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Remembering Aberfan

Miners engaged in rescue work in Aberfan in 1966. PA Archive/PA Images

Remembering Aberfan

Miners engaged in rescue work in Aberfan in 1966. PA Archive/PA Images

The Aberfan disaster of October 1966 is one that will never be forgotten in Welsh – or indeed British – memory. It is five decades since the coal tip which stood on a mountain above the Welsh town, engulfed a junior school, killing 144 people – including 116 children.

At the time, most news was reported through a lens of Welsh tradition, to soundtracks of male voice choirs, as cameras panned over dirty faces and terraced houses. The media has since been criticised for being “mostly gullible and deferential”, towards victims. It failed to fulfil its duty as watchdog for the people of Aberfan, and question the claim by the state-owned National Coal Board that the incident had happened due to a “critical geological environment”, instead focusing on the tragedy of the situation.

Now, the local and national press will commemorate the event in a different way. Those who were lost will be remembered, the efforts of rescuers will be praised once more, while other reports focus on the injustice of the event and the failure of the national boards and government bodies to quickly and adequately respond.

The media is often criticised for its topicality – its tendency to forget yesterday’s story in favour of the newer and more sensational event that happens today. But, in fairness, the media is also a vehicle for the formation and construction of collective memory. French philosopher Maurice Halbwachs wrote that memory is a collective act of people engaged in remembering together for a purpose – and it is often the media which plays an important role in the construction of both the collective and individual memory. According to American communications professor Barbie Zelzier, memory needs journalism to construct “one of the most public drafts of the past”. Without the media to document events as they happen, it can be difficult to collate a shared experience, as we forget and confuse our own stories with those we have heard as time moves on.

For historians and other interpreters the memory constructed by the media’s past can be another country. The task of the journalist is to make sense of the present, build connections between the public and the personal, suggest inferences, create stories, define the magnitude and impact of an event, and ground it in a universal message – as well as telling “the truth” of what happened.

Journalists are supposed to provide continuity and the maintenance of cohesion in society. This function informs the construction of stories which emphasise cause and effect, effect and responsibility, the heroes, the rescues and the coming together of communities in the face of disasters. Indeed, survivors of the Aberfan tragedy have described how coverage of the events strengthened their Welsh identity.

The mountain of coal waste descends on Aberfan, 1966. PA Archive/PA Images

Looking at other tragedies, injunctions such as “we must never forget 9/11” worked to bind a nation, situate goodness and evil (for some), and represent the past through the lens of the present. Though it must be said 9/11 was on a much larger scale, with more global shockwaves and repercussions than Aberfan – the role of the media was basically the same. The mythic element of a story means that the journalist has to make sense of an event, so a disaster has to have meaning, be a search for truth, or as in the Aberfan story, make sense of the disaster by allocation of responsibility – in this instance, according to the official inquiry, it was the uncovering of “bungling ineptitude” on the part of the National Coal Board.

Collecting memories

The media frames the remembering – but also contributes to the memory. What do people remember? Is it the pictures in the media or the event itself? Fact and fiction, reality and its representations blur.

In this fairly new world of social media, nothing can be forgotten and the old institutions that once framed how events were remembered by everyone are being replaced by a new “mass” – the “small media” of phones and the internet, where people as well as journalists can post, like, mix and circulate content. Does this mean that what is remembered will be different – or that how things are remembered will change? Certainly, the man on the street won’t have the same fact-checking processes and official sources that a traditional journalist would, leading at worst to footage that may be wrongly attributed to an event, or made-up quotes and witnesses.

The transition to “new media” is much debated. It has been said that we cannot discount the influence of the socio/political contexts in which the media is embedded, but what is clear is that the older technologies are holding their own. For breaking news, the people and the media refer to sites like Twitter and Facebook for reaction and commentary, supplementing their own official reports. New media can react quickly, posting within seconds of an event, where old is left with time to confirm and verify.

The question that all media, both old and new, has to contend with now is whether we should be allowed to forget tragedies such as Aberfan: either because we want to – or need to. Are some traumas too painful to remember? By remembering can we move on – indeed where do we move on to? It has been asked whether the endless memorials for 9/11 are doing more “harm than good” in that by only remembering certain facts we “spawn further division”. But if we do not remember, we often cannot move on.