Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

 

Journalism at Your Service? 

International Journalism Festival, Perugia, 1.4.2009 

 

Two questions should trouble the journalists of Britain, Europe and America as we work through what will be a terrible year for the world economy. Why, during the boom years, didn’t we do more to investigate what was really happening in the financial markets?  And are journalists in danger now of being deflected from the task of holding our governments, banks and institutions to account? Journalists can play their part in serving the public interest by investigating what went wrong, by scrutinising what the politicians are saying, and by helping to ensure that rigorous controls are introduced to prevent the damaging financial speculation of the past.  

The recent dramatic fall in newspaper circulation and advertising revenue – especially among regional daily and local weekly newspapers -- could have a profound effect on the public relations industry. Such has been the loss of jobs among reporters and sub-editors, that in one respect the pr industry might gain.  Journalists are already over dependent on the constant supply of news and information being issued by the public relations and public affairs industries and that over-reliance is bound to get worse, making it ever more likely that news releases will be published without the kind of journalistic challenges and checks that should have been made.

When Arthur Scargill visited the Camp for Climate Change erected outside the Kingsnorth coal-fired power station in Kent in August 2008, he found himself at odds with a group of activists who back in the 1980s might well have joined him in challenging the policies of Margaret Thatcher.  Undaunted by the placards of environmental campaigners declaring “No new coal”, he used his guest appearance as honorary president of the National Union of Mineworkers to mount a valiant defence of the need for a new and integrated energy policy based on coal and renewables which he hoped would result in the closure of all nuclear power stations.  Delighted though they were both by the publicity which Scargill attracted and his criticism of the stop-and-search powers being exercised by riot police around the camp, the protestors seemed in no mood to be swayed by what smacked of special pleading by the NUM and they were adamant that if there was to be any real chance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, there had to be a ban on any future investment in coal-fired generation.  Nonetheless Scargill was as ambitious as ever in presenting an action plan to revive the coal industry: + closed pits should be re-opened.+ coal production should be increased to 250 million tons a year (more than twice the level of the pre-1984 level out of output).+ approval should be given for the construction of a new generation of coal-fired power stations designed to incorporate the latest carbon capture technology. 

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.

The 25th anniversary of the pit dispute has provided a timely opportunity to reveal what happened when I become Arthur Scargill's stand-in driver at the height of the strike:

 Using my BBC reporters car in the middle of the 1984-5 miners strike to give Arthur Scargill a lift to London was not something which I ever dared to mention in my broadcasts about the pit dispute.  Just days before our four-hour drive, he had been arrested and subsequently injured during the Battle of Orgreave when ten thousand pickets faced four thousand police officers.  The near-unanimous view of the press was that the President of the National Union of Mineworkers posed an even greater danger to the state than he did at the start of the dispute.  Scargill shunned almost all personal contact with journalists during the year-long strike and he remains as aloof today.  My brief stint as his stand-in driver came about by chance.  I have to admit that at the time nothing from our conversation struck me as being particularly newsworthy; Scargill was too astute for that. But I ended up feeling at a slight disadvantage, fearing I could have compromised my own impartiality and might be accused of taking sides in the dispute.  Once the strike was over I occasionally re-read my notes and, as the years went by, I began to realise that I possessed a rare insight into the thinking and personal routines of the union leader who commanded the most divisive industrial dispute since the general strike of 1926.