A journalist of fifty years standing offers a personal and independent assessment of the often troubled relationship between public figures and the British news media. My aim is to try to monitor events and issues affecting the ethics of journalism and the latest developments in the rapidly-changing world of press, television, radio and the Internet. Expect too an insight into the black arts of media manipulation. So spin-doctors, Beware!
January 2015 marks the 30th anniversary of the Campaign for Freedom of Information and the 10th anniversary of the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act. A new book, FOI 10 years on: freedom fighting or lazy journalism (Abramis) is due to be published in February 2015).Nicholas Jones explores the errors of judgements that led to self-inflicted humiliation, and that culminated, after four years’ prevarication, in calamitous repercussions for confidence in the political process.
British politicians have continued to pay a heavy price for the House of Commons’ wilful obstruction of the disclosure required by the Freedom of Information Act. An explosion of public anger in May 2009 that followed revelations about the way Members of Parliament had abused their expenses, and in some cases even defrauded the taxpayer, was far greater and lasted far longer than would probably have been the case if the Parliamentary authorities had started answering journalists’ inquiries as soon as the Act finally took effect in January 2005. The lesson of the Westminster expenses scandal is that if a managed release of information is rejected, and then subsequently thwarted, journalists will always try to retaliate and that illicitly-acquired data can invariably find a buyer in today’s competitive media market place.
Being asked to apologise for the BBC’s reporting thirty years ago of the 1984-5 pit strike comes as no surprise to the journalists who covered the most divisive industrial dispute of post-war Britain.
To this day miners who took part in the strike accuse the BBC and the rest of the main stream news media of siding with Margaret Thatcher during the year-long struggle in which the South Wales coalfield played a pivotal role.
It was perhaps only to be expected that the bitterness of the National Union of Mineworkers’ defeat at the hands of Mrs Thatcher should resurface during my lecture hosted by Cardiff University (18.11.2014), as it has during other talks I have given in the once mighty coalfields.
Former miners and their supporters from the wider trade union movement accuse journalists of failing to report the true extent of what they contend was police brutality on the picket line and for doing too little to highlight family hardship and for not recognising that the pit villages were in a fight to the finish to maintain the mining communities.
I have already acknowledged my own soul searching: in the final months of the strike broadcasters did become what I call the cheer leaders for the return to work.
After analysing the contradictions and cover-ups exposed in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet papers about the 1984-5 pit dispute, the National Union of Mineworkers has called for “a full, transparent and open debate” about her government’s tactics during the strike.
While secret information about the role of the police and security services continues to be withheld from public scrutiny, the union says the men and families affected by the strike will never be able to secure the full truth about the extent of the government’s involvement.
But the consequences of the action taken by Mrs Thatcher and her ministers were undeniable and the time had come for an explanation as to why her government saw fit to “sustain a vicious and brutal attack on hundreds of thousands of tax-paying, law-abiding citizens”.
Eye-witness statements from strikers, police reports and parliamentary answers have been used with great effect to give added insight to the revelations contained in the cabinet office records.
When pieced together, along with data collected under Freedom of Information and from documents held by the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, the NUM has produced a compelling account of secret measures taken by both the government and the National Coal Board during the year-long stoppage.
David Cameron’s choice of the word “purred” said it all: a Bullingdon Club posh boy at his most patronising, boasting about his conversation with the Queen.
The Prime Minister should have needed no reminding of the danger of loose talk in the vicinity of radio and television microphones.
John Major’s condemnation of the “bastards”, like Gordon Brown’s tirade against that “bigoted woman”, at least had the merit of being expressions of anger and frustration.
Cameron’s gaffe was of an entirely different order: here he was sneakily revealing – and almost taking the credit for – the Queen’s pleasure at the result of the Scottish referendum, a breach of the royal confidentiality that Prime Ministers were respecting long before he was even born.
Ed Miliband could hardly have done any more to damage his battered reputation for fiscal competence than to have admitted he didn’t mention the economy at his last party conference before the election because the content of his speech was delivered “from memory, and some from the top of my head”.
Of the recent run of films and plays scripted around the 1984-5 miners’ strike so far only Pride – and its celebration of the role of lesbians and gays – has succeeded in illustrating what might have been achieved if violence and intimidation had been scaled back in favour of seeking support from the wider community.
If the crossover demonstrated by Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners had been replicated with direct help and action from a multitude of pressure groups, Margaret Thatcher might well have been forced to give far greater assistance to the coalfield communities and their hard-pressed collieries.
Sir Tim Bell, her favourite propagandist during the pit dispute, said the Prime Minister had wanted to see the strikers “drag themselves back to work, their tails behind their legs”.
Just like lesbians and gays, the miners were traduced by the national press. In Mrs Thatcher’s opinion the strikers were the “enemy within”. The strike breakers were the heroes and although perhaps not intended, radio and television became a cheer leader as the Conservatives as they condemned the militancy of the strikers for undermining the rule of law.