Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

Margaret Thatcher’s decade in power resulted in an economic revolution in the United Kingdom...and also changed the face of the British news media. So successful was she in defeating the trade union movements and in privatising the nationalised industries that a band of reporters who had once ruled the roost ended up writing themselves out of the script. 

The Lost Tribe: Whatever Happened to Fleet Street’s Industrial Correspondents? is the title of the book I published in 2011 charting the demise of the journalists who had hogged the headlines for decades but who then disappeared almost without trace from the reportage of daily news.

Their downfall was not simply the result of the dramatic decline in the number of all-out strikes but also the corresponding and spectacular growth of the City of London and the emerging dominance of financial news.

Margaret Thatcher’s step-by-step assault on trade union power and the break-up of loss-making nationalised industries had terrible consequences for Britain’s industrial heartlands: empty factories, mass redundancies and an unemployment rate that topped three million left terrible scars, not least in the mining communities ravaged by pit closures.

Union membership topped twelve million in the final year of the Wilson-Callaghan government but it was the prolonged strike action of the so-called “winter of discontent” in 1978-79 which paved the way for Margaret Thatcher’s general election victory.

Perhaps it was always going to be only a matter of time before an online insurgency combined with direct action forced the government to retreat on a key employment issue and in the process comprehensively upstage the trade union movement.

In the face of a hostile campaign which succeeded in alarming and embarrassing major employers of young people such as Tesco, Burger King, Waterstones, TK Maxx and the Arcadia group, the Minister of State for Employment Chris Grayling had no alternative but to execute a swift U-turn.

Campaigning to stop the removal of social security benefits from 16-24 year olds who dropped out of a voluntary work experience scheme was a cause which union leaders should have championed from the start but their pitiful record in recruiting youngsters employed in fast food, retailing and other service sector jobs had left the field wide open to the political activists behind groups like the Right to Work campaign.

By trying so belatedly to climb aboard the civil disobedience band wagon, Len McCluskey, general secretary of Britain’s largest union Unite, only underlined the dramatic upstaging of the union movement by a host of direct action groups which use the internet, social networking, messaging and the like to put the frighteners on major employers. 

Their online campaigning – for example by accusing Tesco of taking advantage of “slave labour” – was an illustration of the way the front line for industrial action has been transformed by the ability of activists to mobilise support, whether for a Twitter campaign against Tesco or a protest sit-in at McDonald’s in Whitehall.

After fifty years as a reporter and then broadcasters there is no doubt in my mind as to who were my two most intransigent interviewees: the Reverend Ian Paisley and Arthur Scargill. 

In the 1970s, as a correspondent reporting the Northern Ireland Troubles, I frequently interviewed Paisley, especially during the two week strike organised by the Ulster Workers’ Council which brought down the 1974 power-sharing assembly and executive. Paisley had championed the mobilisation of Protestant power station workers to bring Northern Ireland to a halt.

A decade later I faced an equally defiant– but eventually unsuccessful – Arthur Scargill as he led the National Union of Mineworkers in the 1984-5 strike against pit closures.

I could not help thinking of Paisley, lying in the Ulster Hospital being treated for a heart problem, as I listened to Scargill speaking in Birmingham at a rallyto commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Battle of Saltley Gates on February 10, 1972.

The Battle of Saltley Gates, outside the Saltley coke depot, was a demonstration of the power of the flying picket, the industrial muscle which Scargill mobilised to a devastating effect and which proved so strong that the then Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath was forced to concede a 27 per cent pay increase for the mineworkers.  

One of my first assignments with the BBC was reporting the rota power cuts of 1972 and their alarming impact was a foretaste of the disruption that Northern Ireland faced in 1974.

Four decades later Scargill told the rally to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Saltley demonstration that although he was older he was just as determined, ready and willing to lead a “British spring” to bring down capitalism and create a fairer system of socialism.

Blanket coverage of the withdrawal of Fred Goodwin’s knighthood was another graphic illustration of the dominant position of financial news in today’s 24/7 media environment.  But for once there was – at least to begin with – a level playing field.

By using a government website to make the declaration that the Honours Forfeiture Committee had made its decision, Downing Street circumvented the anonymous briefings which drive so much of the financial news agenda.

A statement was posted on the Cabinet Office’s website at 5pm (31.1.2012) stating that it would be announced in the London Gazette that the knighthood conferred on Goodwin had been “cancelled and annulled”.  The scale and severity of his actions as chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland made it an exceptional case; he had brought the “honours system into disrepute.”

Headlines on the front pages of next day’s national newspapers denounced Goodwin in the lurid terms which have dogged him for the last four years – a level of abuse which has placed “Fred the Shred” on a par with the former mineworkers’ president Arthur Scargill who was turned into a similar hate figure thirty years ago.

From the very moment Goodwin was forced to resign in 2008 after RBS had to be bailed out by the taxpayer, he was subjected to a sustained campaign of press abuse, the kind of blanket character assassination not seen since the 1980s when the trade union leaders who stood out against Margaret Thatcher had their reputations trashed by the tabloids.

For the former mineworkers’ leader Arthur Scargill the last few weeks of 2011 will be a poignant reminder of the power which he once wielded over the British coal industry and the left of the trade union movement.

December the 8th is the 30th anniversary of Scargill’s election as President of the National Union of Mineworkers – and this December also looks like marking the end of the road for what seems to have become an increasingly desperate attempt to continue influencing the NUM’s day-to-day affairs.