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!
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.
For any student of the British press the endless barrage of red-top headlines that fills the stage at the National Theatre is often as funny, or sometimes even funnier, than the script lines of Great Britain, Richard Bean’s satire on tabloid journalism and the phone-hacking trial.
Constantly updated front pages from The Free Press and its imaginary competitors hark back to the heyday of the manufactured story-line and the glory days of classic Sun scoops such as “Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster”.
Rebekah Brooks (acquitted) and Andy Coulson (convicted) are two unspoken names that are both front of stage in the mind of the audience but so too should be those of the ex-editor of the Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie, and the former publicist Max Clifford, whose string of “exclusives” once dominated Fleet Street.
The MacKenzie-Clifford production line of kiss-and-tell stories, and the gob-smacking headlines that went with them, helped to generate an insatiable appetite for celebrity scandal that required ever-more intrusive forms of journalism and heralded the descent into the hacking of messages left on mobile phones.
A brash inventiveness among headline writers and the ingenuity and cunning of journalists who write exclusives sourced only on the words of “An onlooker said...” are characteristics that have become the hallmark of the British tabloid press.
Many of the events taking place in coalfields around the country to mark the 1984-5 pit dispute are celebrating the outcome of the strike as an unprecedented achievement for the mineworkers: their victory was to have held out for as long as year against Margaret Thatcher’s government and the full force of the state.
Wonderland, Beth Steel’s new play about the miners’ eventual defeat and return to work, is a faithful portrayal of their struggle and will be a source of great pride and encouragement to activists who are determined to seek justice for the mining communities.
From the moment the play opens (at the Hampstead Theatre until 26 July 2014) the audience sense the physical challenge, heat and even brutality of life underground. The set is dominated by a pit cage; constant crashing and banging along the carriageway to the coalface add to the reality.
The contrast could not be greater when events switch to London and the offices of Peter Walker, Secretary of State for Energy, Ian MacGregor, chairman of the National Coal Board, and David Hart, the rich, shadowy adviser to Mrs Thatcher.
Beth Steel’s inspiration was that she came from a mining family. Her father worked as a miner for thirty-five years and she draws on a deep understanding of the family conflicts that arose among men of the Midlands pits as they struggled to come to terms with the strike and then endure months of hardship.
Rebekah Brooks’ acquittal on the charge of phone hacking will be interpreted by much of the newspaper industry as a vote of confidence in its decision to defy Parliament and to press ahead with the launch in the autumn of a new, independent press regulator.
“Keep Out” could almost be the caption below the Sun’s front page welcoming what is said were “a string of not guilty verdicts” after a trial that had been “one of the longest and most expensive in British criminal history”.
Brooks’ not guilty verdict was greeted with great relief by those newspaper proprietors and editors who have turned their back on the royal charter on press regulation that gained cross-party support in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry.
Andy Coulson’s conviction for conspiracy to hack phones had been widely expected among fellow journalists. But his finding of guilt – and guilty pleas from five others who were involved – has largely contained fallout from the case within the confines of journalists employed on the now defunct News of the World.
David Cameron’s swift apology for his “bad decision” in 2007 for having given Coulson a second chance by appointing him the Conservative Party’s pre-election publicity chief, and later taking him into Downing Street as the government’s director of communications, was aimed a drawing a line under the affair.