Miners' strike anniversary: how free can a journalsit be with a private conversation
- Category: Trade Union Reporting
The 25th anniversary of the pit dispute has provided a timely opportunity to reveal what happened when I become Arthur Scargill's stand-in driver at the height of the strike:Using my BBC reporter’s car in the middle of the 1984-5 miners’ strike to give Arthur Scargill a lift to London was not something which I ever dared to mention in my broadcasts about the pit dispute. Just days before our four-hour drive, he had been arrested and subsequently injured during the Battle of Orgreave when ten thousand pickets faced four thousand police officers. The near-unanimous view of the press was that the President of the National Union of Mineworkers posed an even greater danger to the state than he did at the start of the dispute. Scargill shunned almost all personal contact with journalists during the year-long strike and he remains as aloof today. My brief stint as his stand-in driver came about by chance. I have to admit that at the time nothing from our conversation struck me as being particularly newsworthy; Scargill was too astute for that. But I ended up feeling at a slight disadvantage, fearing I could have compromised my own impartiality and might be accused of taking sides in the dispute. Once the strike was over I occasionally re-read my notes and, as the years went by, I began to realise that I possessed a rare insight into the thinking and personal routines of the union leader who commanded the most divisive industrial dispute since the general strike of 1926.
I then faced what became a long-drawn out dilemma: how free should I be with the copious notes which I had written up as soon as I dropped off Scargill outside the entrance to his flat in the Barbican? Would I be justified years later in breaching what had obviously been a private conversation? My quandary was finally resolved when Scargill contributed to a farewell tape on my departure from the BBC in the autumn of 2002. He made a jokey reference to our drive to London and revealed an aspect to it which was news to me. I decided there and then that given the right opportunity, I too would revisit the insights which I obtained during our unexpected journey. Thanks to my contemporaneous notes, I have had the advantage of being able to reflect with hindsight on what he said but I do accept there are certain boundaries. Some of our small talk related to personal details about himself and his family and that is off limits. Like so many of the journalists who reported the strike I had always found it infuriating trying to interview Scargill. He prided himself on his ability to thwart the news media and to deny reporters information which he thought might damage either himself or the NUM. Any interviews which were granted were always on his terms. However hard an interviewer might try, he addressed only those points which he considered relevant; he gave nothing away. More often than not he would avoid the question entirely and instead launch into a broadside against Margaret Thatcher, the National Coal Board and its chairman Ian MacGregor, the BBC or whoever else happened to be in the firing line.Although not without provocation, Scargill’s hostility was nonetheless a calculated act, designed to stiffen the resolve of the miners and their families during the long weeks and months of the 1984-5 dispute. In his opinion journalists were part and parcel of the class enemy and were, as he never tired of reminding us, nothing more than “a bunch of piranha fish” who would always go on supporting Thatcher and the NCB even when Conservative ministers and the management had been exposed as being guilty of telling lies. My four-hour uninterrupted conversation with the most divisive union leader of his generation came out of the blue in late June 1984. Scargill had just finished giving a speech in Llandudno to the annual conference of the National Union of Railwaymen. His driver Jim Parker asked for a favour: would I mind giving his boss a lift back to his flat in the Barbican. Parker wanted the evening off as it was his wedding anniversary. I readily agreed but without thinking through the implications: What would the BBC’s management and Mrs Thatcher’s government have to say if it emerged that a BBC correspondent had given Scargill a helping hand and driven him all the way to London? I like to think, notwithstanding the possible criticism, that no journalist would have refused. Here was an unexpected opportunity to dig away for some meaningful answers to all those unanswered questions. By then the strike was into its fourth month and the level of violence had reached unprecedented levels. For several weeks striking miners had staged mass pickets outside the Orgreave coking plant, near Sheffield, to try to prevent the British Steel Corporation from deploying lorry convoys to move out supplies of coke. On the second day of what became known as the Battle of Orgreave, police used riot gear for the first time and the following day Scargill was arrested and charged with obstruction. A fortnight later the mass picketing resumed; a hundred pickets were arrested; and according to the Daily Express “a trembling, rubber-legged Arthur Scargill” had to be helped to his feet after being hit on the head by a riot shield. He was taken to Rotherham hospital and spent the night under observation. Given the strife which the miners’ strike was generating and the way Scargill was being portrayed as public enemy No 1, I was caught by surprise when approached by Parker. Here was a BBC journalist being asked to give a lift to a strike leader who ten days earlier had been marshalling pickets by walkie-talkie as they clashed with mounted police wielding batons. To the establishment and the forces of law and order the problem was no longer simply one of managing a dispute about pit closures but the far more difficult task of trying to devise a strategy to restrain a militant trade unionist who it seemed was intent only on toppling Mrs Thatcher. Scargill was full of bravado as we drove out of Llandudno but I could tell that as usual he was firmly on his guard. He was decidedly cagey when I tried a couple of leading questions and it was obvious he had no intention of letting slip a headline-grabbing story or of taking me into his confidence by perhaps revealing the latest state of play in the on-off negotiations between the NUM and the NCB. However, within about half an hour, as we headed east along the A55 on the North Wales coast, he became more conversational. As I was having to concentrate on the road ahead, my questions were not always well focussed and of course he must have been reassured to see that I could not write anything down. I had heard that probation officers found their most candid conversations with young tearaways were often when they were behind the wheel, driving an offender to court or to a hostel; as there was no eye contact it was easier to chat away. Slowly it dawned on me that if I could structure our small talk around areas which might prove the most revealing, I would be able to gather some valuable insights into Scargill’s behaviour and outlook. I was sure any impressions I gained would stand me in good stead in reporting what was already turning out to be the most challenging assignment of my career. I started trying to memorise the salient points of what he was saying. Despite his high-profile appearances on picket lines and considerable exposure in the news media, Scargill remained an enigma: bombastic in public yet as I was finding out, good company on a long journey; boastful about his achievements but highly secretive when it came to any mention of his family or private life; and although dismissed as a fanatical rabble-rouser by most commentators, he appeared to command total loyalty among the strikers and their families in NUM heartlands like the Yorkshire coalfield. His dogmatic, confrontational approach was, and has remained, a barrier to a deeper understanding of his motives and as I knew from any discussion about the dispute, the questions which most people wanted answering were pretty fundamental: “What is Scargill actually like? Why won’t he agree to a settlement? Does he really want to bring down the government?” As the dispute dragged on, I was asked repeatedly these self-same questions even by coal board directors and senior police officers who were obviously as perplexed as the general public. What hit me so forcibly that day was Scargill’s unshakeable belief in himself and his utter determination to continue the fight against pit closures however tough this might become for the NUM and its members. He thought the strike could well continue for another six months, until November or December, and if it lasted that long, coal supplies at the power stations would be exhausted and Mrs Thatcher would have lost. Whatever the outcome he was confident he would become and remain a working class hero; that was what happened, he said, to union leaders who made a stand and refused to give way. To begin with he talked mainly about his role in the Battle of Orgreave. He had been in charge throughout, using walkie-talkie to contact those marshalling the pickets. British Steel’s subsequent decision to stop the coke convoys had been a victory for the NUM because the police had been forced to seek an end to the confrontation. Scargill warned that the violence could get worse; the pickets would go protected next time. Alsatians had been let loose at Orgreave and some miners might take shot guns if they thought they were going to be attacked again by dogs. When I asked about how he was injured, Scargill claimed the police had changed their story three times: to begin with it was said he had been hit on the head before he arrived; then that he tripped and fell over a chain link fence; and finally that he hit a railway sleeper, but one could not be found. Being injured in the Battle of Orgreave helped build-up interest in the transmission that evening of his filmed report presenting the case against pit closures. Channel 4 News had supplied a television crew to both Scargill and Ian MacGregor and asked them present their opposing arguments. ITN’s film of a policeman using his baton at Orgreave was just one of the images which dominated the opening sequence of the bulletin. After a report on the mass picket, there was film from Rotherham hospital of a bedside interview with Scargill sitting up in orange pyjamas. It provided the perfect cue for the two filmed reports, by the NCB chairman and NUM president. Like any television performer, Scargill was anxious for some feedback: “What did you think of the first miner I interviewed? It wasn’t planned like that. It just clicked into place”. I asked him if he had found it difficult to memorise what he wanted to say: “You mean my walk-in shot to camera? Oh, that was easy”. It had, however, taken him longer than he expected to write and time his script for the voice-over. The more I asked non-threatening questions, the more revealing he became about himself. Yes, he did get tired and he knew he was not eating properly, but it was physical exhaustion not mental stress. No, he replied, he had no trouble sleeping at night. He just smiled when I mentioned that one union leader I knew became so worried about the stance being adopted by his militant shop stewards that he was unable to sleep and was having nightmares over the suffering of strikers’ families. Scargill acknowledged there was mounting deprivation within the coalfield communities and he was obviously concerned about the impact this was having on family life, but he gave the impression that the hardship which was being inflicted would only add to the miners’ sense of grievance and make them even more determined than before. I was struck by Scargill’s sense of detachment and thought how well suited he and Mrs Thatcher were to be pitted against each other. He could obviously distance himself from the plight of his members just as easily as the Prime Minister had been able to insulate herself from the devastation of mass redundancies in steel, shipbuilding and motor manufacturing. When we reached the M6 motorway and stopped at a service station for petrol I learned more about Scargill’s ability to stand back from the harsh realities of the pit dispute while at the same time protecting himself from what he considered was harassment by the tabloid press. I suggested he might like a cup of tea or a quick snack but he refused point blank. Since the start of the strike he had been careful never to be seen eating in public. He was finding it difficult to get a proper a meal, especially when on the road; he claimed he was clocking up 60,000 miles year in his NUM car. How could he be photographed “eating a prawn cocktail” at a service station when “miners and their families are queuing up at soup kitchens?” He assured me that he would eat once he got back to his flat in the Barbican: “there is food in the freezer and a microwave oven”. Instead he made do with a couple of packets of crisps and an apple. As he had taken a swipe at the media, I could not resist turning the conversation round to what I considered was his love-hate relationship with journalists. Why did he like describing us as “piranha fish”? In his opinion Fleet Street was nothing more than 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 realised some reporters wondered why they were being attacked but there was no way he could separate out individual correspondents, he had to attack them all. Over the years he had found that berating journalists at strike meetings invariably got a good audience response. NUM members had experienced media bias and they always applauded what he said. Therefore whenever he spoke in public he purposely included an attack on journalists because he felt this made him “more interesting” to the media at large. Throughout my non-confrontational but pretty constant line of questioning Scargill remained good humoured but he was a fidgety passenger, adjusting the air controls for ventilation. When thanking me the following week, Jim Parker agreed that Scargill could be a frustrated backseat driver; he often turned the indicators on and off or was first to release the handbrake. Scargill admitted he usually slept on long car journeys which was obviously a relief for Parker but meant that as we left the M1 motorway and headed for central London, he did not know the quickest route to the Barbican. Once we arrived, there was no mention of reciprocal hospitality; Scargill reverted almost instantly to his usual secretive self and insisted on being dropped off outside the main entrance. I parked my car a couple of streets away and immediately started writing up my notes. I had created a mental check list of the various things we had talked about and I worked through each subject in turn, putting down all I could remember. Within an hour I had filled ten pages of an A4 notebook. When asked in 2002 to contribute to my farewell tape Scargill put his own memory to good use. In giving his take on what happened when I “kindly offered” to drive him from Llandudno to London, he revealed that despite all the travails of the miners’ strike he had retained his sense of mischief when dealing with the media: “Half way back Nick had to stop in his BBC car for petrol. As he went to pay, a policeman approached me and recognised me and said: ‘Could I ask you, Sir, where you are going?’ I replied: ‘We are actually going picketing but the driver in the picket leader’. When the police officer telephoned police headquarters to check who the driver was, I suspect that when they told him he worked for the BBC, he came to the conclusion that he was not a picket leader. I have never told Nick Jones that but the thought of him and me being carted off to a cell would have thrilled me and certainly made the story of the day”. No wonder a piranha fish had no hesitation in biting back.---------Nicholas Jones was a BBC labour correspondent. He was named industrial journalist of the year for his coverage of the 1984-5 miners‘ strike.
(First published in British Journalism Review, March 2009)