The soul searching of a former BBC correspondent
Just like the sustained scare story over weapons of mass destruction which preceded the war against Iraq, the year-long pit dispute was played out against an equally well-entrenched narrative aimed in this case at demonising the “enemy within”. For the British news media, the confrontation between Margaret Thatcher and Arthur Scargill had as much potency as the fight to the finish with Saddam Hussein. Many journalists have reflected ruefully on the way they were taken in by the pro-war propaganda of George Bush and Tony Blair in the months leading up to the US offensive in March 2003 and similarly when I think back to my reporting of the 1984-5 strike I have to admit that in the end I got ensnared by the seeming inevitability of the Thatcherite story line that the mineworkers had to be defeated in order to smash trade union militancy.With the benefit of hindsight, and the subsequent evidence of a vindictive pit closure programme which continued during the decade which followed the strike, perhaps the news media should own up to a collective failure of judgement comparable to that during the build-up to the Iraq war. As most journalists have since acknowledged, not enough was done to question the pre-war intelligence so as to determine the true nature of the threat posed by Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons and likewise the same charge could perhaps be levelled against the industrial and labour correspondents of the 1980s.
My erstwhile colleagues might not agree with my conclusion but I do not think any of us ever imagined that such was the Conservatives’ contempt for the National Coal Board, and so great was the Thatcherite fear and hatred of the National Union of Mineworkers, that the Tories would end up all but destroying the British coal industry and marginalising a valuable source of energy. Perhaps we should have been more sceptical. For my own part, I probably took it for granted that the Conservatives still believed that coal had a future once the uneconomic pits had been closed and I certainly did not suspect that the Tories would force through a closure programme which would exceed even the direst predictions of the NUM President about the existence of a hidden “hit list”.To Scargill and many union activists the dividing line could not have been clearer: journalists were part and parcel of the class enemy and he always predicted they would instinctively support Thatcher. That charge was reinforced in April 2004 during events to mark the 20th anniversary of the strike when, in his role as the union’s honorary president, Scargill accused the news media of trying to rewrite events by denying that it had been “the most principled struggle in British trade union history”.
While I would contend that broadcasters like myself tried valiantly to represent both sides of the dispute, we did have to work within what had become an all-powerful narrative: the country could not afford to continue subsidising uneconomic coal mines, devastating though that might be for their communities; the strike itself was a denial of democracy because there had been no pit head ballot, and the violence on the miners’ picket lines, by challenging the rule of law, constituted a threat to the democratic government of the country. In the final months of the strike, once it became clear there was no longer any chance of a negotiated settlement, the balance of coverage tipped almost completely in the management’s favour. And therefore I do accept, as Media Hits The Pits subsequently argued, that most radio and television journalists became, in effect, the cheerleaders for the return to work. By then the narrative had progressed to a much simpler story line: the outcome would depend on the NCB’s success in persuading miners to abandon the strike and rejoin their pits. The media’s attention was focussed on the “new faces” who were going back to work. For the newspapers these men were the heroes; television pictures, filmed from behind police lines, showed them being bussed into their pits, braving the pickets. The news agenda had been turned to the government’s advantage. Once the NCB could claim that half the men were back at work, Mrs Thatcher would declare victory, as eventually she did.
Had we known then that defeat of the NUM would not suffice and that the Conservatives would accelerate the plunder of North Sea gas reserves for power generation rather than sustain a viable coal industry, perhaps we might have done far more at the time to have scrutinised the government’s true intentions and highlighted both the remarkable solidarity of the pit villages and the threat which the closures posed to the cohesion of their communities. Wilful destruction of great industries and their workforces was rapidly turning Thatcher into a hate figure in Britain’s industrial heartlands and that shared sense of loss finally crossed the class divide within months of John Major’s re-election as Prime Minister in 1992 when Michael Heseltine announced unexpectedly that because of falling demand for coal from the privatised electricity industry, British Coal would have to close thirty one of the fifty pits that remained in operation and shed another 30,000 jobs. Despite all that the miners had done to improve efficiency, the “dash for gas” presented a cheaper option. As my own researches confirmed at the time, it had slowly dawned on British Coal’s management that the industry itself and the public at large had been hoodwinked: viable pits would have to be closed simply because it was more cost effective in the short term to build new gas-fired rather than the more expensive coal-fired power stations. There had been similar consternation before the privatisation of British Gas in 1986 when to the dismay of the then chairman, Sir Denis Rooke, the Conservatives first encouraged the use of natural gas to generate electricity rather than conserve it as a premium fuel for household use.
While the complexities surrounding the competing price structures of coal, gas and electricity passed most people by there was a general recognition that the public had been misled and the unfairness of what was happening was plain to see: the pits were being decimated out of political and commercial expediency. By then consciences had been well and truly stirred in the prosperous south east of England and the miners’ plight had come to symbolise the growing unease over the social cost of wanton industrial vandalism. When the NUM organised a march through London to coincide with a critical House of Commons vote on the Heseltine closure programme it attracted 100,00 protesters and drew support from across the capital; twice as many attended the TUC’s mass rally in Hyde Park the following Sunday.
Even though I have spent much of my career trying to keep abreast of the highs and lows of the coal industry, I found it a humbling experience digging into my files and turning over the newspaper front pages for 22 and 26 October 1992. If only the miners and their union had been able to win over the right-wing press in the way they did that week, Mrs Thatcher might well have been forced to negotiate her way out the strike.Almost filling the Sun’s front page was a photograph of “a mighty army of miners” whose march for coal and jobs “won the support of Britain’s diehard Tories”. To the paper’s evident surprise even “Sloane Rangers left their tables at swanky eateries and customers poured from posh boutiques in Kensington and Chelsea to wave them on”. Instead of the invective of the 1980s, the Sun’s editorial reflected the mood on the streets: “The miners’ conduct yesterday was exemplary. They are men of honour”. For the Daily Mail it had been a day of “quiet dignity” when the miners and their families brought their “peaceful protest to London” in “marked contrast to the ugly, violent scenes which characterised the 1984 strike”.
Six Conservative Mps voted against the government and others abstained, cutting the government’s majority to thirteen, but although Heseltine promised a further review and a temporary reprieve for ten pits, the protests ultimately proved futile as the closures went ahead. Nonetheless it begged the question: if it was possible to force the Major government on to the defensive through the combined pressure of two demonstrations, a backbench revolt and a critical media, why had the NUM been unable to mobilise that same level of support when it mattered most of all in 1984?By the early 1990s the prism through which the miners were being reported had changed dramatically. Strikes were no longer regarded as the threat they had been at the start of the Thatcher decade; privatisation of state-owned enterprises had weakened national pay bargaining in many key industries; and union membership had halved. But more importantly the media’s narrative had turned decisively against the Conservatives and it was far easier for the NUM to win public sympathy. Mrs Thatcher had been ousted after the fiasco of the poll tax and despite winning the 1992 general election, John Major’s political standing had been shattered by the Black Wednesday debacle of British withdrawal from the European exchange rate mechanism. While it was of no long-term comfort to the miners, their sympathetic treatment almost a decade after the strike illustrated the ever-changing focus of the news agenda and the all important part it can play. I share the conclusion reached by the authors of Media Hits The Pits that the role of the mass media “was not itself decisive to the final outcome” of the 1984-5 strike but I do think that if the media’s near-unanimous narrative had not been so hostile to the NUM and had instead done more to challenge the government, then Mrs Thatcher might well have been forced to reach a negotiated settlement during the initial phase of the dispute.
Again, with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that what became a make or break strike for the trade union movement, was being conducted during a period of unprecedented expansion in the media which in turn was having a profound effect on the way news was being reported. Breakfast-time television was building up its audience after being launched by BBC and TV-AM in 1983; there was new investment in regional television programming; local radio stations were opening up across the country; and the national newspapers, which were benefiting from increased advertising revenue, had more editorial space to give to columnists and commentators.
News bulletins and discussion programmes were available morning, noon and night providing a non-stop national and local arena for information, comment and opinion. Trade union leaders who had previously shunned the media, believing they could rely solely on the movement’s industrial strength, were having to come to terms with the impact of 24/7 reporting and the way powerful forces could manipulate the news agenda and influence the all-important narrative that framed the day’s coverage. Such was the strength of the Thatcherite story line against the NUM that it became all-embracing. Newspaper proprietors were only too keen to ensure Scargill and the miners were defeated, hoping no doubt it would be of help in their own subsequent confrontation with the print unions (and within months of the NUM’s defeat Rupert Murdoch began recruiting alternative print workers for his new plant at Wapping). While traditionally the left had been able to ignore the right-wing press and appeal directly to the membership for solidarity, the anti-union propaganda was proving to be far more pervasive than in previous disputes because the narrative was beginning to be joined up across the output of the many new and competing media outlets.
A review of the morning papers had become a vital component of the breakfast television programmes providing a new and expanding showcase for newspaper front pages. More often than not the headlines and pictures tended to highlight picket-line violence, lavish praise on the working miners and demonise Scargill. Opinionated columnists were given free rein to adopt highly partisan positions which were reflected in the radio and television coverage and often provoked further controversy on the daily talk shows and phone-ins. Expanded news bulletins over breakfast, at lunchtime and in the early evening gave correspondents extra air time to give a running commentary on the combined efforts of the NCB, government and police to thwart the pickets and break the strike.Scargill was no mean opponent in reaching out to journalists and often, single-handed, he managed to command the attention of Fleet Street and the radio and television news rooms. But his skill in projecting himself masked the failure of the miners’ union to devise a communications strategy to counter the far superior news management being orchestrated on behalf of the government by advertising and public relations consultants. Scargill’s repeated declaration that the media should be regarded as the enemy played into Mrs Thatcher’s hands. Reporters were simply not welcome in numerous pit villages and such was the hostility towards television crews that they had little alternative but to seek protection behind police lines where they had a greater chance of obtaining the all-important footage of the latest “new faces” abandoning the strike.
Once corralled in this way, television crews and photographers were as limited in what they could observe as embedded reporters were in the Iraq War. Radio and television coverage of the latter stages of the miners’ strike provided a foretaste of what has become the Achilles heel of the modern news media. If the opportunities to take pictures are restricted and there is a dearth of new information, broadcasters may find they have no alternative but to live with a degree of distortion rather than have nothing else to offer listeners and viewers. Given the increased competition, constant demand for new images and ever-tighter deadlines, it is no longer an option to say that nothing has happened. Come what may, news bulletins have to be updated.
I quite accept that the media could have done far more to reflect the positive side of the 1984-5 dispute and the breadth of support from across the country for the miners and their families, whether it was street collections, deliveries of food, clothes and toys or countless other acts of solidarity. However, help often had to be given without public recognition for fear of attracting the attention of the police and the organisers did not want their clandestine efforts to be publicised.Nevertheless one positive legacy of the troubled relationship between journalists and NUM activists is that no union has ever repeated the mistake of alienating a group of reporters assigned to cover a strike. Recent fire fighters’ disputes have provided a telling illustration of media awareness. Whenever possible television reporters seized the chance to conclude their reports with a piece-to-camera filmed from outside a fire station. The brazier would always be well alight; the flames would help light up the shot; and standing around in a dignified way would be fire fighters carrying placards in support of their wage claim. The FBU had learned a valuable lesson: let the pictures help tell the story.The decade I spent reporting industrial and trade union affairs had a profound effect on my outlook and, without doubt, the year-long pit dispute was the most momentous assignment during a fifty year career. Reporters rarely indulge in soul searching but I freely admit that what has troubled me most of all was coverage of the miners’ struggle and the minimal editorial scrutiny of the subsequent ruination of their once great industry. Although industrial and labour reporting commands nothing like the attention it once did, I hope the 25th anniversary of the strike will encourage a reflective mood on the part of the media and a recognition that any thoughts which journalists might have harboured at the time about the Conservative government’s good faith towards the future of the coal industry were tragically misplaced.
First published in Shafted: The Media, the Miners' strike and the Aftermath, published by the Campaign for press and Broadcasting Freedom, March 2009. (www.cpbf.org.uk) Media Hits the Pits, published by CPBF, 1985.Nicholas Jones was labour correspondent for BBC Radio News. He won two awards for his coverage of the 1984-5 pit dispute: he was named industrial journalist of the year by the Industrial Society and presented with the annual “golden bollock” by his colleagues in the labour and industrial correspondents group for having reported in early February 1995 that the strike could be “over within days” on the strength of a leak from the South Wales NUM that there might be a return to work without an agreement. In fact the strike lasted for another four weeks. Jones is the author of Strikes and the Media (1986).