Hitting fast-forward rather than play-back on miners’ strike
- Category: Trade Union Reporting
When reflecting on the lasting impact of the 1984-85 miners’ strike, a struggle that has become so firmly embedded in the collective memory of political and industrial events of recent years, I am often tempted to hit fast-forward rather than press the play-back button. How would a year-long fight-to-the-finish that pitted the country’s strongest trade union against an all-powerful Prime Minister, play out three decades later? Given the revolution there has been in communication techniques, what would the chances be of success if there was a repeat of the grassroots revolt against the decimation of the coalfields and their communities?
Most national newspapers sided strongly with Margaret Thatcher during the pit dispute, and that hostility fed through into much of the broadcast coverage, but the influence of the mainstream media has been eroded, if not surpassed, by the breadth of information accessed through the internet, and the sheer scope and speed of digital communications. Increasingly activists have the power to drive the online news agenda, and influence public opinion via the vast reaches of social media.
Arthur Scargill, President of the National Union of Mineworkers, relied on his union’s industrial strength, but he was a natural and skilled communicator, a stump orator who earlier in his career as the union’s Yorkshire President had already mastered the challenges posed by radio and television. My hunch is that he might so easily have transformed the miners’ chances of preventing pit closures had he had the opportunity to add access to the internet to the NUM’s armoury; had he been able – and had he been prepared – to direct the union’s resources towards sustaining an all-encompassing assault across the media front line, rather than just the picket line.
My theorising about the NUM’s prospects if the strike was re-run against the background of a modern media landscape has been re-awakened by two seismic political events: the shock defeat in the European Referendum of the twin forces of the UK’s political elite and the City of London, followed by Donald Trump’s triumph against the odds in the American Presidential election. The two campaigns had many common characteristics. They both cut through established democratic structures and exploited the often-brutal new world of instant communications, unafraid to deploy a narrative that their establishment opponents would claim was blatant misrepresentation, and often amounted to downright lies. Trump, like the United Kingdom Independence Party leader, Nigel Farage, shared an outstanding ability to talk directly to the public, in a way that excited and energised their own supporters. The same could have been said of Scargill. He electrified strike rallies across the coalfields with speeches regularly interrupted by outbursts of cheering and applause. His status as the strikers’ hero unnerved the news media.
All three challenged the established order, mounting highly personalised attacks on the political leaders they faced, deploying arguments that struck home with their target audiences. Both Farage and Trump had the benefit of being able to exploit a media free-for-all that had opened up limitless opportunities, a far cry from the narrower confines of the regulated broadcasting regime and politicised press of the mid-1980s. Just think what the NUM might have achieved had strikers and their supporters been able to go over the heads of the conventional media and post footage on You Tube of heavy-handed policing of picket lines; if Facebook had been filled with images of the plight of mining communities and widespread family hardship, mothers putting children to bed without a proper evening meal; and if Scargill and his activists had been in a position to harness the vitriol of Twitter in a scorched-earth assault on the policies of Mrs Thatcher and the National Coal Board.
Not only did Scargill, Farage and Trump connect in a language that their supporters understood, but when addressing rallies, all three succeeded in strengthening their sense of grievance, almost alienation, by personally blaming the journalists in their midst for the constant hostility shown by mainstream press, television and radio. Audiences at Trump’s rallies were regularly whipped into a frenzy when he directed a tirade of abuse towards reporters, photographers and television crews corralled in media pens. Farage had used the same tactic on numerous occasions, accusing the BBC and other broadcasters of siding with the establishment in denigrating UKIP, and then of being biased against Leave’s campaign to exit the European Union. But unlike Farage and Trump, who could take advantage of many other avenues to speak directly to the public without having their messages mediated by the established media, Scargill had no such leeway. If it had been possible for a trade union struggling against Mrs Thatcher to exploit the range of social media that is currently available – online platforms that were used so successfully in the Scottish and European Referendums – I think there is every possibility the NUM might well have been tempted by the summer of 1984 to rethink its tactics, once the Police had gained the upper hand, and it was becoming obvious there was little likelihood of power cuts given the increased output from nuclear and oil-fired generating stations.
Notwithstanding Scargill’s outright refusal to compromise on pit closures, as many in the wider labour movement might have hoped, he was a remarkable advocate for the miners’ struggle. As I watched Farage campaign in the European Referendum, and then saw Trump dominate news coverage in the US Presidential election, I could not help revisiting the pit dispute, contemplating how events might have been so different 30 years later if a populist NUM President had ever had the chance to exploit his full personal potential as a highly-effective media manipulator.
Trump’s routines on the stump were a mirror image of Scargill’s repertoire in the 1980s. Whenever Scargill addressed a rally, or appeared on radio and television after his election as NUM President in 1981, he seized any and every opportunity to attack journalists, interviewers and presenters for being biased against the miners, and for always siding with Mrs Thatcher. His aim was to convince miners and their families that the media were part and parcel of an establishment conspiracy, an all-too necessary step in preparing the coalfields for the confrontation that he believed was inevitable after Ian MacGregor’s appointment as NCB chairman, with his mandate to close loss-making collieries. Trump’s denigration of the media’s role in speeches and interviews was followed through online with tweets to his millions of followers on Twitter, who found themselves hard-pressed to keep pace with his full-frontal assault on the conduct and capabilities of individual journalists and presenters, and the ethics of two of his regular targets, the American television network CNN and the New York Times.
From the start, I had always admired Scargill’s news sense and timing. Despite having already been subjected to years of media hostility, and unlike so many of his contemporaries in the union movement, he knew precisely how to command attention and dictate the agenda. He once said that he would like to have been a barrister if he had not become a union leader, and in my first book, Strikes and the Media (1986), I described how he was praised by friend and foe alike for the speed with which he had become a household name. Joe Gormley, the immediate past President, marvelled at the way his successor secured publicity while “repeatedly saying how appalled he was at the media’s behaviour”. Scargill’s subsequent track record suggested he would have been more than a match for the challenges posed by the multiplicity of media platforms that have evolved since the strike.
He was at ease in front of camera, always dominating proceedings, having picked up many of the tricks of the trade. In November 1982, when facing criticism as newly-elected President over his first defeat in a pit head ballot, he deflected attention with a master class in presentation. In front of him were the outstretched microphones of radio and television reporters, photographers and journalists, notebooks in hand. At the precise moment he unveiled for the first time what he claimed was a secret hit list of pit closures, he held the document in his right hand, just beside his face, ready for instant pictures for television news and the press. On the radio tape, the clicking of flashlights can be heard coming in precisely on cue.
He had attained the same mastery of the technicalities of television production. In June 1984, at the height of picketing aimed at limiting deliveries from the Orgreave coke works, he was commissioned by Channel 4 News to prepare his own filmed report outlining the case against pit closures. Scargill took full advantage of the opportunity, and to his great satisfaction his report was ready for transmission on the day of the Battle of Orgreave. After a disputed fall during that day’s massive Police operation, he ended up having to spend the night under observation at Rotherham Hospital. That evening Channel 4 News played out a pre-recorded bedside interview with Scargill sitting up in orange hospital pyjamas, followed by his filmed report, which the presenter Peter Sissons paid off with the ultimate accolade, “That report by Arthur Scargill”.
A week later I caught up with the NUM President, and like any broadcaster he was anxious for some feedback. “What did you think of that first miner I interviewed...it just clicked into place.” Writing a script for his voice-over to fit the pictures had taken him longer than expected, but he soon got used to the technique. I asked if he found it difficult to memorise what he wanted to say: “You mean my walk-in shot to camera? Oh, that was easy.” As I observed in Strikes and the Media, Scargill had mastered the jargon of television news production – “walk-in shot”, “voice-over” – faster than some union leaders memorised their own rule book.
Giver his familiarity with the media, many of those assigned to report the strike resented his incessant attacks on journalists. But as was the case 30 years later in the US Presidential election, the media pack had thick skins and sensed his wounding onslaughts were all part of a calculated act. If I closed my eyes when listening to television news footage from the Trump campaign trail, I was back reporting a miners’ rally, arm outstretched, holding my microphone, taking my punishment. Sometimes young miners in the audience threatened working journalists. There was certainly menace in the air immediately after Scargill had been accused in an infamous Sun front page of making a Nazi-style salute, a slur that prompted a fearsome rebuke:
“I wanted to wave to all the union members here, had it not been for the fact that one of these vermin here might have taken a photograph of me waving my arm in the air and then written something underneath it. (Cheers)
“Throughout this dispute, day after day, television, radio and the press have consistently put over the view of the coal board and government and even when the board and government have been exposed as being guilty of duplicity and guilty of telling lies, not only to the House of Commons but also to the British public, this bunch of piranha fish will go on supporting Mrs Thatcher. (More cheers) (Arthur Scargill, Jubilee Gardens, London, 7.6.1984)
Trump’s demolition of mainstream media was a key feature of his warm-up routine, and the more belligerent he became about the bias of journalists, the more boos there were from the audience directed at the occupants of the media zone. Such was the febrile atmosphere, that some US reporters and television crews admitted to feeling harassed, even intimidated. CNN was cast as the real villain, as the BBC had been by Farage, and far earlier by the leadership of the NUM. Trump’s pitch that the American media was part of a conspiracy to prevent him becoming US President sounded as if it could have been delivered at a British strike rally in the 1980s:
“The corporate media in our country is no longer involved in journalism. They are political, a special interest, no different than any lobbyist or other financial entity, with a total political agenda, an agenda that is not for you, it is for themselves. (Donald Trump, Today, BBC Radio 4, 5.11.2016)
In persistently abusing the media Trump had seemingly made precisely the same calculation as Scargill. His ten years as host of the American television game show, The Apprentice, meant he needed no lessons in manipulating the media, or in chasing the highest possible ratings. He understood only too well that high-profile attacks on journalists were taken seriously within the media community. Accusations of bias caught the attention of newsrooms, and one likely consequence was that editorial and production staff were far more likely to give his speeches a prominent position in news schedules. Whatever the backlash among opinion formers, this was of little consequence to Trump, Farage or Scargill whose shared objective was the over-riding need to keep the rank and file fired up.
Several weeks after branding labour and industrial correspondents a “bunch of piranhas”, I did get the chance away from the cut-and-thrust of the pit dispute to explore Scargill’s motivation. In his opinion reporters resembled predators, with the same sharp teeth and powerful jaws. Fleet Street was like “a giant fish tank where journalists were the piranhas going for the fleshy morsels, ready to savage each other to get to the juiciest mouthfuls”. He considered he had no alternative but to attack all reporters because there was no way he could single out individual correspondents. “Berating journalists at strike meetings invariably gets a good audience response. NUM members have had direct experience themselves of media bias, and they always applaud what I say...And, yes, attacking journalists does make me more interesting to the media at large.”
Trump’s strategy was so effective that it gave him massive exposure on American news channels. His speeches were so controversial, his outbursts so outlandish, they were often broadcast live, purposely timed to catch peak audiences. Much of the wall-to-wall television coverage he received over the 15 months of the Presidential campaign was uncritical, and after the unexpected defeat of Hilary Clinton, the networks were blamed for not having done more to challenge and correct his wildest allegations. Nonetheless there is an inconvenient fact: as Elton John remarked, Trump was the best live performer he had seen who could not sing or play music. Scargill’s speeches at strike rallies were the same heady mixture of bombast and menace, laced with savage asides, put-downs and jokes, a music hall style routine that the activists greeted with lengthy standing ovations. As with Trump, there was an X factor about him, and I am sure the news channels would have realised that Scargill’s ability to shock made for compulsive viewing, and that once the networks had started a live broadcast from one his speeches, they would have been equally reluctant to pull away.
Breakfast television had been launched by the start of the pit dispute, but in the mid-1980s there was nothing like the 24-hour news coverage of today. Bulletins were at fixed points in television and radio schedules, and except for party conferences, speeches by political and trade union leaders were almost always pre-recorded. If Scargill had been leading the strike in an era of rolling news, I am convinced that he would have exhibited Trump’s flair for the unpredictable; he knew how to grab the headlines, and given the way the pit dispute had divided the country, the news channels would have had a responsibility to maintain balanced output, an obligation that the Leave campaign exploited to the disadvantage of Remain during the European Referendum. Farage’s ability to upstage other leading Brexiteers was a pointer to what Scargill might have achieved in arguing the miners’ case had he had the opportunity to exploit live coverage and if his position had been strengthened by the requirement for equal air time that public service broadcasters have increasingly felt duty bound to observe.
Live transmission of rabble-rousing speeches is no longer a one off because they have another life on social media. Short clips or even lengthy extracts are uploaded on to a multitude of platforms, and often reach an audience via the internet that far exceeds that of the original live broadcast. Trump’s campaign team drove the online agenda with an audacity unmatched in any previous election, backing up his rallies with a barrage of postings that more often than not paid scant attention to truth or accuracy. While a British trade union facing the full force of the state would inevitably have to come to terms with a far harsher environment than the post-truth level of communication that was apparent in the Brexit campaign, and then re-surfaced with a vengeance in the US Presidential election, there is a whole panoply of highly-inventive ways to by-pass the stranglehold of the established media of press and television.
Whenever I have spoken or written about the opportunities that have become available since the pit strike, I have suggested that the greatest safeguard for the NUM would have been the chance to circulate instant commentary and imagery about what was happening on picket lines. Photographs of police brutality captured on the mobile phones and tablets of union activists and their supporters could have been uploaded within minutes on You Tube, Facebook, Instagram and a vast array of online platforms. A constantly updated gallery of pictures showing what was really happening behind police lines, well out of the range of the cameras of broadcasters and press photographers, might well have challenged Mrs Thatcher’s narrative that the pickets were to blame for the violence, and that police had no alternative but to enforce the law.
Perhaps the clearest example of the potential impact on public opinion achieved by instant, online reporting is the extent to which the US civil rights group, Black Lives Matter, has changed the perception about the behaviour of armed police in America. Activists started posting photographs of police shootings on Facebook in the summer of 2013; they created the hashtag BlackLivesMatter; and then launched their own website to increase public awareness. Here on line, from across the States, was documentary evidence that provided such a compelling narrative about the extra judicial killings of black people by police and vigilantes that it transformed the nature of the debate. In 2014 an equally effective Twitter campaign exposed assaults by officers from the New York Police department. While there has been no repeat in the UK of the sustained confrontation between police and pickets that occurred in the 1984-85 miners’ strike, and then during the Wapping dispute of 1986, there have been a fair number of demonstrations that have ended violently, and that have prompted allegations about excessive use of force by police. In sharp contrast to the pre-camera phone days of the Battle of Orgreave, for which only limited footage exists illustrating police excesses in restraining striking miners, digital images captured by activists and by-standers can now be used, frame by frame, to back up complaints about police misconduct.
Amateur camera phone videos and photographs provided the crucial evidence that confirmed that a police officer had struck newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson, who died during protests over the G20 summit in the City of London in 2009. The most telling video was from the camera phone of a New York investment fund manager who was visiting London. Six days after police reported that Tomlinson had died from a heart attack, as he was on his way to Heathrow, the fund manager realised that he had filmed the assault, and he passed his footage to The Guardian. Tomlinson, who was not a protestor, was heading home through the police cordons when he was struck on the leg with a baton and pushed to the ground. After an inquest jury returned a verdict of unlawful killing, the officer concerned was prosecuted for manslaughter, found not guilty, but dismissed from the police service for gross misconduct.
Time and again a police version of events is being challenged by the mass uploading of images captured by protestors armed with camera phones and tablets. If today’s digital technology had been freely available at the time of Stop the War’s march against the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the organisers say they would have been able to prove that the turn-out was far in excess of the 750,000 estimated by the Metropolitan Police. BBC news reports suggested there had been around a million on the march, but the organisers were convinced the total was in excess of two million, even perhaps approaching three million, and easily the biggest ever demonstration seen in London. If thousands of marchers had been able to post photographs on Facebook and videos on You Tube, Stop the War says there would have been ample alternative digital imagery to challenge calculations based on police surveillance cameras.
In my imagined re-run of the pit strike access to the internet would have been as transformative for the miners’ families and the rest of their communities as it would have been for the strikers themselves. Mainstream media was accused of underplaying the hardship inflicted by the strike, and particularly the impact of the government’s vindictive reduction in the level of benefits for strikers’ families. Similarly, there was an under-reporting of the massive national and international effort to assist NUM members with gifts of food, clothes, toys, and especially the donations that helped finance the meals served up by the miners’ wives’ support groups. If the strikers and their families had been able to reach an online audience to generate their own publicity, the parents who complained about having to put children to bed without a proper meal would have been able to vent their fury all over social media. My contention is that Mrs Thatcher might well have been shamed into seeking a settlement by a never-ending cascade of pictures on Facebook telling the harrowing story of distressed mothers and children; You Tube would have been flooded with videos of vans and lorries on their way to mining communities to make emergency deliveries to strikers’ families; and from across the country there would have been heart-warming stories and pictures of street collections in towns and villages. These expressions of solidarity with the miners’ cause, and their dogged fight against pit closures, instead of often being supressed or ignored, would have built up a momentum online that the newspapers and broadcasters would have found hard, if not impossible to disregard. Social media has transformed the ability of campaign groups to raise funds for popular causes and such was the build-up in public sympathy for the miners as the strike wore on that online donations at home and abroad might easily have dwarfed the sums collected in high streets and shopping centres.
Social platforms encouraging discussion and comment would have provided another outlet for the voices of those living in communities isolated by the strike. Mumsnet, established in 2000 as a website designed to help parents pool information, has established a thriving online community of about 7.5 million users, precisely the kind of online army that might have been mobilised if only it had been possible for the miners’ wives to highlight and explain their predicament. Given the enduring passion and ingenuity of Anne Scargill and Betty Cook, two stalwarts of Women Against Pit Closures – and the subsequent drive and determination of the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign – I am convinced that with help and guidance from the wider trade union movement, the mothers of the pit villages would have been more than a match for the slick public relations of Mrs Thatcher’s advisers and the NCB.
Where Trump broke new ground was in his extraordinary command of Twitter, which became a multi-purpose tool for furthering and strengthening his Presidential campaign. Tweets were his very own newsfeed, often fired off in the middle of the night or the early hours of the morning. Their content was so outrageous, and their timing so unpredictable, that they regularly re-set the agenda for the breakfast news bulletins and reshaped the running order of talk shows on television and radio. Without doubt Trump was a gifted newsmaker and easily won the media war. Whereas the Leave campaign exercised a degree of caution during the Referendum campaign, realising that false claims like the threat that Turkey was about to join the European Union would gain the greatest traction by being shared and liked on Facebook and Twitter, Trump had no inhibitions about the veracity of his messages, firing off tweets about “crooked Hilary”; the “rigged” Presidential election; and the failings of CNN and the New York Times. Trump’s online supremacy was awesome: his followers on Twitter increased from 12 million to 15.5 million between the start and finish of the Presidential campaign; likes on his Facebook page peaked at 11.9 million; and according to the findings of the Pew Research Centre, 62 per cent of US adults were turning to social media for some or all of their news. Twitter and Facebook became Trump’s megaphone, reinforcing support among an online audience that lived in a parallel world and that turned to sources they agreed with rather than the mainstream media.
I first mooted the concept of re-running the year-long miners’ strike against a background of a modern media landscape during the presentations that I gave to mark the 30th anniversary of the start of the dispute. After the political upsets of 2016, and all the collateral damage there has been to the authority and reputation of the mainstream news media, I am more convinced than ever that the internet has helped to rewrite the rules for fighting future industrial disputes. Social media affords unparalleled opportunities for activists to organise, recruit and raise money through crowdsource funding. Above all else, new technology allows campaigners an opportunity to present and promote an alternative narrative to that of established press, television and radio. Had the NUM been able to acquire the expertise and online access that was available during the European Referendum and the US Presidential campaign, then the outcome of the struggle against pit closures might well have had to be re-written.
This article appears in The Flame Still Burns: The Creative Power of Coal, published by the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, £9.99