The miners' strike 1984-5: lies, damned lies and the press

Every day the smooth-faced pundits forecast on the box.

The miners' strike is lost, they say, and Scargill's on the rocks
Lies, defamation, misinformation, this is the testing time
He kept faith with the men who elected him, and that is a major crime.
The Media, Ewan McColl

By Mick Duncan

The limits of the "free press" under capitalism were graphically shown up during the miners' strike. It is impossible to describe how polarised political life was during the strike. It was a time for taking sides. For the most part the media threw its weight behind the Government, and the Government's use of the police and state to help defeat the miners' strike.

The most blatant example of "press bias" was the BBC's news coverage of the police charge on miners during a picket of Orgreave coking plant in south Yorkshire - the Battle of Orgreave as it became known. On 13 June 1984 horses and riot police bludgeoned unarmed strikers unconscious as they lay on the floor. By the the time the BBC's film footage was shown on the news it had been cut and spliced to show the miners advancing first and the police seeming to respond in self-defence. All the shocking scenes of police brutality had disappeared.

The Sun reported the day's events with their usual crude sensationalism, aiming to outdo the rest of Fleet Street. They had a picture from below of Arthur Scargill waving at miners, but the wave looked a bit like a Hitler salute. This was the paper that had just a year before during the Falklands War reported the sinking of an Argentinian ship, the Belgrano - with loss of hundreds of lives - with the accompanying headline "Gotcha". The Sun's editors wanted to headline Scargill's picture "Mine Führer", but at the last minute the paper's printers refused to print the cover.

This shocking example of bias was really the tip of the iceberg. The day-to-day reporting involved more subtle attacks, or a biased selection of facts and a lack of alternative points of view. These things arguably had a far bigger negative effect on the miners' cause.

"I wanted to wave to all the union members here, had it not been for the fact that one of these vermin here might have taken a photograph of me waving my arm in the air and then written something underneath it. Throughout this dispute, day after day, television, radio and the press have consistently put over the views of the coal board and government even when they have been exposed as being guilty of duplicity and guilty of telling lies… this bunch of piranha fish will always go on supporting Mrs Thatcher".

Arthur Scargill

The media coverage of the strike prompted many miners to write down their stories. Their jobs and communities were under attack from a determined ruling class enemy and they had seen it all.

Their villages invaded by armies of police, who used assault, illegal arrest and sadistic torture to bully pickets back to work. When they tried to defend themselves from physical attack, they were charged themselves with assault. The courts banned them from moving around the country or participating in their strike. In the face of organised, state-sponsored violence the media chose to rail about "picket line violence" - the violence of the miners.

The lie was echoed by that gutless windbag, then leader of the Labour Party Neil Kinnock.

The BBC's Orgreave reporting was a blatant example of this lie-telling. Showing the film footage so that the sequence of events was reversed to show the miners attacking and police responding was the most blatant lie involved. The rest of the "editing" was more subtle.

BBC presenter Moira Stewart opened the coverage with an image of a miner kicking a policeman.

Scargill was both arrested and injured on the 13 June, and he was shown saying that he thought he had been hit over the head with a riot shield. This was denied by a policeman, saying he had seen Scargill fall down a bank and hit his head on a sleeper. Assistant Chief Constable Clements told the media that Scargill, "could not possibly have been hit on the head by a shield-carrying officer on the bank, as they stayed on the road", adding, "I'm not lying about this". He was, of course. Pictures later released showed Scargill clearly receiving his injury from an assault by a policeman, as a group of them charged miners, with their shields, on the bank.

The BBC's reporters never went into the crowd to show what was happening to the strikers getting beaten there. While Channel Four's Peter Sissons asked the chief constable of South Yorkshire "Do policeman truncheoning miners to the ground risk disciplinary proceedings?", the BBC kept quiet.

The overall effect of the BBC's reporter was to to portray the miners as a violent mob, while the police were brave custodians of the law and scabs defended their right to work. They had to go to great lengths - deliberate lying, distortion and one-sidedness - to achieve that effect

From early on in the strike, a favourite story for the media was the "drift back to work". Every day the papers would highlight the figures of how many were now going in to work. The point was to demonstrate that support for the strike was crumbling. The media was getting these figures direct from the National Coal Board and making no attempt to verify them. The NUM and individual journalists provided clear evidence against the validity of the figures but no-one bothered to cover it.

When it was revealed that the NCB figures used dramatic double counting and included managers and other staff not affected by the strike, this still did not prevent the media from using the figures.

Some did dispute them - the Sun in particular. It took the NCB figures, figures from the so-called working miners' movement, and added 15,000 on. This was the "one for the pot" school of journalism. Eventually the Observer did expose how the NCB were engaged in a deliberate and sustained fabrication of figures for propaganda purposes. By then the damage had been done.

As well as portraying strikers as boot-boys and "the enemy within", as Thatcher famously called them in a line cribbed from Enoch Powell's "rivers of blood" speech, the media portrayed the scabs as heroes. The scab union, the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, were described as heroes by Thatcher. And the working miners' committees were also lauded in the press. But who was doing this?

One of the most prominent pro-scab spokesmen was David Hart. Hart was a freelance journalist, millionaire property developer and a good friend of NCB boss Ian MacGregor. During the strike he wrote a column for the Times in which he described a meeting of striking miners. Here, he said he had detected, "in the air, the unmistakable stench of fascism". "These men will have to be defeated" he said. At the same time he was handing out wads of notes at meetings of the working miners' committees and reported on how brave these men were. In his columns he omitted to mention his own role in organising them.

There were some who challenged the media bias, such as Ken Loach's in his film, Which Side Are You On?

The film was initially commissioned for ITV, but the network that was happy to broadcast attacks on the NUM for not holding a ballot, to quote NCB figures for working miners and use police statements on violence, considered the film "too biased". In other words it took the wrong side. The film did eventually get broadcast, but on the new, and much smaller, Channel Four.

Whilst criticism can be made of the NUM's handling of the media - they understandably saw it as a bitter enemy and refused to co-operate - the media as a whole, with notable and quieter exceptions, helped shape public opinion against the strike. But it is worth noting that they did not succeed. There was never a convincing majority of public opinion against the NUM. To a great degree people do not believe what they read in the newspapers.

In 1992 the media showed the fight against the Tories' closure of the bulk of Britain's remaining pits in a highly positive way. But by then huge numbers of pits had been closed, and miners had been defeated. The experience of 1984-5 shows how the media behaves when the ruling class is seriously challenged. All the personal demonisation of trade union leaders, bias and lies will happen again the next time our class raises its head with confidence. We will need to be prepared to counter it.

Comments

Miners strike

A good article, written a bit angrily, but containing the truth. The media were biased and the miners were fighting for a way of life that would be destroyed. Scargill stood up for his members but corrupt use of power won.

miners article

A very good article which spoke the truth,just a great shame we do not have more leaders like Arthur today.Such a shame we have leaders of unions who are scared of the government,who are not repared to stand up to them.We need more people like Bob Crow who go on strike.
Not people like Dave Prentis who do nothing for nurses!

Yes, unfortunately the media

Yes, unfortunately the media always has a big impact on how a strike turns out. If they support the strike, then generally management tends to give in their requests a little quicker. That's just the way it is.provillusearth4energygrow taller 4 idiotsmagic of making uphow to stop acnehomemade energy