Aberfan and Orgreave: The BBC in moments of national trauma

During moments of national trauma, the public turns to the BBC for shared experience and understanding. But how well is the corporation doing at honouring the experiences of the victims?

Ioan Marc
23 November 2016

The graves of the victims of the Aberfan disaster in the village's cemetery in Wales, on the 50th anniversary of the tragedy. Andrew Matthews PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.Hegel argued that the newspaper serves a purpose akin to the Morning Prayer. In Hegel’s era, ‘realists’ settled down every morning with their breakfast and routinely read the same stories as their fellow compatriots. Like the Morning Prayer, the newspaper offered a shared experience of the world and informed the collective consciousness. While newspapers have lost ground to other mediums in the present day, notably television and the Internet, and the Morning Prayer seems relatively absent, Hegel’s sentiment persists: media informs our shared experience.

Media in our time offers myriad perspectives that often skew our shared experience with positive and negative results. Differing interpretations open the wider political and cultural debate, for example, and offer voices to the marginalised, which is undoubtedly positive. But rent seeking and misinformation often inform these varying perspectives and serve to undermine national discourse, which is undoubtedly negative. During moments of national trauma, however, folks tend to ignore the more compromised and thus unreliable outlets and turn instead to the BBC for a sense of shared experience. Two principal reasons explain this trend: the public fund the BBC and thus there exists a sense of ownership, which instils trust, and the public seldom seek a compromised position due to the sensitive nature of the event and opt instead for assumed neutrality.

The BBC thus has a huge responsibility in moments of national trauma. As a service relied upon by the public, the onus rests on the BBC to offer balanced coverage that includes marginalised voices and avoids rent seeking and misinformation.

The fiftieth anniversary of the mining disaster at Aberfan, serves as an example of the BBC at its best. Few other outlets covered the anniversary of Aberfan in detail and none offered anything close to the BBC’s extensive programming. The BBC explored the different voices of those involved: survivors and campaigners, experts and historians, politicians and workers, poets and artists. There was a profound sense of national purpose in the BBC’s coverage and the coverage was, as demonstrated below, reliable and profound.

Aberfan: The Green Hollow explored the tragedy through a film poem that brought my mum, who travelled to Aberfan as a working class fifteen-year-old the day after the disaster, to tears. Huw Edwards gave viewers historical context with expected neutrality in Aberfan: The Fight for Justice, which examined the voices of the survivors of Aberfan and scrutinised the various failures that led to the disaster with composure and a necessary dose of anger.

The historian Dai Smith’s radio programme, Aberfan: Meaning and Memory, investigated the ways in which the men and women of Aberfan made sense of their loss, exploring the Adornian question of how to create meaning after tragedy. Max Boyce’s The Voices of Aberfan injected hope and humour into the national conversation through an assessment of Welsh choirs. Boyce spoke to folks about the evenings spent in the wake of Aberfan singing for three hours at a time before they visited pubs and working men’s clubs. The choir members explain that singing, and to a lesser extent beer, offered a sense of relief, a momentary respite from the foreboding shadow of Aberfan.

The BBC’s coverage was balanced and reliable. The aforementioned programmes, and there are plenty of others worth mentioning, gave a voice to the folks affected by Aberfan and enlightened the public debate by scrutinising different perspectives. The Aberfan coverage showed the BBC as a balanced and neutral broadcaster. This is how the BBC, an organisation ostensibly dedicated to public service, is supposed to cover such events.

There have been occasions of national trauma, however, where the BBC has failed to remain neutral and has equally failed to offer a voice to the marginalised. Coverage of the Battle of Orgreave, a defining moment in the 1984–85 miners’ strike, serves as an example of this failure.

Folks tuned into the BBC on the evening of the strike for a shared experience, expecting reliable information. Viewers witnessed footage of miners hurling missiles at police, followed by mounted officers charging. This existed in what seemed like chronological time and thus the BBC’s footage awarded the police justification for the charge. The miners gratuitously attacked the police, it appeared to the unknowing eye, and thus the police response seemed defensible.

This was not, however, the chronology of events. Miners and activists, particularly the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign, have long argued that the BBC reversed the footage. They claim that strikers hurled missiles after being attacked, and thus the police charge, not the hurling of missiles, was unprovoked. In recent years, an IPCC report has corroborated these claims, suggesting that the BBC had indeed reversed the footage.

At that pivotal moment, therefore, the BBC was a friend to the authorities and an enemy of the working class. Their neutrality was compromised. The tampering of footage informed the shared experience at the precise moment when the public was deciding their loyalty. It would be difficult indeed to argue that a reversal in the footage, altering the sequence of events, was somehow accidental, as the BBC ambiguously claims. A more reasoned argument is that the BBC coverage purposely undermined the miners and skewed the shared experience in favour of the authorities.

The BBC at the time and indeed in the years following Orgreave offered little traction to working class voices and instead repeated theories advocated by the authorities. The notion that miners were to blame was prominent in the BBC’s coverage. Despite miners losing their jobs and in many cases suffering the loss of their communities, the BBC perpetuated the miners not as victims but as perpetrators. It is perhaps unsurprising considering the lack of working class perspectives during the BBC’s coverage of Orgreave, offered quite literally from behind police lines, that many viewers deemed working class people, not the authorities, culpable.

The BBC, so often relied upon for their ability to obviate rent seeking, abused rent seeking practices at a pivotal moment that defined the history of the labour and trade union movements in Britain. This is verily unforgivable. Misinformed and misleading coverage of this kind, which overlooks the voices of the working class and relies instead on the prevailing voices of the authorities, shows the BBC at its worst: a public service dedicated to perpetuating the mythologies of the establishment.

If properly performed, the BBC’s coverage of national trauma informs our shared experience with neutral perspectives. If improperly performed, however, the BBC skews public opinion in favour of prevailing and often undeserving voices. The parallels of Aberfan and Orgreave are evident: both disasters in their own right, both occurred in mining communities, both essential moments for the working class. The BBC’s coverage of these events, however, differed entirely.

Coverage of Aberfan demonstrated the BBC’s ability to offer disparate opinions that scrutinised the authorities in reliable historical context. Coverage of Orgreave demonstrated the BBC’s ability to skew our shared experience in favour of the authorities, verily lacking proper historical context. One highlights the success of the BBC – serving the public through neutral coverage – while the other highlights the failure of the BBC – serving the authorities through biased coverage. It is worth remembering in the context of these events, therefore, that the public, not the authorities, own the BBC and thus the BBC should serve the public and not the authorities.

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