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With Banners Held High – the BBC and miners strikes

For those who missed it, here’s the speech I gave at Banners Held High today.

I want to rehearse some history, history familiar to everyone here, history showing a remarkable similarity between the miners’ battle with the Tory government in 1926 and in 1984. I want to do this as a way to analyse the true role of the BBC. And why that is politically important.

In 1925 there were 1.2 million miners; their work fuelled the economy and helped the balance of payments. During the previous seven years pay had gone down from £6 per week to under £4.Winston Churchill was Chancellor of the Exchequer, although he knew nothing about finance. HIs own were, as usual, in disarray. Debt pursued him all his life.

The Governor of the Bank of England, Montagu Norman, together with many in the City, wanted to put the pound back on the gold standard. Churchill did so, possibly because it appealed to his love of the Imperial past. This raised the value of the pound. Coal exports became too expensive and imports cheap enough to undercut domestic coal. Prices had to come down, so the mine owners cut wages and extended hours. The miners, who were already finding it difficult to feed their families, resisted. Their slogan was “not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day”.

Baldwin’s Tory government of course sided with the owners, but, just like Thatcher, he delayed the confrontation in order to prepare for the fight. The miners were supported by other workers, who knew that if the miners were defeated, they would be next, so the TUC reluctantly went along, worrying about militancy and revolutionary elements – the Bolshevik revolution was still recent memory. A General Strike loomed.

The Press Barons firmly supported the mine owners. Of course.

Churchill was the editor of the Government newspaper The British Gazette. In it he wrote, “I do not agree that the TUC have as much right as the Government to publish their side of the case and to exhort their followers to continue action”. The miners had no voice, no way to reach the general public with their case. But there was a problem. The new device called the wireless was becoming popular. The manufacturers, realising that no one would buy their sets unless there was something to listen to, had created the British Broadcasting Company and appointed John Reith to run it.

Churchill wanted to take it over and use it for Government propaganda. Baldwin, a much cannier class enemy, instead did a deal with Reith. He could keep his BBC providing he toed the Government’s anti strike line. Baldwin knew that people would be more likely to believe what they heard if they thought it was independent, nothing to do with the mine owners or the government.

Reith retained his control, thus creating the template for the mirage of independence still proclaimed by politicians. In return, throughout the strike no voice defending the miners or putting their case was heard. All the news was about strike breakers and the lack of morale among the strikers. Every voice supported the Government and the mine owners. Reith was unperturbed. He reasoned that the elected Government was on the side of the people, He was on the side of the people, so the BBC should be on the side of the Government.
His diaries reveal that he became a great admirer of Mussolini and his views were neo Fascist.

The Labour Party leadership, led by Ramsay MacDonald, washed its hands and walked away. The TUC wrung its hands and walked away. Its leaders betrayed the miners after a few days. They were left to swing in the wind. They were starved back to work, on the owners terms, many months later.

In 1984-5 the Labour leadership and the TUC walked away, leaving the miners to fight the State in the form of Thatcher’s police and biased courts and the BBC, which nearly always filmed from behind the police lines, thus seeing the miners’ self defence as the violence of the mob. You will remember the creative editing of the Orgreave footage. It opened with an image of a miner kicking a policeman. The BBC, scared of Thatcher’s venom, was not about to show balance towards “the enemy within”.

It did the BBC little good. The Director General, Alasdair Milne, was sacked by the Thatcher appointed Chairman, the right wing Marmaduke Hussey. Clearly, the BBC had to be taken in hand.

Political obedience was not just demanded of the BBC. Thames, the ITV company, lost its franchise. This was punishment. Its documentary Death on the Rock had displeased Thatcher. It was replaced by Carlton, the poorest quality company in the history of TV. But its owner was a Tory friend and its PR man, in his only job outside politics, was called David Cameron.

They say the English ruling class invented hypocrisy. It’s certainly very sophisticated. The BBC proclaims to the world and needs to believe of itself that it is independent of the Westminster and Whitehall establishment. Yet its very existence is predicated on funds voted by that very establishment. No wonder the BBC obeys its masters.

Its reputation for news was cemented during WW2. Official censorship was accepted by all. The public relied on the wireless and trusted it. After the war the BBC became the centre of national life. Its authority was respected all over the world. But its Chairman was a political appointment and its funds came from No 10. The government set the license fee. Of course, in a two party state, there’s always another party ready to take office, so both sides of the argument must be heard. This is called balance. Two politicians pretend to debate an issue under strict rules of encounter. No other views are allowed, except to trash them. Then they and the BBC producer go off for a drink together.

Just a few years ago both the Chairman and the Director General resigned over a brief early morning radio report suggesting the government had lied over Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. A reporter clearly didn’t know how to behave. Of course, the BBC might have checked and if the story stood up, said, “see you in court, we stand by it”. But if you thought they might have done that, you too are under the illusion that the BBC is independent.

Never expect the BBC to see any question from the POV of a worker, especially in the provinces. Its perspective is Westminster based, its people live nearby and if they come up here it is as visiting anthropologists curious about the quaint customs of the natives. When did you last see people like you represented accurately in you dignity as intelligent, productive adult citizens? To see the world from your point of view? You are caricatured in the soaps and patronised by so called reality TV, sensationally revealing you all as scroungers. Or thugs on strike.

On important matters the voice of the BBC is the voice of the ruling class. Any disagreements you happen to see on screen merely reveal that class in dispute with itself. During the financial melt down after 2007, virtually all the voices interpreting the events and all the voices proposing possible solutions, were from the City or Wall St, the very people who had caused it in the first place. No Marxist economists, scarcely even a Keynesian. No Trade Union leader. No one with a socialist perspective. The only game in town is market fundamentalism.

Why is this important?

Because the most powerful forces at work in the world are ideas. Ideology decides which facts are relevant and how to make sense of them through stories. These stories are called The News. I did not endear myself when in the 60s I claimed that the most accomplished fiction on BBCTV was the NineO’Clock News. That, by the way, is not true any more. Now the most accomplished fiction is The TenO’Clock News.

The people who create it think they are telling the truth. They try hard to be balanced. But they work within an ideological framework the more powerful for it being unconscious. They respond to the Right wing press, which sets the daily agenda, and they must always have an eye to the wishes of their political masters.
Objective truth, even in The News, is a mirage. Attach meaning to facts, contextualise them, and you tell a story. It’s an act of creation.

But it’s their story, just as the story told in schools as history is their story. They know that if they control the narrative they control the people.

The BBC is a great National achievement. It is a publicly financed institution, seeking no private profit, its content free of commercials. But it occupies valuable territory which would be profitable for Murdoch and American media corporations if vacated. That is why some Tories want to abolish it. But it is popular, even with Tory voters, so they starve it, brief against it and allow profit making companies to make inroads into it. To soften it up. Then they hope to move in for the coup de grace. Think of the NHS as the model. They’re doing the same there, under our very eyes.

Because of its fine achievements we think of the BBC as family, as part of us. But it is not ours. It does not host a national conversation. In the end, when it matters, It is owned by No 10.

A democracy is worthless unless the media are free to speak truth to power. We must make the BBC ours if we want to achieve a real democracy.

I want a BBC that retains its historical mission to educate, inform and entertain; is free to speak truth to power; is democratised from within and without; is separated from the clutches of the Westminster conspiracy against the people; a BBC drawing together all strands of our national life and truly engaging in a national conversation.

It will be a fight to achieve it.
But one worth fighting.

TG Feb 2016

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