Margaret Thatcher’s demolition job on the industrial might of the British trade union movement helped to generate not only an economic revolution but has also contributed to a transformation in the way the news media reports the world of work.
Journalists who covered the big industrial disputes of the Thatcher decade ended up writing themselves out of the script and by the late 1980s financial news from the City of London had increasingly taken the place of reportage about employment issues and union affairs.
Millions of days a year were being lost through strike action during the 1970s – an era of union militancy which culminated in the so called “winter of discontent” of 1978-9 – but by the end of her Premiership stoppages were a fraction of what they had once been.
Slowly but surely the unions’ strike weapon had been emasculated. Strike ballots were required by law; walk-outs were no longer possible on a show of hands in a car park; flying pickets and secondary action had been outlawed; and most importantly of all a union’s assets were at risk if there was “unlawful” action, as the NUM President Arthur Scargill discovered to his cost in the 1984-5 pit dispute.
Scargill, like other union leaders of his era, had grown used under the previous Labour governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan to employers giving way but Mrs Thatcher, backed by a largely supportive national press was able to prove that the disputes of the 1980s would be won or lost not just on the picket line but also on the back of public opinion and much of the media’s coverage was turned against the unions.
Once the threat of all-out industrial action had been removed, there was no longer the same demand for news about disputes over pay and working conditions. Instead of employment issues being reported from the perspective of the workers and their trade unions, the emphasis was increasingly on financial news and the profit and loss of the manufacturing and service sectors.
The 1986 “Big Bang” and the deregulation of financial markets in the City of London only served to underline the demise of the trade unions. The end of nationalisation and the take-up of shares by workers in the newly-privatised industries was a stark reminder of the shift which had taken place.
Share ownership trebled in the Thatcher decade and so did the growth in home ownership following the sale of council houses. By the late 1980s the all-out strike was history; no union could ask its heavily-mortgaged members to contemplate anything more than a one or perhaps two day strike.
Labour and industrial correspondents were finding it harder and harder to get editorial space or air time for think pieces or features about trade unions and their campaigns for better pay rates and working conditions.
If the answer to the question, “Is there any danger of strike action?” was “No”, then news bulletins and programmes were no longer interested in the annual round of wage negotiations.
The pulling power of business and financial reporters became paramount: newspapers offered their readers extra supplements dealing with city news and personal finance; radio and television channels hired additional staff for new business programmes.
“The Lost Tribe of Fleet Street”, as they came to be known, had sensed that their headline-grabbing days were not going to be repeated. The demise of the industrial beat was not mourned by editors, proprietors or broadcasting executives because the newspaper industry and the radio and television services had themselves been victims in the past of prolonged industrial disputes and the new era of financial and business reporting was seen by many as a reflection of the success of Thatcherism.
Illustrations: Daily Mirror 9.4.2019; Daily Mail, 9.4.2019.
Nicholas Jones was a BBC industrial and political correspondent for thirty years and reported on the big industrial disputes of the Thatcher decade.