On 18 June 1984, the Battle of Orgreave was lost in both the fields and the media. A distorted version of events spread across the news, framing Orgreave as a riot by out-of-control miners intent on bringing down the government. Despite its clear falsehood, this narrative set the tone for the strike, and in the long term served to alienate the strikers from the public and trade union support that they needed to win.
That year, the Conservative Party and its leader, Margaret Thatcher, enjoyed strong political support in the print and broadcast media. Recent press narratives of mob violence and industrial anarchy from Brixton to Liverpool to Yorkshire were helping to shape public opinion and manufacture consent for a political project dedicated to undermining working-class communities and crushing the trade unions. The true events at Orgreave, however, told an altogether different story—one of vicious police brutality, and one with the power to shock still today.
Striking miners had walked into a trap at Orgreave while attempting to recreate the famous victory at Saltley Gate in 1972, when miners and trade unionists effectively blocked the movement of coal supplies. Led by a relatively known NUM official at the time, Arthur Scargill, this form of targeted picketing was so effective that the government declared a state of emergency after just a month of strike action. A three-day working week was implemented to save electricity, before the government submitted to the miners’ wage demands.
Twelve years later, lessons had been learnt, and a national police force was mobilised in response to the threat of picketing—but this response was often at odds with the civil liberties of pit communities, which effectively found themselves coming under police occupation. The police force that greeted miners at Orgreave was as big as 6,000, including forty-two mounted officers holding staves twice as long as truncheons.
Dressed for a riot, 345 officers carried round shields and batons. At the side of the fields stood police with dogs. Camera crews and photographers watched on as a futile attempt by miners to push against police lines was met with mounted charges into the crowd by police swinging truncheons. Short-shield units then ran into the field, attacking miners at random with baton blows. According to police reports at the time—likely hugely underestimated—fifty-one miners were injured with wounds beyond cuts and bruises, including truncheon blows to the face and head.
As one miner recalled:
It made no difference if pickets stood still, raised their hands or ran away; truncheons were used on arms and legs, trunks and shoulders, and particularly on heads and faces. Men lay around unconscious or semi-conscious with vicious wounds on their bodies, more often than not with bloody gashes on the backs of their heads.
Some miners retaliated—but a ‘battle’ of equal forces on equal terms this was not. As the civil rights organisation Liberty rightly summed up: ‘there was a riot. But it was a police riot’.
Subsequent news media coverage, however, presented a very different version of events. On the BBC’s early evening news, video footage was reversed to show miners instigating the scenes of violence, rather than the other way round. The reporter, John Thorne, spoke of ‘horrific’ attacks on the police as ‘mass picketing had turned to rioting’. Despite pictures of bloodied miners with wounds on their heads, Thorne added reassuringly that the police had ‘remained in control at all times’.
This misrepresentation continued the following day with a stream of front-page stories that sold a scene of miner mob violence to the public. In the Times, police only ‘advanced’ after being ‘overwhelmed by the pickets’. The Sun struck a celebratory tone, lauding the ‘amazing cavalry charge’ of the mounted officers who ‘broke up a bloody riot’.
For those who gained the majority of their knowledge about the strike via the news media, its origins—pit closures, and the resulting attack on the communities that depended on them, the effects of which are still felt today—were lost in a maze of made-up headlines.
The Effects of Distortion
The myth of trade union brutality at Orgreave followed a pattern within media reporting that conflated picketing with violence through the 1970s and 1980s. It was a theme Margaret Thatcher and her government spokespersons would emphasise repeatedly throughout the strike, and after its defeat. Orgreave, their official narrative suggested, was just another attempt at ‘mob rule’.
Public opinion was, predictably, heavily impacted. In August 1984, sixty-two percent of respondents to an NOP poll believed that picketing miners were responsible for the violence during the dispute. A few weeks after the events at Orgreave, twenty-seven percent said that their opinion of the police had actually improved.
The media coverage affected public opinion in more subtle ways, too, obscuring the absence of discussion of the issues which had led to the strike in the first place. As the NUM Scottish vice-president George Bolton noted, after a whole year out, the average person still didn’t really know what the strike was about. Something similar was true of other trade unionists who refused to give support during the strike: John Lyons, General Secretary of the Electrical Power Engineers Association, would argue that the strike was not about pit closures but was instead ‘essentially a revolutionary strike, intended to mobilise the trade unions to take power by industrial means.’
This characterisation of the ’84-5 strike retains its appeal among right-wing commentators who continue to assert that Orgreave is symbolic of a one-man intention to destroy democracy. Such descriptions echo a print media obsession with the miners’ leader, Arthur Scargill, often depicted as a Marxist tyrant who abused the loyalty of miners for political ends.
Right-wing newspapers covering the strike were often creative in constructing this narrative. On 9 May 1984, the Daily Express devoted its entire front page to an imaginary speech made by Scargill about his real reasons for the strike. The Sun went a step further six days later, depicting the union leader as Yorkshire Hitler with a Nazi-style salute, before print unions refused to print the image. Against this backdrop, the violent scenes at Orgreave could easily be presented as another example of Scargill attempting to overthrow democracy.
The actions of police continue to be justified by setting them against the fiction of mob violence, undermining not only the strike’s real causes but the vital role played by trade unions in civil society and working-class security. In discussions of the strike today, these topics continue to be evaded, despite being central to understanding the dispute.
And the problem of media distortion when it comes to industrial action and working-class communities is far from over. Organised workers continue to be demonised as a militant mob: proposed strike action by the RMT union against wage freezes and staff cuts this year has been described as a ‘Marxist’ union strike led by ‘union barons’. By this point, the attacks are unsurprising—but the question of building an alternative media landscape to fight the distortion and mischaracterisation by a hostile mainstream press remains as urgent as ever.