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!
Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet papers for the 1984-5 miners’ strike have raised as many questions as answers – not least about the behaviour of the South Yorkshire Police – but once again a missing voice has been that of Arthur Scargill.
Perhaps his absence from the debate provoked by publication of secret government papers was only to be expected given that the former president of the National Union of Mineworkers remains mired in a complex series of financial disputes between himself and the current leadership of the NUM.
In recent years Scargill has refused repeated requests to give radio or television interviews reflecting on his role in the year-long strike and his union’s defeat by the Thatcher government.
His close ally, Ken Capstick, the former editor of The Miner, said Scargill had refused “on principle” to give interviews; they would simply be used to “attack Scargill’s leadership” whereas the cabinet papers had proved yet again the truth of the NUM’s claim that the National Coal Board chairman Ian MacGregor intended to close 70 pits and butcher the coal industry.
Capstick’s messages on Twitter give an indication of Scargill’s reasoning for refusing to engage with the news media:
Arthur Scargill’s claim throughout the year-long miners’ strike that the National Coal Board chairman Ian MacGregor had a secret plan to close 70 pits with the loss of up to 70,000 jobs has been proved correct.
Cabinet records for 1984 have revealed that within a month of becoming chairman MacGregor was advising the government that he intended to close as many as 75 pits with the loss of 64,000 jobs.
Margaret Thatcher ordered there should be total secrecy about the existence of MacGregor’s personal target for closures. She had been warned by Downing Street officials that under no circumstances should his plans be revealed to the public.
So effective was the subsequent cover-up within Whitehall that MacGregor’s 75-pit closure list was never mentioned again in the cabinet papers nor was it ever referred to during the year-long pit strike.
Because there was no record of MacGregor’s true intentions in government documents which related to the coal board, Mrs Thatcher had no hesitation in authorising an advertising campaign to tell the country that Scargill was lying to his members when he claimed MacGregor wanted to butcher the coal industry and shed 70,000 jobs.
Four months into the year-long miners’ strike, when a potentially disastrous dispute in the docks had opened up a second front against the government, Margaret Thatcher rallied Conservative MPs with her infamous pronouncement that she was ready “to fight the enemy within.”
Her war-like declaration was no slip of the tongue: secret cabinet papers for 1984, released under the thirty-year rule, disclose how she had been fired up to mount a “war of attrition” against Arthur Scargill.
She was convinced the task of defeating the “extreme left” of the British trade union movement was as great as that of regaining the Falkland Islands.
With military precision she secretly ordered the build-up of nuclear and oil-fired generation of electricity to ensure indefinite endurance of power supplies and then bought off sympathy strikes in the docks and on the railways in order to ensure that Scargill was isolated and ultimately defeated.
Her accusation on 19 July 1984 that striking miners were the “enemy within” mirrored the bellicose language adopted by her closest advisers, who included the former Conservative minister John Redwood, then head of her Downing Street policy unit.
After only a week of the year long pit dispute Margaret Thatcher had intervened to “stiffen the resolve” of chief constables whom she believed were failing to provide police protection for those miners who wanted to report for work.
Her cabinet papers for 1984 reveal that she demanded action after becoming “deeply disturbed” at the way the National Union of Mineworkers had resorted so quickly to unlawful mass picketing to intimidate those men who had volunteered to work normally.
Within four days of her intervention police were turning back flying pickets from Yorkshire who were heading south on the motorway to coalfields in the Midlands and Nottinghamshire. Striking miners from Kent were being turned back at the Dartford Tunnel.
In another move behind the scenes she put pressure on the government’s top law officers, the Lord Chancellor Lord Hailsham and the Attorney General Sir Michael Havers, after being told that magistrates in Rotherham and Mansfield were “dragging their feet” in dealing with cases involving pickets arrested for pit head violence.
Two secret letters from the Lord Chancellor, dated May 1984, disclose private concern within the Nottinghamshire constabulary about the “quality of the evidence” police officers were presenting to the courts.
Mrs Thatcher’s impatience at the slow process in the courts led to repeated interventions. She believed the impression had been created that the miners’ president Arthur Scargill was being allowed to operate “above the law” in pursuing the pit strike.
South Yorkshire Police, the force that faced the most violent picketing during the 1984-5 miners’ strike, forged a close working relationship with the Prime Minister and the government’s law officers.
Four months into the strike, the South Yorkshire Chief Constable, the late Peter Wright, was given secret authorisation to go on incurring the additional cost of bringing in police reinforcements to help ensure the resumption of coke deliveries during what became known as the “Battle of Orgreave”.
Mrs Thatcher told the Home Office to give the South Yorkshire force “every support”; in the corner of one document is her hand-written note asking: “Can we provide the funds direct?”
Wright’s tactics in commanding the massive police operation to prevent mass picketing outside the British Steel Corporation’s coking plant at Orgreave had been condemned by the South Yorkshire County Council and its Labour majority on the South Yorkshire Police Authority which both supported the National Union of Mineworkers.
After the county council passed a resolution calling for the Orgreave coke depot to be closed, the police authority withdrew Wright’s discretion to spend up to £2,000 without prior authority; it said he could not incur any expenditure without authority.