TfL = Total f***ing liars: the role of the press in the Tube strike

Submitted by Tubeworker on Thu, 11/06/2009 - 10:27

Predictably the daily newspapers, from London free sheets to “serious” national broadsheets, have portrayed the strike negatively and largely put across management's case (usually while trying to maintain a veneer of objectivity).

A look at Tuesday's London Paper illustrates this nicely.

The front page article, after some cliches about the public facing “travel hell” and so on, quotes Boris Johnson attacking “union officials for failing to agree a deal over pay and conditions” and telling us that “two thirds of [RMT's] members did not vote for” the strike. This is the first in a series of classic misrepresentations, giving the impression that 65 percent-plus voted against, whereas in fact we know that 85 percent-plus voted for. On Johnson's logic, one could call for him to be ejected from office on the grounds that “almost four fifths of Londoners did not vote for him”, since the turn out in the 2008 London mayoral election was only 45 percent.

Similarly, we are told inside by TfL Transport Commissioner Peter Hendy that “only 14 per cent of Tube workers voted for a strike”, again implying falsely that 86 percent voted against. Of course, if the anti-union laws which Johnson, Hendy et al support and have made use of in this dispute did not exist, we would not have to have the postal ballots which result in such a low turn out – and could instead have much more democratic workplace ballots.

Hendy also tells us that “three of the four Tube unions neither have a dispute nor a strike ballot” - omitting the fact that the RMT represents a big majority of workers on the Tube and that many members of other unions will refuse to cross picket lines during the dispute – and also ignoring the fact that Unite has declared itself in dispute.

In both the London Paper and the Guardian, information on how to get around London during the strike is entitled "How to beat the strike", effectively inciting commuters against the union.

ITV’s local news bulletin on Tuesday evening began its report with the words “The RMT is once again holding Londoners to ransom” and went on to describe pickets at King’s Cross “accosting” other employees. Hardly the objective reporting that TV news bulletins are supposed to provide.

But perhaps most outrageous is the London Paper's article claiming that “a deal to stop the planned Tube strike was torpedoed by unions demands for two sacked drivers to be reinstated” - a reference to the two victimised Victoria line drivers whose workmates recently took strike action in protest. The Evening Standard, which has stopped even pretending to be a newspaper and transformed itself into an open company mouthpiece, has also repeated this crap.

1. You wouldn't know from this that, for instance, Carl Campbell was sacked after only opening doors on the wrong side of his train briefly, with no ill consequences; and that the reason this was possible is that the penny-pinching LUL management have refused to install safety equipment to stop this happening, something which the RMT has long been demanding.

2. The cases of the two Victoria line drivers are in fact part of an entirely separate dispute involving only Victoria line drivers. It was this dispute that the union was considering settling when it discussed these two cases with management, not the all-grades, cross-Underground/TfL dispute. The ‘main’ dispute is in fact about several issues – pay, job cuts and an end to management bullying. So once again, LUL and TfL management are simply lying. Management was trying to encourage workers in other grades and on other lines to break the strike by suggesting that their dispute was only about two cases which were not their concern.

3. Apparently there was a deal on the table on Tuesday, which was pulled by management after a mysterious phone call – presumably from the Mayor’s office. But no mention of this anywhere in Wednesday's press, of course. No, the RMT is the stumbling block!

The Guardian, meanwhile, tells us that a Customer Services Assistant starts on £29,000; actually the figure is £24,000. BBC Radio Five Live repeatedly described the action as a Tube drivers’ strike, whereas all grades of Underground and TfL workers were involved. The press is full of these little inaccuracies, contributing to the overall falsification.

False consciousness

Mention must also go to the papers’ use of quotations from irritated travellers to attack the union. Clearly, lots of people are pissed off about the strike - a situation not helped by the union's sluggishness in getting out information and publicity for its case to the public. Nonetheless, there is once again clearly a large element of incitement here. Most workers who are frustrated about not being able to get to work have no real source of information other than the big business papers. Thus to a large extent they reproduce what they read there.

Hence, in the London Paper's Tuesday vox pop, we get Nora declaring that "It's too much now. Every other month there's a strike". Quite clearly there isn't, but Nora just knows there is, in the same that most people "know" the percentage of asylum-seekers in the population is far higher than it actually is.

Perhaps more important than this kind of factual inaccuracy, though, is the papers' tendency to print letters and comments along the lines of "It's not fair: people are losing their jobs, I've just taken a pay cut, why should these people get to demand better?" This kind of sentiment is very common; unsurprisingly, when the great bulk of the working class is unorganised or not organised enough to resist the bosses' current offensive. As Marx put it, the ideas of society are the ideas of the ruling class, which is why so many workers allow themselves to incited against strikes like the RMT's. (Not necessarily as many as the papers make out, or even a majority, but it is a real phenomenon.)

Of course the argument is nonsensical: if Tube workers allow management to get away with pay cuts, job cuts etc, then there will be more unemployment and misery, not less. But we should note that such sentiments can quickly turn into their opposite: other workers who are pissed off that Tube workers are able to defend themselves, may soon find themselves tempted to try organising too... that will be doubly and triply the case if the RMT wins.

Why the press is what it is

Why is the press, free sheet and broad sheet, Tory and liberal, so uniformly against the strike and the union? The reason is obvious, namely that all these papers are owned by big capitalist interests who shape 'the news' in the interests of their class. Thus we get a form of censorship, with only facts convenient to the bosses' case reported and extensive distortion; but in any case most of the journalists probably don't even realise their bias. They are trained to see the world in a certain way and order 'the facts' accordingly.

The kind of "free press" we have is certainly an improvement over the state-monopoly that exists in right-wing or Stalinist dicatorships, in that the media is not totally closed off from oppositional view points, and we can publish alternative sources of information, for instance socialist newspapers. But nor is it genuine "freedom of the press" either - because it is primarily free speech for business and the rich, for those who can afford to get their voice heard. That's why in a socialist society the facilities of the big media corporations would be taken into public ownership but not state control, with their resources instead allocated to political parties, unions, community organisations, campaigns and so on the basis of their level of support, with guaranteed rights for minorities.

Here and now, however, we need to rebuild a strong working-class and socialist press, with a wide circulation, as an alternative to the capitalist media and its lies.

Tubeworker topics
Trade Unions


Submitted by Tubeworker on Fri, 12/06/2009 - 10:10

1. This strike was not just by drivers, but by all grades of London Underground and TfL staff, some of whom are paid a lot less than drivers. In fact, RMT's pay claim asked for more money for lower-paid grades, but London Underground has refused to even respond to that bit of the claim.

2. If Tube workers are relatively well-paid, it is because we have consistently stood up for ourselves, including by taking strike action.

3. I'm really impressed by you, as you obviously have never made a mistake in your life.

4. Nurses deserve an even better improvement to their pay and conditions than Tube drivers. But if they went on strike, you'd probably moan about that too, whereas we would support them.

5. Strange how you compare Tube workers' wages to those of low-paid workers, rather than the obscene salaries of fat cats. The people you are siding with - TfL/LUL management - pay 123 of themselves over £100k per year, three of them for running non-existent projects! Perhaps you should turn your fire on them.

6. Sorry, but where does that 'subsidised food' idea come from?! News to me.

7. Do the maths. If workers who get more than the average wage do not get a pay rise because they get more than the average wage, then the average wage is not very likely to go up, is it?

8. Your 'argument' amounts to saying "Lots of people are in the shit. You should jump in with them rather than try to pull yourselves and others out of it."

Of course, the major thing you are overlooking is that the whole point is not to accept "reality" as you recommend, but to change it.

Submitted by Tubeworker on Tue, 23/06/2009 - 07:21

The other point to make about the press is that on one level, they incite the strikes that they complain about.

How so? By ignoring Tube workers' grievances when we pursue them in a less disruptive way. So we negotiate, we make representations, we petition, we send letters, we protest, we use all sorts of ways of publicising our issues without messing passengers around - and the press ignores us. Then we mess up London and we get multiple double-page spreads. And they have the cheek to complain about it.

Submitted by Tubeworker on Wed, 16/12/2009 - 17:01

The TUC Organising Blog makes some pertinent points about coverage of the BA cabin crew strike here.

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