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!
The gruesome finale to Maria Miller’s seven-day struggle to hang on to her cabinet post as Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport was a text book example of the high-wire political news management that blighted the Blair years.
Her resignation within a few hours of the start of Prime Minister’s questions mirrored that of Peter Mandelson’s second on-off resignation from Tony Blair’s government in January 2001.
He finally stood down from his position as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland less than an hour before the start of questions in the House of Commons, allowing Blair the chance to wipe the slate clean when he was challenged at the despatch box.
Mrs Miller was only too well aware that David Cameron would have had to face a near impossible task trying once again to fend off criticism of her own inept handling of the investigation into her claims for parliamentary expenses.
Her resignation was announced at 7.18am on Wednesday 9 April; she had given Cameron the benefit of almost five hours in which to prepare himself before he had to face the Labour leader Ed Miliband.
The self indulgence of a cohort of departing BBC executives in agreeing between themselves the size of their pay-offs and pension pots came as no surprise to many of the journalists and producers who had worked alongside them. Nicholas Jones, a BBC correspondent for thirty years, traces the origins of a sense of entitlement that took root in the upper echelons of the Corporation and which uncoupled an ‘officer class’from their obligations to the licence payer.
While some employees found the collective strengths and ideals of ‘auntie’ BBC outdated and restrictive, many of my contemporaries ended fulfilling careers acknowledging they had been well rewarded. Most are comforted in retirement by their good fortune in being the beneficiaries of what for them has been a generous final-salary pension scheme. But those of us who stayed the course cannot help but reflect on the gulf that grew ever wider between editorial and production staff and the multiplying layers of upper management
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.