openDemocracyUK

Heroes to zeroes: firefighters and the mainstream press

The British media's presentation of the fire brigade is caught between eulogising individual acts of bravery while demonising its national union activities. In this extract from Public Sector on the Brink, Dan Carrier investigates the impact of this fickle practice on those being objectified.  

Dan Carrier
16 March 2012

The following is from 'Public Service on the Brink', which describes the denigration and undermining of public services and the public service ethos in the UK. This edited extract is taken from the chapter 'From Heroes to Zeroes: How the Press report the work of public sector employees'  by journalist Dan Carrier. (Public Service on the Brink, 2012, ed. Jenny Manson, Imprint Academic.)

If you take the news peddled in the popular press as simple fact, it would not be surprising if you got hot under the collar about how your taxes are spent. All too often there are stories about public sector employees doing a very bad job for wages funded by taxpayers. But huge cracks appear in such yarns once you examine such stories and the papers that print them. An ideological war is being waged by sections of the press against public services and public servants. There is no genuine discussion of the role of public service in today's society or of the performance of the majority of public servants.

In this climate, who would be a Union activist, representing hard working and poorly paid public employees?

Even for those so often painted as ‘heroes’ such as fire fighters, as soon as the Fire Brigade Union (the FBU) is mentioned, they are suddenly dangerous radicals intent on bringing down the state. Individual fire fighters are praised for their daily work of saving lives and battling fires—brave fireman rescues family from blaze, etc, etc— and then as soon as it comes to pay and conditions, the gloves are off.

The Daily Mail, as ever, fills its pages with rants against public sector workers and their union reps for such things as having second jobs, a media campaign that was stepped up after the FBU balloted its members for industrial action last year in reaction to changes in shift patterns and rota. The FBU saw these as cost cutting and that the changes would be dangerous. In particular the London Fire Brigade wanted to cut the night shift. Fire fighters argued that shorter night shifts could endanger people’s lives as it would affect cover and at night fires tend to be worse as they are not discovered by householders so quickly.

But instead of reporting these issues calmly, the national press (with a few notable exceptions) failed to actually report what the dispute was about, and instead painted FBU members as dangerous radicals, who didn’t know how lucky they were, happy to put the public at risk by calling for strikes. It led to industrial action in the summer and autumn of 2010, during which time the FBU was faced with a daily attack by sections of the media, who were in turn helped (according to the FBU) by the communications department of the fire brigade.

[…]

London FBU representative Ben Sprung said he was often shocked at how the press turned their ire on his colleagues—especially considering the type of work they did.

‘We felt we were always under attack from sections of the press,’ recalls Mr Sprung, a fire fighter based in north London who is a union representative and was involved in trying to negotiate shift changes with the fire brigade. ‘They were saying everything during the last dispute, such as attempts to negotiate a settlement whilst being threatened with mass sackings, was our fault.’

The way the press reported the work of fire fighters had some strange paradoxes, he states. The dispute came as moving testimonies about the work fire fighters did during the terrible events of the London bombings on the 7th of July, 2005, were made public at the 7/7 enquiry.

‘They had reported acts of bravery our fire fighters had done, painting us individually as heroes,’ recalls the FBU shop steward. ‘But then during the dispute we felt that all the forces of the state were suddenly against us, from the government down. The London Fire Brigade had a communications department staffed by 40 people, paid for by the tax payer, and they were constantly briefing against us. We were aware they had good contacts with newspapers such as [the] Daily Mail, and suddenly the tone changed: we were no longer heroes but dangerous subversives who were willing to put people’s lives at risk so we could get an extra few bob on the pay packet or some extra hours off to mow the lawn.’

So the same public sector workers who as individuals had been praised as heroes at the 7/7 enquiry and reported as such, were now being painted as militants willing to risk people’s lives by going on strike, simply over what was portrayed as selfish reasons such as improving their own pay and conditions.

Mr Sprung revealed the union had made a series of Freedom of Information requests to access figures regarding the private firm used as strike breakers, Asset Co, who had a contract to provide fire services in the event of the strike. Unsurprisingly, says Mr Sprung, the fire brigade took as long as they could providing basic information that may have helped swing public opinion behind the firemen. Suspiciously, other statistics found their way into the public domain constantly as the dispute continued.

‘The communications department was feeding friendly journalists a series of statistics which they felt could be used to rustle up stories against the FBU,’ he says. ‘It was a set up. There was collusion between the communications department and reporters.’

This led to a further paradox in union bashing. ‘There were two issues they kept talking about, which had absolutely nothing to do with our industrial action or the dispute itself,’ he recalls. One angle fed to the media was the fact that many firemen did not live in London, as if it meant they were country-seated lords of the manor, popping into town to work when they felt like it, and this was a reason they did not want their shifts changed.

‘This basically ignored the fact that fire fighters are paid so badly that many can’t afford to live near their central London bases,’ he says, a point singularly ignored by so many who wrote about the dispute.

It got worse. ‘Then there was the issue of fire fighters having second jobs,’ he says.

Again, hostile reporting made out that the shift changes were being opposed for the selfish reason that fire fighters liked to have lucrative side jobs such as taxi drivers and this ‘perk’ would be lost if there were shift changes. This fundamentally ignored two things; firstly, the shift change, with a shorter night shift, could have actually made it easier for a fire fighter to find extra employment if they needed to, but more importantly, showed an attitude about the coverage which fire fighters still find it hard to fathom.

‘Information was fed out about how many fire fighters have a second part time job,’ says Mr Sprung. ‘This story had nothing to do with our dispute but suddenly it became big news. But what shocked us was that if this was any one else and not FBU members, the right wing press would no doubt be praising us. They would be like oh, how hard working, they are struggling so much to make ends meet they are having to earn a second pay packet. Let’s face it: it’s not like any one would want to have two jobs. It’s not a luxury but a necessity because of our pay. Do you think our families enjoy having us working on shifts, and then on days off still having to work? Yet they demonised us for working too hard!’

Mr Sprung said the second job issue has a knock on effect for the fire service in London—something that the press were told about but never reported. It is about fire training, something that the FBU have often said is not as good as it could be.

‘We have many skilled fire fighters with experience in other trades —and you would be surprised how often we call on that expertise in dangerous situations,’ he says. ‘When we attend a flood, our fire service training might not be adequate, but on our crew there may well be someone who has experience as a plumber, so we use that. It is the same with electricity— all I have learnt about it hasn’t really come from fire service training, but from working on the job with people who have previously been electricians. We all have skills that help each other out. This is never reported when we are criticised for being “greedy” and holding down part time work to make ends meet.’

Then the reporting of the FBU’s conduct during the dispute also upset many members. ‘We were accused of putting people’s lives at risk,’ he says. For a fire fighter who risks his own safety regularly to help others, this slur was a bitter pill to swallow, and hit morale.

‘Our actions were never seen as about ensuring London had adequate fire cover,’ says Mr Sprung. ‘We were saying we do not want human resources officers who know little about the actual job to cut our cover at night and therefore put people’s lives at risk. This was not made clear in papers and yes, it certainly affected our members. To make matters worse, we were branded yobs, and the fact we had picket lines made us easy targets.

‘For example, we had two members run over by fire trucks, while there was not one arrest of any FBU member. With the case of two colleagues being run over, can you imagine what would have happened if it had been the other way round, if Asset Co workers had been hit by FBU men? It would have been all over The Sun. Instead it wasn't reported at all.’

But while all this may make for depressing reading, Mr Sprung says there has been a sliver of a silver lining. ‘We feel our actions had an impact and will help keep London safe,’ he says. ‘It was not nice being vilified like this in the papers, but it has made our union stronger and more united.’

To purchase ‘Public Service on the Brink’ or to contact Imprint Academic, please visit http://www.imprint-academic.com/brink 

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