Strike action at a rate unprecedented for recent years and the prospect of another severe tightening of restraints on trade union activity are reawakening demands for more informed news reporting about pay disputes and employment issues.
The lack of in-depth coverage was highlighted at a fringe meeting at the Labour Conference in Liverpool, organised by The World Transformed, which discussed the reasons why workers’ grievances get such short shrift in the news media.
Some leading media outlets are starting to hire specialist staff, prompting speculation that there might be a revival – even a resurrection – of the once mighty Labour and Industrial Correspondents Group.
Business reporters at leading broadcasters such as BBC, Sky News and ITN usually include employment issues in their briefs, but the BBC’s business unit is about to appoint a specialist industrial correspondent on a three-month attachment – another indication of an expanding workload that is resulting from the increased level of disruption.
Strikes on the railways, at the docks, stoppages in postal deliveries and other industrial action – or threats of it – across the public sector have shown no sign of abating.
Given the inflationary pressures that have been exacerbated still further by the hiatus over the fall in the value of the pound in the wake of the Conservatives’ tax-cutting mini budget, there are renewed warnings that heightened inflationary pressures and an uncontrolled wage spiral could trigger a repeat of the 1978-79 “Winter of Discontent”.
Since publication in 2011 of my book The Lost Tribe: Whatever Happened to Fleet Street’s Industrial Correspondents? the relatively few disputes of recent years have been covered by business journalists or latterly by political correspondents given the preponderance of disputes in public services where there is a direct government responsibility.
At the Liverpool event on the Labour fringe there was no shortage of questions for the panel to address:
Why is the British public so ill informed about industrial disputes?
Why is the dominant Conservative-supporting press more interested in trashing trade union leaders than in explaining the reasons behind industrial action?
Will Tory tabloid newspapers back Prime Minister Liz Truss in her crackdown on “militant union barons” as slavishly as they supported Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s?
Emiliano Mellino, who chaired the event, is a journalist for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and writes The Week in Work newsletter.
Before that he had been with the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain and became their head of communications, dealing directly with questions from journalists, an experience which he had found disheartening.
All too often the focus was on “gotcha” questions which he said misrepresented how unions operated and failed to analyse the causes of disputes.
News coverage of recent strikes had oscillated between the hostile and the farcical.
However, one encouraging result from input of the Independent Workers’ Union was that he found more and more reporters did have a better understanding, for example, of the employment rights of Uber drivers, couriers, and others in the gig economy.
After years of campaigning there had been a breakthrough: their status as workers did now have legal backing. Their level of pay was protected under minimum wage regulations, and they had a right to holiday pay and pensions, although they still did not qualify for sick pay or have protection from unfair dismissal.
Another of the panellists, Polly Smythe, agreed that the problems faced by workers in the gig economy had been attracting greater interest from the media and that reporters were better informed than in the past.
She had written about the sector before becoming labour movement correspondent for the independent media organisation, Novara Media.
During the first three months in her new post, she had come face to face with the barriers journalists can encounter when reporting strikes and disputes.
Trade union leaders were now as determined as employers to control the message and only a select few at union headquarters tended to be authorised to speak to the media or give interviews.
Inside information was often hard to come by and inevitably press officers rarely departed from the official line.
Visiting picket lines could also be unproductive as activists were under instructions to stick to what was being said nationally.
Their quotes were usually resolutely upbeat, and Polly acknowledged her frustration: often it was not easy to get the bottom of what was really going on between union leaders and management.
Another disappointment was a dearth of contemporary coverage of employment issues and trade union affairs.
So little seemed to have been written or published in recent years about the underlying reasons for labour disputes that it was hard for newcomers to the industrial beat to read up on what had happened.
My role as a panellist was to explain the background to the demise of industrial and labour correspondents during the 1990s and remind the audience what it was like in the days when members of the group had a commanding presence in print and on the airwaves.
In the late 1970s and 1980s I was one of three industrial correspondents at BBC Radio; there two a BBC TV centre; each of the BBC regional newsrooms had their own correspondents.
National newspapers were equally well staffed with even larger teams on titles such as The Times and Financial Times.
Local daily and weekly newspapers all had reporters assigned to the industrial and labour beat. When I was with the evening Oxford Mail in the 1960s there was a team of three.
These were decades when industrial reporting could not be left to chance. Miners’ strikes in 1972 and 1974 led to rota power cuts and the three-day week; the year-long pit dispute of 1984-85 was a fight to the finish between Arthur Scargill and Margaret Thatcher.
The defeat of the National Union of Mineworkers, and the failure a year later of the printworkers’ doomed struggle to prevent Rupert Murdoch switching his newspaper production to Wapping, closed a chapter in the history of workers’ struggles.
The days of indefinite all-out strike were over. Strikes in the future would be limited to two or three days at the most and with a halving of union membership within a decade, there was a steady and ultimately dramatic fall in the number of days being lost.
Successive steps by Mrs Thatcher’s government to tighten employment laws, end the closed shop, ban mass picketing, and put union funds at risk for unlawful action, were powerful constraints.
By the late 1980s and early 1990s the number of industrial and correspondents was already in sharp decline and that trend continued under the Labour government of Tony Blair which kept in place the Conservatives’ straight jacket on union activity.
Privatisation of the nationalised industries – and the regular release of cut-price shares in privatised undertakings – was a further boost to the reach of business correspondents who began to assume a greater role in reporting employment and industrial news.
Before long there was a noticeable lack of informed reportage with fewer and fewer journalists having an in depth understanding of employment and trade union affairs.
Workers’ grievances, once the domain of specialist reporters, would end up being assessed from a business standpoint with the perspective of employers and management being the dominant influence.
As the years slipped by former labour and industrial correspondents became increasingly frustrated at the scant attention the news media paid to the world of work.
Perhaps the shock of trade unions co-ordinating strikes in a way not seen before, and the prospect of a government delivering tough new restraints on industrial stoppages, will encourage a more informed response from the news media.