“It is that time again — when bickering between Tube bosses and union kingpins bring the London Underground to a juddering halt, and the streets of the city resemble a termite mound that has been poked with a big stick.”
So began a BBC online article, by Ed Davey, which promised readers the “facts to know” about strikes on London Underground in the summer of 2015. These facts included such things as: “New York’s subway has run all night since it opened... in 1904”, and “Tube drivers are happy and wealthy, statistics suggest”.
There was hardly even a pretence of impartiality, and almost no effort to communicate what the strikes were actually about. They were written off as “bickering”, and blamed on “union kingpins”, a phrase obviously deliberately chosen to invoke criminal underworld bosses. Other articles nodded somewhat more in the direction of attempting to report the substance of the dispute, but usually only through hackneyed phrases describing the dispute as a “row”, followed by a couple of quotes from union leaders cribbed from press releases.
These are particularly bad examples: strikes on the Tube (where I work) are held in special contempt by most media institutions. But the BBC’s coverage of Tube strikes is consistent with its wider reporting of industrial relations – disputes are “rows” or “bickering”, suggesting a kind of low-level tiff that should simply be gotten over; reporting of strikes frequently focuses on something other than the actual reason for the strike, such as its impact on service users or third parties; union leaders are “bosses”, even though they are elected, unlike the actual bosses; strikers’ voices are rarely heard, and the workers’ case is communicated only through truncated interviews with union officials on the evening news or clipped quotes from press releases.
While BBC coverage of the closure of the Redcar steel plant earlier this year did feature some interviews with workers, the story was still presented as essentially a “business” issue. I think it’s unrealistic to expect even a democratically-invigorated, more progressive BBC to take our side, the workers’ side, in anything like an explicit way, in its coverage of industrial relations. What the labour movement needs is its own media; we should aspire to a modern equivalent the level of media production of Chartism, the mass workers’ movement of the 19th century. But what we can demand of the BBC, beyond a basic degree of journalistic rigour that attempts to comprehensively report the actual reasons why a strike is taking place, and what its actual demands are, is a coverage that understands industrial disputes as expressions of genuine political and economic conflict between employees and employers — that is, something more serious than “bickering” — and does not treat workers as sheep or puppets manipulated by “union kingpins”, or as walk-on cameos in stories that our really about our bosses. How to achieve this?
A start might be to reinstate the now almost extinct role of labour and industrial correspondents — print and broadcast journalists whose specific responsibility was to cover industrial relations in and of themselves. The function has mostly been absorbed into that of “business editors”, a perspective that inevitably gives primacy to the actions, interests, and perspectives of the employer. Individual industrial correspondents might be right-wing or anti-union in their views, as some were when the role was common, but even then the role at least required journalists to take labour movement affairs seriously and have some degree of genuine knowledge about them.
Bringing back industrial correspondents wouldn’t guarantee coverage that was sympathetic to strikes, but it would make the terrain of industrial relations, the actual activity of, and relations between, employers and employed, an aspect of mass media discourse, rather than a subsuming it into coverage merely about “business”. The extinction of industrial correspondents was largely justified by the decline in the level of industrial conflict and the drastic shrinkage of the labour movement itself (currently around 50% of the size it was at its height in 1979). But those trends are not irreversible, and besides, BBC industrial correspondents could do more than simply report on strikes. Trade unions, despite our decline, remain the largest mass movement in Britain. If our publicly-funded media corporation is to be in any meaningful sense “popular”, it must treat workers and our movement, the most authentically “popular”, in the literal sense, movement in the country, as conscious actors.
• An edited version of this article was published on 22 October 2015 by the Open Democracy blog, in their “100 Ideas for the BBC” series, a symposium of ideas and proposals on the future of the BBC.