Black and white photographs of Battle of Orgreave saved the day for arrested pickets
- Category: Trade Union Reporting
Black and white photographs taken by friends, family and supporters at the 1984 Battle of Orgreave helped subsequently to demolish Police prosecutions for rioting that were levelled against 95 striking mineworkers.
But at the time, very few close-up – and potentially incriminating – pictures made it into the news coverage of the mainstream media.
Most press photographers and television camera crews were penned in behind police lines, and therefore kept largely to the perimeter of the eight-hour confrontation between pickets and mounted police.
While newspapers and television news bulletins captured the scale of the conflict – and especially the graphic images of police on horseback charging through the pickets – there was nothing like the visual record of hand-to-hand combat that would be available today as a result of the abundance of camera phone pictures and videos that invariably emerges from demonstrations and protests.
No wonder the iconic photograph taken by John Harris of Lesley Boulton, cowering as a mounted police officer approached her with a raised baton, has become an enduring image of the strike, reproduced repeatedly to illustrate the violent response of the police as the pickets assembled outside the Orgreave coke works on June 18, 1984.
There is no shortage of anniversaries marking events during the year-long pit strike, but the 32nd anniversary of the Battle of Orgreave, has added relevance as a decision is expected within weeks as to whether the Home Secretary, Theresa May, will authorise an inquiry into what became the dispute’s most violent confrontation.
Mrs May has been supplied with a dossier of evidence by the Orgreave Truth and Justice and Commission in support of the request for a full investigation into the conduct of the South Yorkshire Police, a demand that has been given added impetus by the recent inquest into the 1989 Hillsborough stadium disaster in Sheffield, which found that 96 Liverpool fans were killed unlawfully.
The Independent Police Complaints Commission has already described how senior officers in the South Yorkshire Police force, and a police solicitor who dealt with the aftermath of the Battle of Orgreave, also handled the fall-out from the stadium disaster.
Pressure for an inquiry has been strengthened further by a damming commentary from Mrs May’s former chief of staff at the Home Office, Nick Timothy, who said there was evidence the South Yorkshire force had “lied and lied and lied again” about their own conduct at Hillsborough and the death of the football supporters.
Footage from a police film of the Orgreave operation showed miners being led to an open field, where they were allegedly kept in a cordon maintained by police dogs, while protesting at lorries taking coke to the steelworks at Scunthorpe. Police directed press photographers and television crews to a penned area, which limited the media’s access.
After stones were thrown, police horses galloped through crowds without warning, and strikers who did not get out of the way were trampled, arrested and charged with riot.
Mr Timothy believes ( www.conservativehome.com ) that if the police pre-planned a mass, unlawful assault on the miners at Orgreave, and then sought to cover up what they did and arrest people on trumped-up charges, there has to be an inquiry.
“Some people will argue we should let sleeping dogs lie. But the Hillsborough Independent Panel inquiry showed that sleeping dogs in South Yorkshire Police lied, lied and lied again, not just about their own conduct but about the victims and other football supporters...and we need to investigate cases like Orgreave, just as we need to look at cases like Hillsborough.”
There was criticism at the time of the failure to the press to publish photographs showing the full extent of the hand-to-hand combat between pickets and police. One only national newspaper published the image of the mounted police officer raising his baton against Lesley Boulton.
ITN – but the not the BBC – did capture television footage of an officer beating a picket repeatedly with a baton, and Sheffield Police Watch did film close-up shots of officers in action, but much of the coverage was in wide shot from behind police lines.
The importance of the pictures taken by friends and supporters of the strikers – Lesley Boulton of Women Against Pit Closures is seen holding her own camera in the John Harris picture – emerged after the 95 strikers were charged with riot.
None of them was successfully prosecuted and the case against most of the defendants was dropped dramatically part way through their trial after it emerged that many of the police witness statements had been dictated by other officers. After 39 of the men charged brought civil proceedings for assault, unlawful arrest and malicious prosecution, the police settled all the cases without a trial or an admission of liability.
Michael Mansfield QC, who represented the miners, told the Today programme (23.5.2016) that it had been evident from the start that the prosecutions were false.
“We all knew the police statements were fabricated because we had independent witnesses who had come forward who could prove that what the police had said was false.
“We had books filled with black and white photographs that these witnesses had taken themselves, and they showed that what had been alleged against the accused had been fabricated.”
Barbara Jackson, of the Orgreave Truth and Justice Commission, said the Orgreave prosecutions had been based on unreliable evidence, which did not match up with the police’s own video, just as had happened five years later after Hillsborough.
Among those hurt during the Battle of Orgreave was Arthur Scargill, President of the National Union of Mineworkers, who had earlier been seen giving instructions to picket marshals over a walkie-talkie set as the strikers tried to stop lorry convoys leaving the coking plant.
Newspaper reports revelled in the news, describing how a “trembling, rubber-legged” Scargill had to be helped to his feet by ambulance men. That evening, as the miners’ leader recovered in Rotherham hospital, where he spent the night under observation, ITN’s film of a policeman using his baton on a Orgreave picket, dominated the opening sequences of Channel 4 News.
Photograph of Lesley Boulton by John Harris reportdigital.co.uk