Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

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.

Before Spin suggests there was once an age of innocence for government information officers, but Keith McDowall’s insider account of his time with the civil service in the 1960s and 1970s reveals that he was already trying out some of the routines that would later become common place under the likes of Bernard Ingham and Alastair Campbell.

In McDowall’s day, the “heavies” – i.e. the serious papers – were the only show in town: the highest accolade for a ministerial press officer was to secure a positive comment piece in the leader column of a national daily such as The Times.

By the 1980s, after switching to become the press supremo at the Confederation of British Industry, McDowall recalled the thrill he felt on finding that one of his stories had merited a favourable page one splash in the Sun, an achievement that still excites the spin doctors of today.

 Blurb for McDowall’s book castigates his successors in Downing Street and Whitehall for succumbing to the concept of spin, a media strategy that he considers “naïve and lacking in integrity”.

Before Spin captures the era when the national press dominated the news agenda, long before the days of the 24-hour news cycle, rolling television news and the constant reaction, and unpredictable impact, of social media.

A long-standing lament of my final years with BBC radio and television was disappointment at having far fewer opportunities than I would have liked to write considered news reports, or to offer crafted packages illustrated with actuality and interviews. Increasingly the live-two way had come to dominate my daily output at BBC Westminster: the disciplines of the 24-hour news cycle necessitated immediacy rather than the precision of a prepared text.

My 30-year career encompassed a transformation in broadcasting, the shift from scripted reporting towards conversational journalism, a change that has had a profound effect on the delivery of political news.

When I joined Radio Leicester in 1972, 90 per cent of what I said on air had been written in advance. Three decades later, in my last year as a BBC correspondent, before having to retire at 60, the reverse was the case. I calculated that 80 to 90 per cent of my broadcasts in 2002 were live two-ways, either with a newsreader or programme presenter.

Therefore, imagine my fascination when asked to review News and Politics: The Rise of Live and Interpretive Journalism --  the fruits of Stephen Cushion’s extensive statistical research and analysis into the extent to which television news bulletins have adapted their formats to keep pace with the competitive pressures of 24-hour news channels, online services and social media.

Such was the divisive nature of so much of the news reporting of the 1984-85 miners’ strike – and media concentration on picket line violence – that there was often little coverage of the remarkable solidarity shown by the international trade union movement.

Pit Props, a new book examining the strength of international support during the dispute, seeks to put the record straight. Editor Granville Williams says it tells the story of the magnificent response of fellow trade unionists around the world.

Nicholas Jones, a former labour and industrial correspondent, who reported the strike for BBC Radio, compiled a diary of news reports of help and assistance from overseas during the miners’ year-long struggle.

For the first time for 30 years he re-opened his file marked “miners’ international solidarity”, and it took him straight back to the events surrounding the largely under-reported, but totally unprecedented action by other mining unions and the wider international trade union movement.

 

Two pressing concerns for journalists were addressed head on by the Home Secretary, Mrs Theresa May, in a speech at the Journalists’ Charity’s annual reception at the Embassy of Ireland in London.

She gave an assurance that action was being taken to guard against the identification of journalists’ sources, and that there would be new safeguards on the length of time accused people could be held on pre-trial bail without charge.

Mrs May, welcomed by the Ambassador of Ireland Mr Dan Mulhall, was on fine form, complementing the charity on all the work it did to look after journalists who had fallen on hard times or were in need of help.

MPs at Westminster recognised the problem, and the House of Commons shared the concept of helping colleagues in distress, “but we just call it the House of Lords”.

She raised another laugh when describing how gripped she had been by Sunday television viewing on the BBC, “watching all those characters in War and Peace coming out in support of Mother Russia, and not least of all, Andrew Marr interviewing the Labour leader”.