It was the week that support for strikes helped to sell newspapers. While most of the press jumped on board the union-bashing bandwagon, for a few days before the strike the Daily Mirror went back to its roots.
“I’m with strikers” declared a huge headline announcing support from Labour ex-minister Alan Johnson, who broke ranks to back them.
The Mirror is staunchly Labour. But, more to the point, many of its 3.3 million readers are union members. That is why the paper’s management calculated that joining the chorus of attacks on the unions would lose them readers—and money.
“Price we have to pay” was Monday’s headline over an excellent spread of interviews with “the nation’s lowest paid people”, all losing wages by striking. “If we don’t make a stand, the government is going to walk all over us,” a nurse told the paper.
It called the strikes “the real Big Society” and attacked David Cameron: “Damp squib? Cam off it.” It sent reporter Paul Routledge to picket lines in his hometown of Keighley, Yorkshire, where he described the strikers as “a breath of fresh air in the musty, mendacious world of politics”.
Of course, the Mirror hardly campaigned for the strike, which was eclipsed by front pages about scantily clad “celebs”. But compared to the rest of the dross that passed for reporting, it stood out.
The National Union of Journalists also noted some great examples of positive coverage in local newspapers and regional broadcasters.
Meanwhile the right wing press wheeled out its tired cliches. “Union barons” were “holding the country to ransom” (Daily Mail). They were “hardline”, “clodhopping dinosaurs” who would “wreck the recovery” (Sun), and so on.
But it was mostly muted. On the eve of the strike education minister Michael Gove tried to rally the troops. Yet his “strongest ministerial attack on the unions for a generation” (Mail) was buried by most newspapers.
Where were the scare stories that your sick granny would be left in peril on an empty hospital ward? Or your little boy would be left all alone at schools? In the event, the worst attack came from Jeremy Clarkson.
Of course, it is sad that the media preferred a celebrity scandal to reporting the reasons for the strike. But the outcry against Clarkson will make it harder for managers to victimise union activists.
The Daily Star tried to use Clarkson to whip up anti-union feeling, running a front page headline “All the strikers should be shot”. But it failed.
One BBC trade union militant summed up the mood like this: “If you smell a bit of blood, and you think there’s a chance of getting a Clarkson scalp, go get him. They’re all part of the Chipping Norton set, aren’t they? We’ve already ten-pinned Rebekah Wade—hopefully Jeremy is next. Dave, you better watch your back.”
It is sad to say that the most concerted attempt to stir up an anti-strike panic came from none other than the Guardian. For five days in the week before the strike, the paper claimed that Britain’s borders were facing “chaos” because of the action.
The strike would “leave the country vulnerable to attack” from “dirty bombs”. Yikes! “Desperation in Whitehall over looming airport chaos.” Jeepers! “Army on standby to keep Britain’s borders secure.” Run for the hills!
As we all now know, 30 November saw rather a quiet day at the borders without much panic about anything—let alone “dirty bombs”.
With the exception of one mention in a Mail front page, no other newspaper gave the border chaos story any prominence. The Express devoted just a 150 word box to it. Shame on the Guardian.
In short, the liberal and right wing press tried half-heartedly to attack a strike that enjoyed widespread support. Their case was weak. It is summed up by a leader in the Times: “Public servants deserve sympathy,” it said.
That doesn’t mean that the press won’t be looking for chances to go on the offensive. But faced with determined, popular and articulate resistance, the labour movement should seek to exploit the contradictions of the mainstream media to take our case to millions of working class people.