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.
SIR: Since this correspondence started off from Peter Ackroyd’s complaint that Eliot’s poem ‘Burnt Norton’ is not on any map, Charles Plouviez’s complaint that I can’t read a map has a certain almost pleasing familiarity. Closed circles by definition are hard to break out of; Mr Plouviez may not be convinced by having his mistake proved to him. It does, however, need to be got out of the way. If he cares to visit Harrods – an establishment that seems to have the power to obsess in too theoretical a form – the Press Office there will assure him that while Harrods has 11 entries and no single front door, the entry by which ‘of course’ most customers make their way in, and which offers fullest directions to all departments, is that FACING NORTH-EAST on Hans Crescent: it attracts the largest entry simply because it does so look towards central London, and serves most closely the bus and Tube routes.
Few people do their shopping at Harrods by map. Yet even maps, insofar as they involve human situations, can be trickier to read than Mr Plouviez assumes. Their symbols have to be interpreted in the light of human knowledge and experience. In this as in all reading a useful piece of knowledge is that one can always be mistaken.
This is why Mr Plouviez is wrong to reduce the discussion of ideas and of literature, as he does, to ‘second-hand … reading’. Presumably this means that he shares that antipathy to literary criticism which Peter Ackroyd himself stated in print not long ago. Literary criticism isn’t my own favourite medium, even when (as Ackroyd does) I write it myself, but it sometimes seems better than the arguments of its opponents. The phrase ‘second-hand reading’ constitutes just such an argument. Whether any reading is ‘first-’ or ‘second-hand’ of course depends wholly and only on the reader reading. Mr Plouviez’s remarkable definition suggests that he prefers not to entertain any ideas originating from anybody else. This refusal, which debars him from the reading of literature itself, surely requires to be called, in Woodville’s own personal language, second-class thinking. The great distinction of Eliot’s Quartets is that they struggle against this second-class thinking or closed circling of the mind which is a regressive instinct in any reader, or for that matter in any writer.
Somerville College, Oxford
SIR: In the course of his review of a novel by an American called Don Bloch (LRB, 23 May), your reviewer D.A.N. Jones chose to offer the opinion that ‘books from white-settler territory, by such authors as Athol Fugard and J.M. Coetzee, seem to present [Africans] as permanently morose, deformed in body and soul, to be pitied from a great height.’ Dimly aware, perhaps, of the gross inaccuracy of what he had just said, Jones continued: ‘I exaggerate, but Donald Bloch’s morbid novel supports my exaggeration.’ Such logic does not inspire confidence. Surely Mr Jones is aware that, for example, in Athol Fugard’s most successful recent play, ‘Master Harold’ … and the boys, the central point is the corruption of the whites, and the continuing dignity and strength of the blacks? Far from being invited to pity and patronise the two African men in the play, the suggestion is that we recognise their true brotherhood, a brotherhood from which the white ‘master’ has excluded himself by his (well-meant, ‘liberal’) affectation of superiority. There is more to it than that, of course, as there is to all Fugard’s work – not to mention the novels of J.M. Coetzee, so rashly yoked together with Fugard’s plays as ‘books from white-settler territory’. But Mr Jones seems to prefer the easy, dismissive generalisation to any recognition of complexity.
SIR: The gist of D.A.N. Jones’s review of my Secret Villages (LRB, 23 May) is a hand-knitted typology of the magazines in which my stories first appeared. I confess to finding his approach a masterstroke of misrepresentation, and as such quite original. After all, malice is seldom convincing unless delivered with a slick assurance. Jones suspects that I trim the way I reflect Scotland in my stories to suit the magazines in which they are published. His allegation is preposterous and insulting. One of the stories he refers to, ‘Women without Gardens’, is set in Hull, which is in England, which says something about Jones’s preconceptions of life north of the border. I write my stories for readers, and no particular set of readers, either here or at the New Yorker. Jones would have you believe that I measure my writing according to commercial or vainglorious literary motives, and this is annoying and untrue.
SIR: Dr Bramwell asks ‘how much’ did Russell contribute to ‘basic scientific thought’ (Letters, 18 April and Letters, 6 June). Perhaps the opinion of Alfred Tarski, one of the eminent logicians of the century, will help her. In his Introduction to Logic (first edition, New York, 1941), he says the following of Whitehead and Russell’s Principia Mathematica: ‘This work has already been quoted several times in the present book. It is undoubtedly the most representative work of modern logic, and as for the influence it has exerted it has been no less than epoch-making in the development of logical investigations.’
I may add that Russell was always very generous in acknowledging the value of Whitehead’s collaboration. But it is well-known that much that was especially original in Principia was due to Russell, and is contained in his paper entitled ‘Mathematical Logic as based on the Theory of Types’ (1908) – a paper which another eminent contemporary logician, Alonzo Church, considers as making the first appearance of a new idea of fundamental importance (Bibliography of Symbolic Logic, 1936).
Trinity College, Cambridge
SIR: Since A.C. Bramwell appears to think that Russell made little or no contribution to ‘basic scientific thought’, perhaps she could enlighten us as to the true discoverer of Russell’s Paradox – a discovery precipitating a crisis in the foundations of mathematics and which instigated the creation of all current set-theories.
The University, Hull
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