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!
Two events to celebrate milestones in the campaign for freedom of information were coupled with a stiff warning that the United Kingdom’s hard-won rights to know might be restricted in the future due to expenditure cuts in Whitehall and local government.
Two potential threats were identified: a future government might try to limit applications by increasing the cost threshold for inquiries or might follow the example of the Irish government and introduce a charge for FOI inquiries.
The warnings were given by Maurice Frankel, long-standing director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, and by the Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham.
They both voiced concern that frivolous and inane inquiries, especially by journalists, should be avoided because they were being used in a campaign by the Local Government Association and Whitehall departments to try to persuade ministers to save money by limiting the number of applications.
David Hart, a shadowy financier who secretly helped the working miners to start crippling legal action against the National Union of Mineworkers, had almost unlimited access to Margaret Thatcher during the 1984-5 pit strike.
But in the final month of the dispute the Prime Minister was advised to sever her contacts with Hart because news of his role was leaking out and on the point of becoming an embarrassment to the government.
Behind the scenes Hart was passing on instructions to the National Coal Board’s chairman Ian MacGregor and this had angered the Secretary of State for Energy, Peter Walker, who complained to Mrs Thatcher.
Walker’s disagreements with MacGregor over his management of the way the Coal Board was dealing with the strike became increasingly acrimonious after acceleration in the return to work.
At one point the Energy Secretary wrote to Mrs Thatcher accusing MacGregor of being “dishonest” in his pursuit of a vendetta against NACODS, the union for pit safety supervisors.
But it was the Prime Minister’s encouragement for the secret activities of the working miners’ shadowy Mr Fixit that prompted Walker’s first complaint.
So many telephones were being tapped during the 1984-5 miners’ strike that the Cabinet Secretary Sir Robert Armstrong became so alarmed that he took immediate steps to ensure that no mention was ever made of the extent of the eavesdropping.
Margaret Thatcher’s success in hushing up the bugging of phones by the Security Service MI5 is finally revealed in her 1985 cabinet papers released by the National Archives.
Action to prevent public disclosure of the role of intelligence officers was personally approved by the Prime Minister.
At one stage government-appointed lawyers were on the point of being advised to be prepared to withdraw legal action over the hunt for the miners’ money if awkward questions were asked in court.
Armstrong’s intervention in February 1985 to ensure a cover-up over the role of the Security Service in the pit dispute was highly significant given the events that were about to unfold.
Later that same year, in a Channel 4 documentary, the former MI5 intelligence officer Cathy Massiter blew the whistle. She revealed there had been illegal bugging of the telephones of political and human rights campaigners during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Throughout the year-long pit strike Arthur Scargill and other leaders of the National Union of Mineworkers always believed their phone calls were being intercepted and their movements closely monitored.
Six months after the end of the 1984-5 miners’ strike Margaret Thatcher was still intervening personally to protect miners who continued to be victimised for having defied the National Union of Mineworkers and resumed work.
Hand-written instructions on her 1985 cabinet papers indicate her exasperation and later fury at the failure of the National Coal Board’s chairman Ian MacGregor to do more to ensure that the men who broke the strike were transferred to pits of their choice and did not lose money.
Lists of strike breakers who were being harassed and who were later moved to other collieries after Mrs Thatcher’s personal intervention have not been released and the names are to be kept secret for 70 to 80 years.
The cabinet records reveal extensive correspondence between the Prime Minister and leaders of the Miners’ Wives Back to Work Campaign, on whose behalf she made constant efforts to support the 30,000 miners who had returned to their pits before the end of the strike on 5 March 1985.
One note, written on 24 May 1985 and signed “MT”, said the government had to instruct the NCB to safeguard the working miners and must guarantee them certain conditions if they were being harassed by the NUM – the words “instruct” and “must” were both underlined.
She demanded two safeguards for the men:
“Have a transfer if they so wish and all reasonable expenses must be paid.”
“No miner who worked should suffer financially because he worked; i.e. if he is moved to a surface job his pay must be made up to what it would have been.”
A secret Downing Street report into the aftermath of the 1984-5 miners’ strike says that Margaret Thatcher would have been beaten by Arthur Scargill if she had not intervened personally in the first week of the dispute to establish what amounted to a national police force.
The decisive moment was her instruction to the Home Secretary that chief constables had to stiffen their resolve to stop the movement of flying pickets in order to keep the pits open for working miners.
“If that first battle had been lost, the rest would have been academic” says a review into the lessons of the year-long strike that was written in May 1985 and has been released by the National Archives as part of Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet papers for 1985-6.
The report set out the steps being taken to rebuild coal stocks at the power stations to prepare for the possibility of another strike in 1986-7. Mrs Thatcher wrote in the margin of an early draft that it was “too insipid, too little insight”.
But the report does acknowledge how close her “government came to disaster” because ministers had under-estimated the length of time that the miners could be kept out on strike “even on limited supplementary benefit, by a combination of union solidarity and intimidation”.