Remaining at ease in front of camera, and fearless in the face of hostile questioning, is a tough call when caught in the eye of a media storm, a challenge that did not unsettle the rail union leader Mick Lynch.
His skill in standing his ground while forcing several renowned television presenters on to the back foot won him many plaudits during the 18 months of strike action in the RMT pay dispute with the rail operators.
Taking on all comers at impromptu doorstep news conferences was a strategy that helped to establish Lynch as a media personality, a transformation that did not happen just by chance.
Gregor Gall’s biography of the RMT leader – Mick Lynch: The Making of a Working-class Hero – reveals the thinking behind the union’s media strategy.
Having seen how “unfazed and agile” Lynch was when addressing union meetings or being interviewed by the media, the RMT press officer John Millington considered how best to deploy their “secret weapon”:
“I suggested a rough-and-ready press conference outside our HQ – with Lynch fielding questions from journalists I invited. This way, people got to see an articulate, working-class union leader speak plainly, ducking no questions clearly setting out the union’s position.”
Lynch had an innate understanding of how to play along his media tormentors while seemingly going directly over their heads to get across his message, but the tactic might easily have backfired.
During the many years I spent at the front of the media pack, arm outstretched with my microphone, I witnessed countless examples of union leaders and politicians failing to seize the moment, stumbling in their responses, clearly harassed by the jostling in front of them.
Like Lynch, Arthur Scargill clearly thrived on such media melees during the 1984-85 miners’ strike, but the NUM President could not resist the chance to berate what he said was the bias of the “vermin” in front of him, who would forever “go on supporting Mrs Thatcher.”
In recent years Donald Trump’s outbursts against the US mainstream media at presidential election rallies have more than matched Scargill’s menace and bombast, whipping his audience into a frenzy with tirades about the dishonesty of reporters corralled in cordoned-off media pens.
Firing up their supporters, be they strikers or voters, was a priority for Scargill as it is for Trump, and the tactic of blaming the journalists in their midst for the hostility they faced only increased their media profile.
Scargill explained to me that NUM members applauded him because they had direct experience themselves of media bias – a justification that Trump would undoubtedly endorse.
When provoked during doorstep confrontations in the RMT dispute, Lynch avoided the potential pitfall of a blanket denigration of all journalists, preferring instead to express what Gall described as “mild bemusement” at the evident ignorance displayed in some of the questions, only occasionally becoming a “little rattled”.
A bad-tempered exchange with Richard Madeley on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, was a perfect illustration of what turned the RMT leader into a TV star.
Lynch, although clearly exasperated and irritated, did not become visibly angry and instead mocked Madeley’s failings as an interviewer:
“You’re just ranting now. You’re just talking to yourself, now, Richard. Why don’t you just interview yourself?”
Gall’s is to be congratulated on his painstaking research into Lynch’s rise through the ranks of the RMT and his success in building a high public profile.
Union bashing in the Tory tabloid press and their attempt to demonise him as a latter-day Scargill worked to Lynch’s advantage and he retained his folk hero status despite the RMT voting overwhelmingly in November to accept an offer that he conceded was “very modest” and not as good as he might have hoped.
When the book went to print, the dispute still had several months to run so Gall had no way of knowing how it might end.
Instead, Gall used an opinion column in The Guardian (27.12.2023) to offer his concluding thoughts on the effectiveness of the RMT’s strike action and his assessment of Lynch’s record as RMT leader.
His judgement was harsh: Lynch’s status as “a magnetic leftwing figurehead is undeniable”, but he had “arguably failed to stave off a government attack on rail workers conducted under the guise of modernisation”.
At issue was the value of the pay deal and a failure to gain a promise of no compulsory redundancies beyond December 2024.
When the RMT finally voted to end the long running dispute Lynch insisted the union would continue to fight against any attempt by the train operators to allow their terms and conditions to be “cut to pieces”.
I sided with Lynch: with Christmas in the offing, it was far better to accept a pay rise of 5 per cent back dated to 2022 and job security guarantees, while at the same time preserving the “steadfastness” of the membership to mount another vigorous defence of their terms and conditions.
Train operators will continue to push for greater flexible working. If Labour do win the general election and it is all change in the management of the railways, any RMT leader will still need to repeat the deft foot work that Lynch displayed in the 2022-23 rail dispute.
Mick Lynch The Making of a Working-class Hero by Gregor Gall, published by Manchester University Press, £20.00