Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

 

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?

What Shadows, Chris Hannan’s dramatic play about the build-up and aftermath of Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech, explores the fracturing of a family friendship, while nailing at the same time an important home truth about a politician attempting to manipulate the news media.

Seeing my mother make her principled stand in rebuking Powell for exploiting immigration, and then hearing her berate my father for having advised Powell on how to promote the speech, prompted some timely reflection on my part, a salutary reminder perhaps of my own culpability as a journalist. 

Hannan’s production, which had its premiere at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre (1.11.2016), has Ian McDiarmid in the lead role; George Costigan as my father, Clem Jones, former editor of the Wolverhampton Express and Star; and Paula Wilcox as Marjorie Jones.

In my mother’s opinion Powell, to further his political career, had crossed an unforgivable line when he raised fears about Wolverhampton’s rising immigrant population, describing what he claimed was the plight of the last white woman living in a street near our home, a war widow who had been harassed by “wide-grinning piccaninnies.”

Broadcasters, like print journalists, are rightly being challenged by leading figures on the Remain side for the news media’s failure during the EU Referendum campaign to exercise sufficient scrutiny over the claims being made by Leave supporters.

Based on my 30 years as a BBC correspondent, from well before the 1975 referendum, I am in no doubt as to how viewers and listeners were short changed.

During the 1970s and 1980s there was always a clear divide during election campaigns between news stories and campaign reports.

Major announcements and developments were treated on their news value, as self-standing items, and any political ramifications were covered in separate balanced packages on the day’s campaigning, later in the bulletin on programme.

But in the 2016 referendum campaign the BBC’s news value judgement seemed to be totally awry.

Seeking political opinions from drinkers in the local pub, or from shoppers in the town centre, is a popular device for television and radio journalists and has always had its limitations, but never more so than during the polarised campaign leading up to the European Referendum.

Having spent many years myself collecting vox pops – a staple ingredient for any broadcaster out on the road – I know how unrepresentative these on-the-spot surveys can be.

Perhaps the greatest drawback is that such straw polls are often conducted in the late morning, or early afternoon, having to be completed ahead of time, ready for editing so as to be included in packaged reports to be transmitted in the early or late evening programmes and bulletins.

A major flaw in the practice is that most day-time shoppers or public house customers tend to be retired or self-employed, local tradesmen and the like, a sample that is invariably unrepresentative of the population at large.

This time constraint tends to exclude most if not all those of working-age who are unlikely to be either day-time shoppers or drinkers. The same problem arises on a general election polling day. Invariably TV crews dispatched to get early footage find that most of the morning voters leaving polling stations are pensioners.

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.