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!
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.
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.