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I reported on Thatcher-era strikes. Here’s what today’s coverage is missing

The demise of industrial correspondents allows the Tory press to deliver outlandish, make-believe scare stories

Nicholas Jones
23 June 2022, 4.35pm

Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT

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Karl Black/Alamy Live News

A dramatic spike in living costs after a decade of pay restraint has provoked what is – in recent years, at least – an unprecedented clamour for wage increases across the public and private sectors.

After a week of rail strikes, a no-holds-barred group of workers has emerged as the pacesetters in what is being billed as a summer of discontent.

Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT rail union, is leading from the front. His union is ready to help others across the public sector to coordinate and strengthen action to pursue pay claims and defend jobs and conditions.

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We are seeing a level of turbulence in the workforce that cries out for an informed response from the news media.

Sadly, we are lacking the in-depth reporting of old, the background coverage and analysis in press, television and radio, that used to put industrial strife into context and give workers a voice.

Instead, we are seeing a repeat of the ‘Punch and Judy’ style of reporting that left the British public so ill-informed during the Brexit referendum, which is failing to explain the impact on employment of both the work-from-home phenomenon and the recent leap in energy prices.

Until their slow demise in the 1990s, there was an elite and prolific band of journalists known as the Labour and Industrial Correspondents’ Group.

They were specialist reporters writing for national and local newspapers, and broadcasters on radio and television, who concentrated on covering pay disputes, plant closures, redundancies, and the role of trade unions.

I was among them. As a labour and industrial correspondent for BBC Radio, I was on the front line throughout the major industrial confrontations of the Thatcher decade, including the 1984-85 miners’ strike and the Wapping dispute.

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Epic industrial defeats, ever more effective legal curbs on strike action, and a rapidly declining level of union membership eventually moved the dial on the news agenda.

With far fewer strikes, it was the rising tide of what became known as popular capitalism that captured more and more editorial space and airtime.

News from the City of London increasingly took precedence. Business and financial correspondents succeeded in eroding the previous clout and authority of labour and industrial reporters.

Newsrooms no longer wanted stories or features about changes in employment or work practices. Unless there was a strike in the offing, there was a zero interest in trade union news.

Even now, when hit by a dispute, the fortunes of Britain’s major employers – and the fates of their workers – are usually viewed through the eyes of business journalists. There is little understanding of what is happening on the shop floor. A hostile takeover bid or volatility in share prices are more likely to grab attention.

The long campaign ahead of the 2016 Brexit referendum brought home to me the damaging consequences of the lack of coverage in labour and trade union affairs and the loss of specialist reporting staff. This could be seen not just at a national level but across the country, resulting from the much-diminished coverage offered by regional and local newspapers.

No wonder ex-labour hacks like myself were so bereft. Had I still been on the industrial beat, I would have tried to counter the terrible twins – Project Fear and Project Deception – with a detailed assessment, and some stark analysis, of the dilemmas surrounding Brexit.

With our many contacts in industry and the unions, we might have been able to answer some of the many questions posed by the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.

What would be the future for investment in new plants and products? What job opportunities would be lost or gained? Was there a risk to new models at car factories and would jobs go elsewhere?

Had I still been on the beat, I’d have tried to counter the terrible twins, Project Fear and Project Deception

Brexit-supporting newspapers unleashed an endless tide of headlines about Remain ‘traitors’. To my eternal shame and regret, there was no balancing coverage from the BBC and other television and radio services.

Most broadcasters took the easy way out, happy to fall back on tit-for-tat reporting that delivered equal airtime to Leave and Remain but little else.

Disruption on the rail network had been looming for weeks before the RMT finally announced the go ahead for three days of strike action.

The threat of confrontation had become a valuable prop for right-wing newspapers, which tried to divert attention from the government’s woes by trashing and tormenting the rail union leadership.

The Tory press concentrated on delivering a plethora of outlandish, make-believe scare stories, rather than examining the repercussions for the railways of the continuing trend of working from home and assessing the chances of commuter traffic returning to pre-pandemic levels.

There has also been a woeful response from broadcasters, with little in-depth analysis of the reasons for pent-up strike action and Network Rail’s response. This has only served to highlight the lack of any counterbalance to the papers’ screamed anti-union headlines.

Given that the rail industry has effectively been nationalised, becoming increasingly reliant on government subsidies, political reporters have taken the lead in reporting the dispute and, to be fair, the RMT leadership has picked up the challenge.

What really brought the memories flooding back were the photographs of the miners’ leader Arthur Scargill, now 84, joining the picket line at Wakefield station.

In his heyday, Scargill was a master of the news media, fearless in television studios. So, I had to smile reading press commentaries praising Mick Lynch for seeing off a string of challenging TVpresenters.

Margaret Thatcher never went head-to-head with Scargill on TV, and I don’t think Boris Johnson will be taking on the RMT leader any time soon.

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