Vol. 7 No. 12 · 4 July 1985
SIR: I have followed with interest your postmortems on the miners’ strike and have been particularly impressed with the way in which you have given a platform to such a wide range of views – for example, the three very different pieces in the issue of 6 June. What is still lacking is a critical, non-partisan piece on the important issue of media coverage.
For almost a whole year, from March 1984 to March 1985, the miners’ strike was given television coverage of a scale and frequency accorded to very few topics since the beginning of the television age. Throughout this time, with the possible exception of weekends, the television viewer could plug himself or herself in to a daily supply of reporting and analysis of the struggle. There was a whole crop of documentaries, special features on news reports, and analytical summaries (lasting in one case as long as three hours), which sought to present ‘an authentic view of the strike’, filmed ‘at grass-roots level’, to use the words of a researcher for Hatfield Main, a representative BBC documentary screened on 6 February. Now that the strike is over, it is time to examine this coverage, the quantity of which was never in doubt, and to ask some questions about its quality and its depth.
The predominant strategy of both news reports and documentaries was to obtain and present ‘authentic’ information by means of interviews. The reporter walked up to the striker on the picket line or in the soup kitchen; the reporter conversed with the working or striking miner and his wife in their living-room. The location might vary, but the format of the questioning was always the same. ‘How long are you prepared to stay out on strike?’ the interviewer asked. ‘As long as it takes,’ replied the striker. ‘Will intimidation ever drive you to rejoin the strike?’ the interviewer asked the working miner. ‘No, never,’ came the reply. Since both men were aware that they were being broadcast to the nation, it was hardly likely that they would answer, respectively, ‘Not much longer, because I don’t like suffering,’ or ‘Yes, it soon will, because I can’t stand it.’ Yet these patterns of question and answer occurred again and again, like a formalised series of meaningless gestures, an algebraic equation in which the two halves cancel each other out and leave nothing behind.
In sharp contrast to the treatment of the leadership on both sides, where no holds were barred, it seems that producers and reporters did not consider it worthwhile to put challenging questions to the rank and file. A rare exception occurred during a news report, when striking miners on a picket line told the reporter that they only wanted to be allowed to reason with the man who was crossing the picket line to work, and were then asked what they would do if, after discussions, he still wished to go in. ‘Well, that wouldn’t happen, because we would persuade him,’ they replied after some pause for thought.
Examples of the more thought-provoking type of question were not numerous, and tended to occur mainly in news reports. Documentaries, on the other hand, were apparently – and sometimes avowedly – made in a different spirit. Hatfield Main, made by Chris Curling, clearly laid claim to some stature within the genre. It was, characteristically, high on footage, relaively low on narrative, and completely non-judgmental, relying on occasional voice-overs and some low-key interviews to put the information across. It aimed by these means to present the pit community ‘as it really is’. Unfortunately it could not do this, for two reasons. First, any kind of outside presence must to a certain extent shape the response of those being filmed and interviewed. When the interviewer asks his questions, his choice of those questions inevitably directs the discussion and imposes a form on it, just as his interviewees, in turn, draw their verbal formulae from the media (hence the standard exchanges referred to above) and play the game according to the rules that the media lay down. There might have been more of a chance of presenting an ‘authentic view’ by removing the narrator/interviewer, by going down to the picket line or the welfare centre and simply letting the cameras roll, but even then their presence might have influenced behaviour.
Secondly, if an interviewer asks any questions at all, this produces, of necessity, an arbitrary stopping-off point in the questioning. In Hatfield Main, a striking miner told the interviewer, with the air of relating one of the facts of life, that certain miners who had been ‘scabs’ in the 1926 strike had been shunned by the community ever since. The next question might have been ‘And what do you think of that?’, but it was not asked. The makers of the documentary might reply that asking a striking miner to comment on something rather than just to state it as dogma would constitute interference with the ‘authentic view’, But if it is agreed that any kind of interview constitutes some kind of interference with the situation, then the problem of ‘Why some questions and not others?’ is a valid one. Inevitably it is a problem heavily bound up with politics, in that those of strong opinions on either side of the dispute would not wish the questions to become any more awkward.
Nobody could say that television gave the pit strike insufficient coverage. Yet in that large part of its coverage which engaged with ordinary miners, television stands convicted of a massive waste of opportunities. Fathers and sons divided by the struggle were never asked about forgiveness and tolerance. Instead of exploring ways of repairing the breaches between those who will still be living in the pit communities long after the strike, it helped to reinforce their stylised positions of difference.
Vol. 7 No. 13 · 18 July 1985
SIR: It is Friday and Friday is a good day for me because this is the day I get my giro. As I eat my breakfast, it sits next to me smiling through the windowed envelope. Yes, it seems to say, I’m all yours – a gift from the taxpayers of Merry England. I pick it up and give it a quick welcoming hug. Then I take it out of its little see-through envelope and fondle and pat it a dozen times. I’m in love with this giro. £56.10 for two weeks. The whole of breakfast is spent dreaming about how best to spend this marvellous sum. £28.05 a week. Over £4 for every single day of the week (£4 and .714285p, to be precise). I cast a quick appreciative glance out of the window at the long line of congested traffic that passes by my house early each morning. Thank you.
Now, £28.05 is not an awfully big sum to live on for a week, but those of us without work are getting sound advice from the DHSS and even from Mrs Thatcher herself, who says that the unemployed only have to choose their food carefully to maintain their standard of living. Thank you, Mrs Thatcher: on your £53,600 a year, that is very good advice – the voice of experience, I’m sure. But much as I would love to shop at Harrod’s food hall every day, choosing only the freshest lobsters, the fact is that the unemployed must choose between Tesco’s mild cheddar, or (for those who like their cheese to taste of something, even if it isn’t cheese) mature farmhouse cheddar at only 48p a quarter from Woolies.
The DHSS has also been thinking hard about how to help its claimants and I have been taking their advice. They tell us, for instance, that the unemployed have no need of doormats – newspapers will do. They’re absolutely right. I sold my doormat in Brick Lane last Sunday and now use the free advertising newspaper which is delivered weekly and has the advantage of falling just where the doormat used to lie. (I hope no one from the DHSS reads this – I think I was meant to declare the 20p I got on that mat.) The DHSS also suggests that the unemployed can save on expenditure for kitchen utensils by using their saucepans as frying-pans – or the other way round, I forget which. Here they reveal a sad lack of imagination. For over a year now, I have been using my saucepan not only as a frying-pan but also as a hammer, cup, plate, washing-up bowl, chamber-pot, and even, occasionally, as a hat. It also makes a very good begging bowl. Yet despite these Helpful Hints from the Welfare, there is a new sense of dread amongst the unemployed. At one time, there actually was a kind of security in being on social security – I mean you were secure in the knowledge that at least things couldn’t get worse. You’d touched bottom, and life was as bad as bad could be. But it seems, after all, that things can get worse and are doing so very quickly. The DHSS is stopping special payments for articles like beds and shoes, obviously in the belief that it really won’t do to have the unemployed going around with shoes on and sleeping in beds (they’ll never look for work if you spoil them). And in a further attempt to keep them out of bed and on their bikes – or rather on their toes, since I think it was only Norman Tebbit who ever gave out bicycles – the DHSS has stopped payments of housing benefit to anyone under 26 who lives in a hostel or a bed-and-breakfast place. In their dream of creating a nation of nomads looking for work, the DHSS limits a stay in any one hostel to between two and eight weeks, depending on where you are living. Stop the unemployed enjoying themselves, seems to be their message. Were the unemployed ever enjoying themselves?
Talking of dreams, a couple of months ago the Iron Lady said it was her dream to create a society without class distinctions. I don’t know where she could have had this dream but it certainly couldn’t have been in Grimethorpe, or even in Battersea, where I live. From where I sit there’s still ‘Them’ and ‘Us’ and an increasing number of ‘Them’ who fear that they will very soon be joining ‘Us’. And they will be. Some seven million people are already living below the poverty line.
Happily, my copy of the LRB also arrives on a Friday (God bless gift subscriptions – for people with friends but no money). I always turn to the classified ads page first and look for the ‘Employment Offered’ ads, but since there never are any, I turn to the ‘Exhibitions and Festivals’ column to find out which exhibitions and festivals I won’t be going to. This is great fun. (I wonder if I’m too late to ask the DHSS for a special payment for one of those super LRB T-shirts. Alas, I think so. 42˝ chest, in case any of you tax-paying LRB readers are not yet fed up with your own charity.) Next I turn to the Diary, always in the hope that it will be A.J.P. Taylor. This week (6 June) someone called Michael Stewart is writing. That name rings a bell. Didn’t he write that staggeringly insular article on the miners’ strike? In fact, didn’t I furnish the letters page with a reply? Indeed, I remember now, I did. And here he is again with his dry, nodding reasonableness and cool monotones, sounding for all the world like an airline pilot: ‘Unemployment is very high and rising.’ Yes, indeed. Three cheers for Political Economy. It is not that I am set against Mr Stewart’s statistical world-picture, it’s just that his facts seem to have about as much to do with people as Mr Gradgrind’s definition of a horse has to do with horses. What a contrast with Sam Miller’s article on the strike in the same issue. The air he breathes smells something rotten, but it’s the kind of air that fills people’s lungs.
Despite the suffering that goes on in families where the parents are unemployed, there are still those who think of the unemployed as scroungers. You get the man who has just spent lunch gazing at his salary slip, and for all that he now has a handsome sum to bank, his mind keeps coming back to that part of the slip that tells him what he will not be taking home, because, of course, we all have to pay taxes (even the unemployed, indeed). It’s not Trident or the Falklands or even the miners’ strike that makes him sore: it’s all those people scrounging off the state. I met such a fellow just the other day. When he found out I was unemployed, he exclaimed, only half-jokingly, and embarrassed because he was actually angry: ‘Oh, so you’re living off me, in other words.’ The man who said this was a computer operator and I pointed, out to him that since his job had been created at the expense of four others, and since I might have been one of those four, he was, in effect, living off me. This sent him into a delirium in which he started shouting things like, ‘Well, someone had to have that job,’ and ‘You can’t stop progress, you know.’ Guilt. It does something to a man. Earlier, this same chap had been flaunting the quickly-acquired profits on his British Telecom shares. This was once a nationalised company and, in principle at least, belonged to me as much as to my tax-burdened companion. The shares were put up for sale to that part of the nation that could afford them. The unemployed lost out again. So who’s living off whom? We’re all living off each other, of course, but it is how we live off each other that determines what kind of society we live in. Both those with closed hearts and those who simply demand rights have misunderstood the real nature of giving and sharing, which ask something active from us. The problem for the unemployed is that they are condemned to be perpetual recipients. But the unemployed, too, want to give and if any society is really to prosper then it must find ways of accepting their gifts. At the moment an increasing number of people are being told that what they can give is of no economic use to society and, therefore, of no use at all. Fortunately, in times of crisis and with little money around, one finds new ways of giving and receiving – ways which, though they are ‘uneconomic’, are still of value. That, I believe, is what the miners learnt, and that is why they were not defeated.