An untold story? Fresh allegations about state manipulation in BBC's reporting of miners' strike
- Category: Trade Union Reporting
Fresh claims have been made about government manipulation of the BBC’scoverage of the 1984-5 miners’ strike. It is now alleged that specific instructions were issued from the “highest level of government” to ensure that the BBC’s camera crews focused on the miners’ violence and not on “the police smashing heads”. The allegation has been made by the former Daily Mirror industrial editor Geoffrey Goodman, chairman of the editorial board of British Journalism Review, who insisted he has an “impeccable source”. But in a speech on the Untold History of the Miners’ Strike, former BBC industrial correspondent Nicholas Jones said he did not believe that such instruction was issued. However, he acknowledged that towards the end of the year long strike the balance of coverage tipped firmly in favour of Margaret Thatcher and the National Coal Board.
Untold history of the miners’ strikeThe Cube, Bristol, 1.6.2009 Students of contemporary history know only too well that there can often be a mismatch between events as they were reported and those same events as witnessed by those who experienced them. But equally historians know the value of examining the way those events were reported by the journalists of the day. Often with hindsight, and with the passage of years, hidden agendas can be seen with a clarity which was not evident at the time. Therefore the title of tonight’s event, The Untold History of the Miners’ Strike, has particular relevance for me. As one of those journalists who spent a year of my life reporting that strike, it is not only timely that I should revisit the events of 1984-5, but also right and proper that I should, if you like, be held to account for what I said at the time. It might seem far fetched to suggest that one day there might be a military-style re-enactment of the key moments of the strike. The final day of the Battle of Orgreave would certainly be a candidate – the day when ten thousand pickets were confronted by four thousand police officers. Not surprisingly the reporting of what happened that day has become a matter of considerable contention. The BBC is in the dock because the pictures in its main television report presented the “battle” in the reverse order: the pickets were shown attacking the police when those on the ground at Orgreave said that in fact that it was the miners who were retaliating after they had been subjected first to a baton-wielding charge by mounted police. In one of the chapters in Shafted: The Media, the Miners’ Strike and the Aftermath (published by the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom), the Yorkshire Evening Post reporter Peter Lazenby says the BBC has admitted that it changed the sequence of events. In reviewing Shafted for the British Journalism Review, Geoffrey Goodman, the former industrial editor of the Daily Mirror, goes much further. He says he was told by an “impeccable source” that there were “specific instructions from the highest level of government to the BBC to ensure that television camera crews filming the conflict between the miners and the police focused their shots on miners’ violence, but not on the police smashing heads”. So Goodman is quite categorical: he claims there was blatant state interference in the BBC’s coverage. Personally I had not heard of that claim before being made by Geoffrey Goodman. I wasn’t at Orgreave that day, nor was I there during the violence of the preceding weeks. At that time I wasn’t even a television reporter. My job was with BBC Radio. I was a labour and industrial correspondent and it was my job to keep pace with the wider industrial repercussions of the strike and the ins and outs of the tortuous on-off negotiations between the NUM and the NCB. So I can’t offer an eyewitness account of what happened at Orgreave during the struggles between the police and the pickets. But I can give an insider’s view of events as they were perceived from within the BBC. I will come to that directly in a moment. To begin with, what I think is more important is that I should reflect on those areas where I might personally have been at fault. The military analogy with which I opened my remarks is pertinent to what I want to say. The miners’ strike was seen -- at least through the eyes of the news media -- as a fight to the finish between Arthur Scargill and Margaret Thatcher. The forces of the state were mobilised against the shock troops of organised labour. Reporters rarely indulge in public soul searching but it was the most momentous assignment during my fifty years as a journalist.I freely admit that it has been the story which has troubled me most of all when I look back, when I remember the way the miners’ struggle was reported and the subsequent minimal editorial scrutiny of the subsequent ruination by the Conservatives of a once great industry. In view of the vindictive pit closure programme which continued during the decade which followed the strike, perhaps the news media should own up to a collective failure of judgement comparable, for example, to that which occurred during the build-up to the Iraq War. Most journalists have acknowledged that not enough was done to question the pre-war intelligence so as to determine the true nature of the threat posed by Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons. Likewise could the same charge perhaps be levelled against the industrial and labour correspondents of the 1980s? My former colleagues might not agree but I do not think that back in the early 1980s that any of us ever imagined that such was the Conservatives’ contempt for the National Coal Board – and so great was the Thatcherite fear and hatred of the National Union of Mineworkers – that a Conservative government would end up all but destroying the British coal industry and marginalising such an important source of energy. Perhaps we should have been far more sceptical. For my own part, I admit I think I took it for granted that the Conservative Party did believe that coal had a future once the uneconomic pits had been closed. I certainly did not suspect that the Tories would force through a closure programme which would exceed even the direst predictions of the NUM President about the existence of a hidden “hit list”. It was not until 1992, under John Major, that Michael Heseltine finally broke the back of the coal industry by ordering the closure of thirty one of the remaining fifty pits and the loss of another 30,000 jobs. Viable pits were closed because of the Conservatives’ determination to support for the “dash for gas”. Short-term economics were the order of the day: gas-fired stations, burning North Sea gas, were cheaper to build than the more expensive coal-fired stations. So any thoughts which journalists might have had back in 1984 about the Conservatives’ good faith towards the long-term future of the coal industry were tragically misplaced. I have to say that subsequently there has not been much sign of a crisis of conscience on the part of the news media, nor any acknowledgement of the fact that we were misled – and perhaps we misled the public -- about the Conservatives’ true intentions, just as journalists were taken in by the pro-war propaganda of George Bush and Tony Blair. But back to the reporting of the strike itself: I would contend that as a broadcaster I tried valiantly to represent both sides of the dispute. Admittedly we did have to work within what had become an all-powerful narrative. It went like this: the country could not afford to continue subsidising uneconomic coal mines, devastating though that might be for the mining communities; the strike itself was a denial of democracy because there had been no pit head ballot; and the violence on the miners’ picket lines, by challenging the rule of law, constituted a threat to the democratic government of the country. That became the underlying story-line. What made reporting the strike so different from previous disputes – and so difficult to balance -- was that Arthur Scargill was convinced the NUM could win through the miners’ industrial strength. In his opinion the NUM did not seek or need a favourable platform in the news media: journalists from the national press, radio and television would get no favours from him. Scargill told me personally, mid way through the strike, that his hostility to the media was a calculated act, it was designed to stiffen the resolve of the miners and their families. In his opinion journalists like myself were part and parcel of the class enemy and we were, as he never tired of reminding us, nothing more than “a bunch of piranha fish” who would always go on supporting Thatcher and the National Coal Board even when Conservative ministers and the management had been exposed as being guilty of duplicity and of telling lies. But as the strike wore on, as it became clear the dispute could not be won through industrial muscle alone, the front line moved from the picket line to the battle front of the news media and it was in this arena that the NUM found itself increasingly at a disadvantage. Once it became clear by the summer of 1984 that there was no realistic chance of a negotiated settlement – this was certainly the view of the government and most commentators – the balance of coverage tipped almost completely in favour of the Coal Board and Margaret Thatcher. Most radio and television journalists became, in effect, the cheerleaders for the return to work. By then the narrative had progressed to a much simpler story line: the outcome would depend on the Coal Board’s success in persuading miners to abandon the strike and rejoin the pits. The media’s attention was focused on the “new faces” – those going back to work for the first time. For the newspapers, these men were the heroes. Television pictures, filmed from behind police lines, showed them being bussed into their pits, braving the pickets. Effectively the news agenda had been turned to the government’s advantage. Once the Coal Board could claim that half the men were back at work, Mrs Thatcher would be able to declare victory, as she eventually did. As defeat loomed for the NUM, I felt increasingly uneasy; I realised how we were being manipulated by the focus on the “new faces” and I was determined to blow the whistle on the return to work propaganda. By January 1985 I had amassed the necessary evidence. The Coal Board had been quietly massaging down the figures for the total number of men on the books. In this way it would be possible to hasten the day when the management could claim half the men were back at work and Mrs Thatcher could declare victory. My expose was broadcast on Today and attracted immediate complaints from Conservative MPs. A week later I was instructed to report to the secretary to the BBC governors. I was told that my revelations were not regarded as having been “helpful”. But I had no difficulty proving conclusively that my figures were accurate and I heard no more. That was my one and only experience of potential interference in my reporting of the strike. I can honestly say I was never told what to say, nor was a I put under any kind of pressure. And this gets me back to the Battle of Orgreave, to Peter Lazenby’s complaint about the vital shots of the conflict being shown in the reverse order and Geoffrey Goodman claim that the BBC’s camera crews were “instructed” to focus their filming on the miners violence and to avoid showing the “police smashing heads”. Frankly I don’t believe it: I don’t think there were any such instructions. But I do accept that a mistake were made, that the editing of the pictures was probably at fault. I have frequently been under great pressure in a edit suites, often on location, and as the pictures are pasted in – the film was actually cut in those days – it is very easy to get confused, to put pictures in the wrong order; I have probably done it myself; chosen the first shot to hand just to get the report on air. Nowadays the pictures are time coded so there can be no excuse for getting it wrong. But the much more likely explanation about what happened at Orgreave – and this is perhaps what’s led to Geoffrey Goodman’s assertion – is that the BBC’s crews were predominantly positioned behind the police lines. The BBC’s crews weren’t welcome among the pickets; they did get a hostile reaction in the mining villages; sometimes they had to hang back, behind the police, for their own protection. So yes if one looked at it overall, the footage was perhaps biased in favour of the police and against the miners. Again there is a strong military parallel. In the aftermath of the Iraq War and the ongoing offensive in Afghanistan, we are all well aware of the limitations of embedded reporters, those journalists and television crews who can only give a snapshot of what they can see happening around them; invariably they are with the troops, behind the front line, with a very limited perspective. In reality what happened at Orgreave and on other picket lines, was that many of the television crews were in effect “embedded” behind police lines. And yes, there were far fewer photographers and journalists operating on the pickets’ side of the conflict at Orgreave, able to monitor precisely what the police were doing. The one really positive legacy of the troubled relationship between many journalists and activists in the 1984 strike is that no union has ever repeated the mistake of alienating reporters assigned to cover a dispute. Recent fire fighters’ disputes have provided a telling illustration of media awareness. Whenever possible television reporters seized the chance to conclude their reports with a piece to camera filmed from outside a fire station. The brazier would always be well alight; the flames would help light up the shot; and standing around in a dignified, peaceful way would be the fire fighters carrying placards in support of their wage claim. The FBU had learned a valuable lesson: let the pictures help tell the story. On the 20th anniversary of the strike I put forwarded the idea of a radio programme entitled “If only”… “If only there had been a settlement to the strike”. One issue I wanted to explore was what the outcome would have been if the NUM had sought to work with -- rather than alienate -- much of the news media. There was massive public sympathy for the strike but it was Margaret Thatcher and her government which succeeded in dictating the news agenda. It could have been different and might well have made a difference to the outcome. anipulation