Secretly-filmed images of injured and apparently tortured dissenters lying shackled to their beds in a Syrian military hospital are another graphic reminder of the way devices such as mobile phone cameras have revolutionised the reporting of protests and uprisings.
Hardly a day goes by when television news bulletins do not feature dramatic pictures – either from the Arab spring or perhaps a demonstration on the streets of London – and their influence on public opinion cannot be under-estimated.
If thirty years ago there had been the kind of footage which activists can upload now on to the internet via video sharing sites like YouTube, there might well have been a different outcome to historic British struggles like the 1984-5 pit strike.
Photographers and camera crews were regularly corralled and held back behind Police lines during the violent industrial confrontations of the 1980s. As a result there were very few of the graphic images which feature so prominently in today’s newspapers and television news bulletins and which show almost as-live footage of the conditions facing protestors as they are being driven back by police or security forces..
One striking image from the notorious 1984 Battle of Orgreave at the height of the pit strike – showing a mounted policeman raising his baton against a woman protestor – came to symbolise, especially for the left, the doomed struggle by mining communities to protect their jobs.
A photograph captured by chance illustrated the one-sided nature of the conflict and the mineworkers’ vulnerability in the face of the massive superiority of the massed ranks of mounted police officers. But one fleeting image, reproduced by a few newspapers, had nothing like the impact of the sustained output of today’s citizen journalists.
Just think what the response might have been if strikers who took on Margaret Thatcher’s government had been able to upload their own footage of a picket’s eye view of being charged by mounted police or the often unrecorded violence and brutality which they say occurred in the mining villages.
In his reports for Channel 4 News and the Daily Mail (5.3.2012), foreign affairs correspondent Jonathan Miller pays tribute to the bravery of the Syrian hospital worker who captured “horrific” video evidence of the “unthinkable torturing of patients” in the Homs military hospital; he “risked his life” while covertly filming wards “full of wounded men, blindfolded and shackled to their beds”.
The iconic image of the 1984-5 pit dispute – at least in the eyes of the left – was captured by John Harris, a young photographer working for the International Freelance Library, and it showed a woman supporter Lesley Boulton trying to shield herself as a mounted policeman raises his baton.
Harris said because the Police corralled photographers at Orgreave he took the risk one morning of going into the confrontation with the miners. He remembered being knocked over into a garden and then saw that a police charge that had passed, was coming back towards him.
“There was a police horse right next to me. What you cannot actually see in the picture, which is a vertical crop of an image taken with a wide-angle lens, is that there’s the boot of a mounted police officer right next to me.
“Anyway, the officer in the picture shouted: ‘I’ll have you as well, you bitch’ and he came cantering down and took a swing at her; if you look closely at the picture you’ll see a miner has grabbed her belt and pulled her back so that he just missed her.”
Each time I see graphic video footage from Syria or from the other confrontations that have occurred during the Arab spring, my mind goes to the 1984-5 pit strike, watching the incoming television footage from collieries around the country where working miners, with police escorts, were being bussed through the picket lines.
The “new faces” as they became known were for newspapers like the Sun the heroes of the pit dispute and whether we liked it or not, radio and television, ended up becoming the cheerleaders for the return to work.
Television crews were not welcome in the mining villages and for their own safety were required to stay behind police lines filming the coaches as they sped to the pit head with yet more of the working miners.
My task each Monday morning as a correspondent for BBC Radio 4 was to pull together a national picture and provide a regular update on rate of the return to work. When half the men were back at the pits Margaret Thatcher declared that the strike was over and at a special delegate conference in London there was a majority vote to return to work without an agreement, thus ending Britain’s longest and most violent industrial dispute.
I cannot help thinking now what might have been. As the strike dragged on so did the scale of the public’s sympathy for the plight of the mining communities and the growing unease about the use of the Police to crush an industrial dispute.
If there had been then the graphic reportage which we can witness today from violent uprisings and protests from around the world, then I think there would have been every chance that Mrs Thatcher might not have got her way; a sustained crackdown by the police of the kind witnessed in 1984-5 would have been unsustainable if there had been anything like the eyewitness footage and pictures that can be captured today on a mobile phone.
Illustrations: Orgreave picture (reproduced in The Independent) by John Harris, reportdigital.co.uk; Daily Mail, 5 February, 2012