has even greater resonance this year, the 30th anniversary of the end of the pit strike. For anyone involved in the dispute the last thirty years have been a troubling journey.

For relatives and friends of those who lost their lives during the dispute there is still pain and bitterness; for the men who never worked again the loss both of employment and the absence of the comradeship of their workmates; for the pit villages and mining families the continuing devastation of their communities…the list goes on and on.

These last three decades have also been a period of reflection for many of us caught up in that long year of conflict. I was labour and industrial correspondent for BBC Radio throughout the 1980s. The miners’ strike was undoubtedly the pinnacle of my career as a journalist and broadcaster, a year when I travelled the country reporting on the progress of the dispute, the tortured negotiations between the NUM and the National Coal Board, and how it became a fight to the finish between the state and the National Union of Mineworkers.

There was the constant clash of personalities, Arthur Scargill and Peter Heathfield versus Ian MacGregor; Margaret Thatcher versus Neil Kinnock; the role of the pit deputies NACODS general secretary Peter McNestry…a seemingly endless list of union leaders, politicians, police chiefs, behind-the-scenes fixers and so on.

That was my job, keeping tabs on them, not reporting from the picket line, but trying to make sense of where the dispute was going. Could there be a negotiated settlement? What was the future for the coal industry? Now we know the answer to those questions.

In the final months of the strike I had a pivotal role in the BBC’s coverage. I have been reminded of this time again when speaking at coalfield events in the last twelve months. I realise that my voice on the radio and the information I was providing had a terribly depressing impact on so many of the strikers, as they set off early each Monday morning for the start of another week on the picket line.

From the crack of dawn each Monday morning my job at Broadcasting House in London was to work out how many “New Faces” were breaking the strike and reporting back to work for the first time.  Monday was the key day, the start of a new shift, after a weekend of propaganda aimed at putting pressure on miners’ wives and families, of warnings about the futility of the strike, of reminding the men of the money and redundancy pay offs that were just waiting for them if they stepped aboard that bus taking them through the picket line.

The “New Faces” were the heroes for newspapers like the Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express. However uncomfortable this was for the NUM and their pickets, it was finally that flow back to work that decided the outcome of the dispute.

Once Mrs Thatcher could claim half the men were working, she could claim victory – and that is precisely what she did.  That gets to the very heart of what has so troubled me as I have looked back on my reporting of the final months of the strike.

On reflection there is no doubt that the news media was swept along by the force of the government’s propaganda. We journalists had signed up to a story line that suited Mrs Thatcher: the more we highlighted the return to work, the surer the government was that she’d defeat the strikers.

Hard though it might be on the NUM that was the harsh reality. Initially the union had relied on its industrial strength; the strikers had convinced themselves that coal stocks would run out, that the power stations and steel works would face shut downs and that Mrs Thatcher would cave in.

My sense of it now was that the summer of 1984 was a point of no return for the NUM. That perhaps was the moment for a change of tactic, perhaps to adopt a strategy that built on that tremendous reservoir of public sympathy and support for the miners.

But the very idea of relying less on picketing, of working with the news media, o finding ways to promote debate and dialogue, that was not the way then of the leadership of the NUM.

Were journalists like myself to blame for reporting the Coal Board’s figures for the return to work? The trouble was we had no way of checking their accuracy. Relations between the NUM and the media had all but broken down; there was no independent verification. Journalists at pit entrances could not count how many men were in boarded up buses going through picket lines.

Breakfast television had only just started in 1983 and I have been reminded time and again by former pickets of how they switched on those Monday mornings – looked at the television while having breakfast at the local café – and saw those return to work figures flashing up on the screen.

Of course the tea time and evening television news bulletins went big each Monday on the return to work – footage of the buses taking men back to work.

The broadcasters were reflecting what the pro-Thatcher tabloid newspapers were saying.

I accept that many of the former strikers – and I have met this head on at events in the last twelve months – believe the BBC became the mouthpiece of Mrs Thatcher; that it was journalists like myself who helped fuel that sense of despair and demoralisation in those final months.

But pause for one moment: throughout the mid-1980s the BBC was itself under constant attack from Mrs Thatcher –for our reporting of the Falklands War, for our wish to interview Sinn Fein and our opposition the ban on interviewing Republicans in Northern Ireland.

It wasn’t clear cut: from the very start of the strike most journalists, especially those from the BBC, had been constantly vilified and attacked by the NUM for being the mouthpieces of Thatcher and the Coal Board.

Those of you who have seen the film Still The Enemy Within will have watched a graphic portrayal of how the government and the board manipulated the presentation of the return to work.

Now let me explain how I have been putting to good use the doubts and uncertainties I have had about my own reporting of the final months of the strike. The Labour and Industrial Correspondents Group – for a time perhaps the most powerful group of journalists in the country – are no more. We too are a victim of Thatcherism: trade union affairs and industrial unrest no longer dominate the news, there is no longer a dedicated band of journalist looking at the world of work from the point of view of the workers. Instead financial journalists and news from the City of London have taken our place.

But for me the last two years have been a riveting moment – a chance to look through Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet papers for 1984, 1985 and now 1986 and to discover how, where and when I was misled.

Mrs Thatcher’s papers and the cabinet documents are being released under the thirty-year rule. So in December 2013 and again last year, I spent hours at the National Archives in Kew going through the papers before their publication at the start of the New Year.

I found it hard to believe that as the reporters assembled for the press preview I was the only journalist present who had actually covered the pit strike, the only one who was there who knew where the bodies might be buried.

In the 1984 papers the pack went for the story that one of the contingency plans was that if there more Orgreave-style confrontations troops might be needed – and that 4,500 were available.

Interesting, significant yes, but far more important for me was a cabinet minute from September 1983 in which Ian MacGregor said he had it in mind to close 75 pits over the three years 1983-84. Here it was: there WAS a secret hit list in the mind of the coal board chairman; there was only one copy of that document and it was given to the cabinet secretary; Mrs Thatcher asked in future for “oral” briefings, there should no further written material on potential pit closures.

Of great significance to me was the fact that Mrs Thatcher had not only ordered a cover up, but endorsed newspaper advertisements that accused Arthur Scargill of lying when he said the board had plans to close 70 pits with the loss of 70,000 jobs.

Throughout the dispute the board and the government said repeatedly their plan was to close only twenty pits. When I saw that document I realised that time and time again I had been reporting an untruth, when I stuck to the line about only 20 pits to close.

The existence of that note was an exclusive…it led the BBC News, while newspapers went on the story of the troops on standby. I was interviewed and my quotes – as the BBC correspondent who covered the strike – arguing that it proved there was in effect a hit list were used in the news bulletins and quoted on BBC News on line. 

But I have news for you: Mrs Thatcher’s loyalists haven’t gone away. My reporting has been challenged by the Thatcher Foundation – they have demanded the report is taken down from the BBC website.

The Foundation says I cannot point to a cabinet paper where Mrs Thatcher actually approved the 75 pit closure figure. Well of course there isn’t one – on her instructions discussions about figures for pit closure were never to be recorded again in writing during the strike.

Subsequently of course my interpretation of that document has become a widely accepted fact; the NUM’s own forensic analysis of the cabinet papers reached precisely the same conclusion, as do MPs and many independent observers.

The other highly-revealing document was from the first week of the strike, a note of her instruction to chief constables to “stiffen their resolve” to stop flying pickets. Within four days of that instruction pickets were being stopped on motorways travelling south from Yorkshire to Nottinghamshire; we had in effect a national police force.  

No journalist likes to think they have been misled so you can imagine my fury when researching the 1985 cabinet papers to find that I had been duped yet again.

I am sure you all remember the row about the miners’ missing millions. What happened was that working miners in Nottinghamshire – organised and helped by a Thatcher fixer David Hart – took legal action to challenge the legality of the strike, arguing there had been no pit head ballot. When the NUM refused to call off the strike, the union was fined £250,000 for contempt of court; the NUM refused to pay and the courts ordered that its funds should be sequestrated.

Arthur Scargill had already taken the precaution of shifting the union’s £8.7 million to banks in Luxembourg, Zurich and Dublin – out of the reach of the British government. But the sequestrators Price Waterhouse were tipped off and seized the money without the union knowing.

The year after the strike I did a programme for Radio 4 all about the tracking down of the money. For my efforts I was named the 1986 industrial journalist of the year.

My overall conclusion was that it was the banks that had tipped off Price Waterhouse – that was certainly what I was l was led to believe by the sequestrator Brian Larkins.

Of course the 1985 cabinet papers tell an entirely different story. NUM officials had always believed their phones were being tapped; that they were subject to surveillance.  Mentions of the work of the Security Services are few and far between in the documents but there was one highly revealing note by the Cabinet Secretary Robert Armstrong.

He had to advise Mrs Thatcher in February 1985 that there had been so many telephone taps and so much surveillance involved in tracking down the miners’ money that the sequestrator might have to withdraw from legal action in Dublin, fearing that the phone bugging would have to be revealed in open court.

Armstrong said in his note to Mrs Thatcher that it wouldn’t have taken a Sherlock Holmes to deduce that the person he was seen with giving information to Brian Larkins was an officer from the Security Service.

There it was – no detail – but an explanation as to how the sequestrator knew that two NUM officials Trevor Cave and Stephen Hudson had travelled to Luxumbourg with £4.7 million in dollar bearer bonds to deposit at Nobis Finance – and Price Waterhouse had succeeded in seizing the money without the NUM even realising.

So here am I – the 1986 industrial journalist of the year for my coverage of the miners’ strike – and since the 1985 papers came out in January this year I have known that what I reported was incorrect.

I might be seventy two, but I can still write – and what’s more important I can help unlock the secrets of the state, and help perhaps put the record straight for the NUM and the former mining communities.

Putting my knowledge and back history to work is my way of recognising the sacrifices that we here today have been commemorating. Journalists can’t take away the hurt and the pain but we can help hold to account those who might have been responsible.

So perhaps my soul searching has a value…by analysing the documents, by comparing and contrasting what we said with what we are now discovering, I can perhaps help explain why and how you feel misled.

Margaret Thatcher’s 1985 cabinet papers about the 1984-85 miners’ strike were a revelation for Nicholas Jones, as he explained when giving the annual lecture at the commemoration meeting to mark the death of two Yorkshire miners killed while on picket duty.

After a wreath laying ceremony, Jones told the gathering at the Barnsley headquarters of the National Union of Mineworkers that he had been misled and that an award winning programme was based on inaccurate information.

Jones, who was named the 1986 Industrial Journalist of the Year, asserted in his BBC Radio 4 programme Codename Tuscany that it was confidential advice from European banks that allowed the courts to seize the miners’ missing millions.

But Mrs Thatcher’s papers have revealed that in fact it was tip-offs from the Security Service MI5 – based on telephone taps and surveillance – that enabled the sequestrators Price Waterhouse to take control of £8.7 million deposited in banks in Luxembourg, Zurich and Dublin without the NUM’s knowledge.

Jones said his experience in being misled during the strike – as had also happened over denials of a secret hit list for pit closures – had made him all the more determined to unlock the secrets of the strike.