Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

A vicious and highly personalised attack on teachers’ trade union leaders for daring to demand stricter safety conditions ahead of the phased re-opening of primary schools in England was another unpleasant reminder of the hateful coverage that has become so entrenched in much of daily press reporting.

A vicious and highly personalised attack on teachers’ trade union leaders for daring to demand stricter safety conditions ahead of the phased re-opening of primary schools in England was another unpleasant reminder of the hateful coverage that has become so entrenched in much of daily press reporting.

Rather than recognise their own failure to hold Boris Johnson’s government to account for the death of care home residents and staff through the hasty transfer and admission of infected hospital patients, leading Conservative-supporting newspapers chose to pillory union officials when they tried to ensure that the same mistakes were not repeated in classrooms.

In the two and a half weeks leading up to the June 1 start for the re-opening of nursery and primary schools, teachers’ union leaders faced a trial by tabloids, their every word of caution and appeal for more negotiations met with abusive headlines and commentaries.    

Singled out by the Daily Mail for a hate-filled assault were the ‘hard line’ joint general secretaries of the National Education Union who were subjected to a full-on ‘Enemies of the People’ campaign.

They were accused of attempting to ‘sabotage the teachers’ return’ through their insistence on testing for staff and safe social distancing: ‘Callous teacher union’s plotting exposed’ (Daily Mail, 20.5.2020).

The NEU’s ‘militant’ leadership – ‘bellicose Leftists who claim to speak for the teaching profession’ – were the real ‘enemy’ claimed Sunday Telegraph columnist Janet Daley (24.5.2020).

An editorial in the Sun (21.5.2020) was equally belligerent in urging Boris Johnson to ‘get a grip’ by resisting ‘Corbynites engaging in a political war’ who had ‘whipped up’ a storm against ‘getting kids back to school...and the ability of parents to return to work and rebuild our shattered economy’.   

Perhaps not surprisingly those same newspapers had far less coverage – and scant condemnation – of the rapidly rising death toll that had resulted from the rush to transfer elderly patients from hospital beds to care homes when many of their staff lacked protective equipment.

By then fatalities among residents had risen to 15,000 with 131 deaths among social care staff.

Few care workers in privately owned homes, or employed by agencies, are union members. They lack the organised structures of the kind that safeguard teachers and having no collective voice they were not seen to be a threat to the government.

There could hardly have been a sharper contrast in the treatment meted out by the tabloids as they demonised the teachers’ leaders.

Day after day Dr Mary Bousted, the NEU’s ‘hard left’ joint general secretary, was cast as the evil villain, the ‘Corbynite lover of Communist Cuba who says the first word she learned was “strike”’ ( Daily Mail, 15.5.2020)

Pictured in an uncompromising pose, she stared out repeatedly from the pages of the Mail as the headlines hardened: ‘Held hostage by the zealots’ (16.5.2020); ‘Caught out by their own cynical words’ (20.5.2020).

Use of the tag ‘Corbynite’ to besmirch Dr Bousted and her colleague Kevin Courtney was convenient shorthand for the Daily Mail and Sun as they ramped up their attempt to blame the NEU for widening public concern about the push to re-open primary schools on June 1.

Despite their best efforts to stir up a hate campaign that began to resemble their onslaught against opponents of Brexit, the tabloids had no answer when an increasing number of education authorities refused to meet the government’s June 1 target. They said local infection rates were too high and their schools needed more time to prepare.

Boris Johnson, and later the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, agreed to further consultations with councils and teachers’ unions after conceding there would have to be a phased re-opening to ensure the safety of children and staff.

But with only days to go, after several members of the government’s scientific advisory group (SAGE) broke ranks and warned publicly that they believed the early re-opening of nurseries and primaries was unwise, the NEU re-affirmed its opposition to the June 1 start date and urged this should be delayed for another two weeks.

Given the broad front of anxious voices, rather than give a platform to those urging caution, Boris Johnson’s tabloid cheerleaders changed gear to talk up the benefits to the economy of starting to get children back to school.

The Daily Express added its weight to government efforts to encourage a return by younger children, claiming that it would help at least a million parents get back to work.

If all 2.1 million children in the relevant age groups were in school, this would enable 3.8 per cent of the total workforce in England to return to employment. (Daily Express, 30.5.2020).

The Sun of Sunday gave pride of place to a signed article by Education Secretary Gavin Williamson in which he insisted strict safety measures were in place while making no mention of the role of the teachers’ unions.

It was billed as a plea from the heart of government: ‘Every school must take back more kids, every parent must back it. The virus must not kill children’s futures’. (Sun on Sunday, 31.5.2020)

After initially being vilified, the teachers’ unions were side lined and ignored as union bashing temporarily took a back seat.

Illustrations: Daily Mail, 20.5.2020; The Guardian, 4.6.2020.