There was remarkable unanimity on the front pages of national newspapers on Friday 18 March. With the exception of the Times every one of them led on the shock news that DP World, a global logistics group based in Dubai, had the day before abruptly fired 800 seafarers working on P&O Ferries.
The papers all strongly condemned DP World’s action.
U-turn by media: condemnation of union action
How times change! Fast forward to the first day of the RMT rail strike on Monday 20 June and the right-wing press acted as an echo chamber promoting the government’s own political agenda. Transport minister Grant Shapps refused to intervene in the rail dispute because the government’s strategy was to use the strike to whip up public anger to deflect people’s attention from the government’s own abysmal failings over rocketing energy costs and soaring food prices.
What we saw being played out was a crude attempt to resurrect the images and stories Thatcher and the right-wing press deployed during the ‘winter of discontent’ of 1978–79.
Derek Jameson, editor of the Daily Express at the time, admitted in coverage of the industrial action of the late 1970s “we pulled every dirty trick in the book; we made it look like it was general, universal and eternal when it was in reality scattered, here and there, and no great problem”.
And yet the memories remain potent, to be dredged up just as trade unionists, after a decade of zero or below-inflation wages rises, voted to take action. In the weekend papers, as the TUC organised a march in London on 18 June to demand action on the cost of living, we saw deranged examples of vicious anti-union coverage in the Tory press, clearly synchronised to support the government anti-union attack.
Government anti-union propaganda
One of the mast blatant examples of this was the Sunday Telegraph front-page story, with Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng accusing trade union leaders of bribing workers to go on strike. He said the figures showed that ‘militant trade unions’ had been quietly amassing reserves in order to unleash a summer of chaos this year.
“It’s clear they’ve been plotting this for some time. Looking at the figures, this plan of theirs is designed to inflict maximum damage on millions of people for as long as possible.”
As a Unite spokesperson said, “The idea that this is part of some massive, co-ordinated union plot is the stuff of fantasy”.
Press coverage of industrial action underlines yet again the basic point that ‘freedom of the press’ means the freedom of their billionaire owners to pump out poisonous propaganda.
Article first published in Media North: Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom (North). For more from Media North, and to subscribe to their newsletter, visit their website.