How the media lost the Thatcher PR battle

Submitted by Matthew on 23 April, 2013 - 8:31

The battle to shape the contemporary public perception of Margaret Thatcher began immediately after her death on 8 April.

The terms of the debate were neatly summed up in the contrasting front pages of the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror. “The Woman Who Saved Britain” announced the Mail whereas, for the Mirror she was “The Woman Who Divided a Nation”.

The Tories presented Thatcher as a figure of such immense stature that the whole nation could unify in remembering her with respect despite the passionate opposition she generated when in power. The drew the obvious parallel with Churchill. They knew she had created not so much division as extreme polarisation and that she was hated by many on the left. Their hope, however, was that expressions of that hate and contempt after her death could be marginalised. The risk of being associated with the haters would bind mainstream left politicians to a respectful consensus.

However, the Thatcherites lost the PR battle. To succeed they only had to get people to admit that, even if they disagreed strongly, Thatcher was a great leader. They didn’t succeed.

The anti-Thatcher street parties were sufficiently widespread and genuine to ensure national coverage. The success of the campaign to get the Wizard of Oz song “Ding Dong The Witch is Dead” to the top of the charts became one of the central stories of the week. Those communities most savagely hit by her brutal policies came to the fore with articulate, moving and unflinching accounts of the damage she had done and how her legacy continues to blight their lives.

It helped that less than half of Labour MPs turned up to the embarrassing and misjudged recall of Parliament to sing her praises. Those who did attend included Glenda Jackson whose blistering anti-Thatcher polemic took as many headlines as all of the predictable eulogies put together.

For the left, the anti-Thatcherites, to win the PR battle it was not necessary to persuade people that Thatcher was wrong on everything or that we had all the answers. That is a much more long-term and complicated battle. No, we just had to puncture the notion that she was undeniably great and deserving of respect from all sides.

As the funeral ended and the media shifted their focus, even some of the right-wing coverage began to accept that she was an immensely divisive figure. As when she resigned in 1990, they had to accept she was hated with a passion in large parts of the country and admired most by those people and that class who gained most from her greedy, get-what-you-can philosophy.

This is even more remarkable given that the leaders of the Labour Party went hook, line and sinker for the Tory strategy. Their message was “be respectful, this is not the time for reopening old wounds, don’t fall into the Tory trap of looking distasteful”.

The problem for Ed Miliband was that his message was overwhelmingly ignored in the Labour Party. This was not a sign of open rebellion so much as an outpouring of genuine emotion and feeling.

There were bits of the working-class response to Thatcher’s death that were considered in advance and theatrical, but there was plenty that was spontaneous and raw. We saw an outpouring of emotion that was a good deal more genuine and heartfelt than the mannered pomp and ceremony in Westminster, where those who forced her out rubbed shoulders with those who worshipped her every move, all of them better off and more privileged as a result of her reign.

The pressure to be respectful was easier to resist because it came from such transparent hypocrites. Supporters of the woman who famously declared that “there is no such thing as society” now wanted to click their fingers and have us all behave as if there was.

But only for a week. After that we could return to evicting our neighbours, hating immigrants and shopping benefit claimants.

And the record of the Mail, Sun, Express in respecting their dead political opponents was exposed as none too impressive. If you think they restrict their tendency to gloat to the more obvious mortalities, like Saddam or Bin Laden, then recall the response of the Daily Mail to the death of former Labour leader Michael Foot in 2010.

The paper that last week demanded respect for the dead whatever your politics described Foot in their obituary as “just another dangerously wrong-headed utopian leftie of no use to Britain”. That’s what they thought of him when alive, so it was only honest to say it when he died. The sanctimony and hypocrisy resides not in continuing to prosecute their ideological class war in the face of an opponent’s death, but rather in their demands that we behave differently.

We should not of course measure ourselves by their standards. There has been a useful, though not sufficiently widespread, discussion about the problems associated with using terms like “bitch” or “witch” to describe Thatcher.

If we strip away all the hypocrisy and cant maybe we should be uneasy about celebrating or gloating about death.

It’s not a universal and uncomplicated idea though. There would be something morally absent from any human who didn’t feel some joy at the deaths of Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot to mention just the premier league monsters. Saddam, Bin Laden, Pinochet (all supported by Thatcher at some point)? Where is the line drawn?

Truthfully there was no tragedy here, not even for the immediate family. Thatcher lived to the age of 87 and died in her suite in the Ritz hotel. What people were asked to do from 8 April until the funeral was respect and honour her memory for no other reason than that her body stopped functioning.

For the most part people refused. Above all, our class and our movement refused and instead chose to assert its different history, values and lived experiences. It was important that we did this, and it may well prove to be a small turning point. We found ourselves for a few days as a class and a movement and, above all, we rediscovered our fighting spirit.

In the months ahead we should nourish that spirit and employ it to build some serious resistance to the modern heirs of Thatcher across all parties.

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