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How the Media Still Gets the Miners Wrong

A new series explores the painful realities of the miners' strike through the eyes of those directly involved. But it ignores the crux of the strike — Thatcher's determination to crush the organised working class.

Pickets clash with police outside the National Union of Mineworkers headquarters, Sheffield, UK, 13th April 1984. (Photo by John Rogers)

As we approach the fortieth anniversary of the miners’ strike, Channel 4 has delivered a groundbreaking three-part documentary: Miners’ Strike 1984: The Battle for Britain. As the filmmakers state, this was a watershed of the post-war era — an event that wounded and changed Britain forever.

The series reveals the painful realities and traumatic divisions that tore through mining communities in 1984. Interviews with those who experienced the strike first-hand are essential viewing, revealing the ongoing trauma of the year-long struggle to a younger generation of viewers. New ground is also covered on the police brutality of Orgreave that will intensify public outrage and fuel long-running and ongoing demands for an inquiry into events that day.

Never-before-seen footage shot by Keith Brookes and Martin Harvey of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) shows events from the miners’ perspective, rather than the one presented by South Yorkshire Police. Miners recount how they were lured into the fields at Orgreave before riot police and mounted officers charged, inflicting appalling levels of violence. Miner Arthur Critchlow, featured, recalls being struck by a truncheon when he stopped to help an injured man:

[I got a] fractured skull. By the time we got to the holding area, the blood had gone down my back, down my legs and into my socks. I think about it most days and you do get upset but you have to drop it. Otherwise it will devour you.

Important also is the perspective of Critchlow’s solicitor, Gareth Peirce, who states that the police chose to push miners into the village of Orgreave, among members of the public, to secure the charge of riot. At the time the charge could have led to miners serving a life behind bars. As we know, the riot trials collapsed after fabricated police testimony was deemed ‘unreliable’ in court. What is new is former officers appearing on national television and blowing the whistle on the scale of police corruption. Tony Munday, a serving officer at Orgreave, reveals that his statement was directed by a senior officer:

He dictated probably two paragraphs. Essentially, they were the components of the offence of riot, in fear and expectation of violence.

Dubbed ‘the biggest frame-up ever’ by defence barrister Michael Mansfield, police brutality at Orgreave and the fabrication of evidence is long overdue an inquiry. If the documentary achieves a swing of public support as we have seen in recent weeks following ITV’s Mr Bates Vs the Post Office it will be judged, rightly, as a success.

However, despite its merits, the series is not without shortcomings. Elsewhere it largely follows in the groove of well-worn narratives, lingering on picket line clashes, strike-breaking miners, and divided communities. Missing are the real cruxes of the strike — politically motivated mass pit closures and the existential threat to collective working-class security posed by the weakening of trade unionism.

The documentary repeats the presentation of 20 pits that were set to close in March 1984 with the loss of 20,000 jobs. This downplays the real number of pits set for closure, a ‘hit list’ revealed by Arthur Scargill at the time and later confirmed in declassified cabinet papers that showed the true intention was to close 75 pits over three years. This would have led to the loss of 64,000 jobs and plunged entire communities into the swelling numbers of those already unemployed.

It is this scale of closures at a time of high unemployment that is vital for understanding the miners’ fierce and prolonged resistance in defence of communities that were sustained by the local pit. As one former miner put it in the documentary, the pit was like a ‘mother’:

If people came upon bad times, had to have a leg off or an arm off, the ‘mother’ could look after them, find them work.

More, too, could have been said of the ongoing impact of pit closures in former mining areas or the campaign to pardon miners who were unfairly imprisoned and blacklisted. A decision to pardon miners in Scotland is a step in the right direction here.

Context is also missing in the form of the government’s meticulous planning and instigation of the strike, leaving viewers unaware of the power dynamics at play. The Thatcher government’s micromanagement, from controlling the narrative of so-called uneconomic pits to its willingness to absorb colossal amounts of resources – described as a ‘very good investment’ by Tory chancellor Nigel Lawson after the strike – are aspects less explored. The state’s intention to crush the nation’s strongest trade union, the ‘enemy within’, as precursor to imposing a new social and economic order therefore remains a story yet to be fully examined – and yet it is a vital one to understand the politicisation of police forces and the callous weaponisation of hunger that placed unimaginable pressures on miners to return to work.

While the documentary rightly questions media coverage of Orgreave, events elsewhere are framed through the eyes of reporters who often adhered to government narratives rather than challenging them. This is evident in the portrayal of ‘Scargill’s Strike’ in episode three, which centres on the shadowy figure of David Hart as a lens through which to view Arthur Scargill and the strike overall. What this typically achieves is a misdirected focus away from the agency of striking miners on the ground, who largely directed the character and trajectory of the strike.

Forty years on, a stark disconnect persists between local knowledge and national representation, with competing versions of the strike sharing little resemblance. Nowhere is this contrast more evident than the unprecedented scale of international solidarity and support that striking miners received from workers across the world – a topic that continues to be largely ignored and unknown outside of pit communities.

While local memory risks being forgotten, national representations of the strike continue to dominate, with a fixation on division and picket line violence. This follows in Channel 4’s documentary which, regrettably, also drifts towards the conventional portrayal of the strike as a doomed cause led by a leader out of touch with his members. What remains obscure is the fact that communities up and down the country were united behind their union in solidarity and that the strike came close to success on several occasions, despite being badly let down by the feeble leadership of the Labour Party and the Trades Union Congress.

Despite its flaws, the documentary gives a wider audience an insight into a now alien world of vibrant working-class communities with trade unionism at its heart. The full story of their struggle against the state, however, is one that still needs to be covered.