Publicly pillorying journalists en masse, and using them as a whipping boy to bolster support at rallies and mass meetings, is a risky but potentially rewarding tactic for a politician desperate to grab the news media’s attention.
I learned at first hand during the speeches of Arthur Scargill, the bombastic former leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, how his regular ploy of launching a tirade of abuse about the ulterior motives of journalists, photographers and camera crews helped to stiffen the resolve of strikers in the 1984-85 pit dispute.
Thirty years later, newspaper reports of Donald Trump’s rabble-rousing speeches in the US Presidential election primaries – and of his repeated tirades against those inside the cordoned-off media pen – reminded me of comparable behaviour by both Scargill, and a decade earlier, by the late Reverend Ian Paisley, when he was out on the stump in Northern Ireland.
All three realised that one sure-fire way to counter vilification and hostile questioning by journalists was to turn the tables, safe in knowledge that their die-hard supporters would soon be hollering in agreement, banding together in singling out the media as a common enemy.
Trump’s routine has been so reminiscent of Scargill; in his opening remarks at Republican rallies, he would invariably direct his fire at the horrible occupants of the media pen. “One word at a time”, journalists were ruining the USA. “These are the most dishonest people, bad people”, declared the Republican front runner.
Dave Schilling, The Guardian’s US reporter, joined Trump’s election circus in Nevada, and described what it was like being booed at in the pen.
“It is quite a feeling to be among a crowd of thousands who would gladly tear you to pieces, given the right circumstances.
“As Trump callously tells one of the hecklers being escorted out of the rally, in the old days, he would have been taken out on a stretcher.
“The greying, overwhelmingly white audience might not actually be able to beat me up due to their age, but the spectre of menace is almost as potent as the real thing” (The Guardian, 25.2.2016)
David Usborne caught up with Trump at a rally in Indianapolis and gave another eye-witness account as seen from the media pen in the middle of the pavilion floor.
“They are the most dishonest people in the world,” he railed, eliciting loud boos. “They are the worst. Honestly...do we like the media?” (No! from the crowd). “Do we hate the media?” (Yes!)” (I, 22.4. 2016)
Three decades ago Scargill’s tactic of berating journalists at demonstrations and rallies in support of the year-long pit strike did provoke a violent response: photographers and camera crews were roughed-up on picket lines, and on occasion radio cars and television trucks were manhandled with a fair degree of menace.
Standing in front of the media pack, holding up my radio microphone, put me directly in Scargill’s line of fire when he addressed a rally in Jubilee Gardens after a mass lobby at the House of Commons (7.6.1984).
“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.” (Cheers).
Later that same month, when I did a favour’s for the NUM’s official driver and gave Scargill a lift in my BBC car from a NUR rally in Llandudno to his London flat in the Barbican, the NUM President assured me his attacks on journalists were not meant to be personal.
As we chatted away driving south, along the M6 and M1 motorways, I could not resist turning the conversation to 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.
I had experienced that same love-hate relationship in the mid-1970s when hard-line Protestants crowded around Paisley as he berated the news media – and especially the BBC and journalists from London -- for daring to question the validity of the attacks he was directing at Sinn Fein politicians and all those involved in attempts to improve relations between the majority population, Catholic politicians and the government of the Irish republic.
I frequently had to interview Paisley during the two-week strike organised by the Ulster Workers’ Council which brought down the 1974 power-sharing assembly and executive. Paisley had championed the mobilisation of Protestant power station workers to bring Northern Ireland to a halt, and out on the picket line challenging questions from a BBC radio reporter provoked a tirade of abuse, egged on by the “Big Man” himself.
But Paisley, like Scargill, was equally adept at feeding lines to the media. During the time Willie Whitelaw served was the Northern Ireland Secretary, his press officer Keith McDowall recalled the difficulties the British government had in dealing with that “turbulent priest” whose “hard-faced zealots” were well versed in mobilising hard-line Loyalists to walk the streets “waving Union Jacks and protesting allegiance to the British Crown.”
McDowall’s problem was that “each side played to the gallery via the media, and the relentless pressure on the politicians to produce a new story each day.
“Billy Flackes, the BBC correspondent, was a past master. If things were quiet he would have ‘a wee chat’ with, say, Ian Paisley, who would be coaxed into something inflammatory...Someone would come up with a retaliatory quote and the ‘story’ would have legs and possibly lead the midday news on the BBC.”
(Before Spin, Keith McDowall, Melrose Books, 2016)
Paisley’s acceptance of power sharing with Sinn Fein and his election in 2007 as First Minister of Northern Ireland was a journey that I never contemplated he would make when reporting his speeches in 1974.
Similarly, in the mid-1980s, I realised that Scargill would never compromise with Margaret Thatcher over pit closures. As the years passed, I often wondered whether there might have been circumstances in which the NUM President might have softened his approach, but Scargill remained defiant, never agreeing to a Paisley-style reconciliation.
The focus is now on Donald Trump following reports that his new chief adviser, Paul Manafort, has suggested the front-runner intends to show more restraint as the Republican Convention draws closer and the party chooses its candidate for the presidential election.
Rhys Blakely, Washington correspond for the The Times, reported that Manafort, a political veteran hired in March, had assured the Republican national committee that the billionaire realise that his brash style has raised concerns.
“When he’s out on the stage, when he’s talking about the kind of things he’s talking about on the stump, he’s projecting an image that’s for that purpose. He gets it. You’ll start to see more depth of the person, the real person. You’ll see a different guy,” Manafort said of Trump’s need to moderate his personality. (The Times, 23.4.2016)
According to David Smith, reporting for The Observer, Trump is trying to be more dignified and presidential in response to Manafort’s tutelage.
“He has curbed his addiction to Sunday morning political talk shows, dialled down the tweeting, and even begun reading from scripts, a practice he once mocked.” (The Observer, 24.4.2016)
Unlike Paisley, who took three decades to embrace power sharing, Trump has only months to play with before the US Presidential election in November. My hunch is that he will step back from taunting journalists.
Trump, like Scargill, has proved a star performer in making himself “more interesting” to the media at large, but unlike the NUM President he realises that alienating reporters, photographers and television crews is hardly likely to help him develop a successful communications strategy.