The 84-85 miners’ strike and media communication.

Posted by: Dr John Jewell

On the 3rd January, the National Archive released nearly 500 previously unavailable government files from 1984, including papers from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Cabinet Office. As well as providing fascinating insights into how the Thatcher government reacted to the Brighton bomb and the murder of PC Yvonne Fletcher outside the Libyan Embassy, we learn that at the most critical point of the miners’ strike the tory administration had plans to declare a state of emergency and use the armed forces to move coal to power stations.

Now, according to news reports this morning of January 29th,  Shadow Cabinet Office Minister Michael Dugher will call on Francis Maude to apologise for this in the House of Commons . Norman Tebbit, Secretary for Trade and Industry throughout the strike called Dugher’s request, ‘plain absurd. Next they’ll want an apology for freeing the Falklands.’

I don’t think there should be any surprise that the Tories considered using the army – Thatcher’s antipathy toward the miners and the leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, Arthur Scargill, was hardly a secret at the time. There were occasions when she spoke of the strike in stark, binary and militaristic terms. At a meeting of the Conservative 1922 Committee in July 1984, she told assembled members:In the Falklands we had to fight the enemy from without. Here is the enemy within. And it is much more difficult to fight and just as dangerous to liberty.’

In the same month she appeared on the BBC’s Newsnight and began by saying Scargill had replaced democracy with thuggery. She stated that if the government gave in to the violence and intimidation shown by the striking miners then there was no future for trades unionism, or, even, democracy. She was steadfast: ‘One never expected some miners threatened with violence and intimidation. Never. It is the work of extremists. It is the enemy within. Violence and intimidation must never pay.’

The strike was a struggle of ideology. Cabinet papers released in August 2013 reveal Thatcher’s long-held ambitions to crush the power of Britain’s trade unions’  Her government believed that they  had the mandate of the people to enforce market values on national industries and to curb union power which they thought had been responsible for Britain’s post – war economic decline. If Scargill believed the strike to be simply about the protection of jobs, then it clearly was not. It represented the last major display of industrial union power in this country.

Vitally, the miner’s strike emphasised that industrial disputes could no longer be won on the picket lines. The battleground was the media.  Norman Tebbitt, writing in his autobiography stated, ‘I do not think that anyone has properly assessed the skill with which the dispute was foreseen and then managed by the Government’

The government conducted itself during the strike as if it were engaged in an election campaign. This was not just a direct battle with the pit workers but rather an attempt to persuade the public that trades unionism was an inherently pernicious entity. The whole weight of the Conservative Party’s political machine was thrown behind a cause which was regularly depicted by the government as a simple battle between good and evil. It became a debate solely about the personality of the government and the personality of Scargill.

Whilst the Conservative government was generally careful to limit Thatcher’s personal proclamations on the strike, Scargill was the NUM as far as the media was concerned. He was responsible for the issue of each and every national media statement on the behalf of the NUM and appeared at every news conference. As official spokesman, only his words were heard. He embodied the strike. He also knew the importance of television as a means of appearing before the NUM membership and the public as a whole. He made perceptively timed appearances throughout the dispute. Yet he continually accused the BBC and ITN of distorted coverage, particularly concerning picket line violence. Nell Myers, Scargill’s press officer during the strike, outlined the union’s attitude in an interview with The Guardian in 1985: ‘The industrial correspondents, along with the broadcasting technicians, are basically our enemies. Responsible for….. a cyclone of vilification, distortion and untruth.’

By contrast, throughout the strike the National Coal Board (NCB) and the government, sought to exploit the news media. The government realised that there had to be a massive propaganda operation to convince strikers that there was absolutely no point in them staying out any longer. They were acutely aware of the importance of the Sunday newspapers in setting the agenda for other sections of the media – particularly television. To this day, in the internet age, the following strategy is still adhered to by those seeking to manage the news agenda: by about 8 PM on a Saturday copies of the first editions of newspapers have reached newsrooms and a story of perceived national significance will be recycled in Sunday morning’s news. By lunchtime, if the story is important enough, the television programmes will report the reaction to that morning’s news. If the timing has gone to plan, then the story can be stretched over a further two or three days, giving more publicity to a story which may have been submerged by other news if it had broken on a weekday.

During the miners’ strike, Thatcher’s media strategists ensured that a minister or member of the NCB was available for media comment first thing on Monday mornings. By meticulous planning maximum governmental exposure was ensured. In 1984, BBC breakfast news and ITV’s breakfast programmes dominated and it was possible to have representatives in the most suitable time slots for interviews to take place.

It is also true that the government became increasingly reliant on the expertise of advertising consultants as the dispute wore on. Indeed, as expert on the media and strikes, Nicholas Jones, has pointed out, in 1985 the government revealed that, it had spent £4,266,000 on national advertising plus a further £300,000 locally’.

The government won the communication battle by continually highlighting the futility of continued action while miners were steadily returning to work. It ran a highly effective propaganda campaign orchestrated by party strategists who had already won two elections. And, of course, it benefitted from a largely compliant media.

In complete contrast, Scargill found it impossible to delegate any of his responsibilities as official spokesman for the NUM. There was no overall communications strategy, his technique was too one-dimensional and his persistence and ingenuity clearly not endearing to those outside the union. In the last great industrial dispute of the 20th century – these factors were crucial.