For a few days last October the Yorkshire mining village of Grimethorpe appeared to lose its composure. News of Grimethorpe colonised the front pages of the tabloids. It was a strange affair. On 17 October 1984 we were told the story of Coal Board property set on fire by ‘rampaging hooded mobs’, and of a woman police sergeant attacked and injured after the same mob had besieged the police station. The following day the Deputy Chief Constable of South Yorkshire was to be seen on the main news broadcast of the day giving the villagers an ‘unreserved apology’ for instances of police wrong-doing.
Grimethorpe is not the kind of place where an outsider blends into the landscape. When I went there the other day I was modestly dressed, almost demure. Not, I thought, a sore thumb. I got down from the bus. Two small boys cycled up to me. One of them asked: ‘Art thou poooof?’ ‘Art thou gay?’ clarified his friend. I was about to treat with them when the first boy offered to fight me. I made off up the hill. Everyone knows everyone else, at least by sight, in this village of six thousand people. One old man in the ‘Bullet’, the ex-servicemen’s club, sat with a friend born in the same street ten days after him. They had gone to school together, been miners at Grimethorpe pit, joined the same regiment, returned to ‘Grimey’, retired together, and were now, in their late sixties, supping half-pints and teasing the man at the next table because he was an outsider: he had come from the nearby village of South Kirkby over sixty years ago.
The pit is the reason the village exists. Eight hundred of Grimethorpe mine’s 1500 workers live in the village. Perhaps another eight hundred work in the brickyards and the Coalite and Pulverite factories adjoining the colliery yard and in the Coal Board’s Shafton Workshops. Other villagers are miners at neighbouring pits. Those small industries and businesses in Grimethorpe which do not depend directly on coal depend directly on the custom of miners and their families. ‘Grimethorpe is not called Grimethorpe because it’s dirty, though it is,’ one man told me. A Viking called Grima settled here. There has been commercial coal-mining within the parish boundary since the 16th century. The shaft of the present pit was sunk in 1894, and according to the locals, the area has been covered in coal-dust ever since. They claim to have to redecorate their houses twice as often as people living in Sheffield. Although Grimethorpe stretches across a small valley and reaches up two hills to form ‘the red city’ and the ‘white’, so-called after the colour of the houses, nevertheless the pit and its surrounding industrial complex dominate the village, giving the area a harsh, dramatic appearance. Beyond the winding-gear of Grimethorpe colliery lie the slag-heaps, and in between is the New Park Spring coal stockyard, scene of the 22 arrests of 14 October 1984, after which some rioting did indeed take place.
Not a single Grimethorpe miner who lived in the village returned to work before the mass walk-back last March. Two villagers working at other pits returned earlier. They were not from mining families and have been totally ostracised. They will probably move soon, for shops will not serve them or their families. The village is bedrock Labour (‘except for the old lady who lives in the big house up on the hill – she is independent Labour’), and was solid behind Scargill and the strike. It might be seen, then, as bizarre that some of the most serious off-the-picket-line violence of the entire strike should have occurred in such a united village. Indeed, the local vicar, Colin Patey, suggests that ‘because of the solidarity of the strike here, there’s probably been less bother, apart from that one notorious week, than in a lot of other places.’ The strike was discussed heatedly at the time, but the general belief that it was justified was rarely questioned. Arguments were about tactics, about the ballot and about mass picketing, and these arguments were private. Grimethorpe did not allow the press to split the village into factions.
[*] Published by Barnsley Women against Pit Closures (£1.50, 0 9509828 06).
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.
SIR: I refer to the article by Sam Miller, ‘Grimethorpe Now’, in the London Review of Books of 6 June. He quotes, with almost lyrical satisfaction, how an 18-stone miner smashed a policeman’s head through a police-car window. Not just once: ‘he broke every window with the policeman’s head.’ He obviously approves of the fact that this man ‘has an alibi, a cast-iron alibi’. We, the readers, are meant to infer from this what wonderful people are the inhabitants of Grimethorpe. Sam Miller seems to get the voyeur’s flawed satisfaction from this. You describe him as a London journalist who specialises in Middle Eastern affairs: perhaps he would do better if he stuck to his specialty.
Sam Miller writes: I did not condone the assault; I was reporting an account of it. If I had seen any point in airing my own disapproval of the assault, or of the account, I would have done so.