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War on the picket line: how the British press made a battle out of the miners’ strike

The recent Hillsborough verdict highlighted the way the British press demonised Liverpool football fans while justifying the actions of South Yorkshire police in their coverage of the disaster.

In light of this, calls have been made for a similar Hillsborough style public inquiry into the policing of the British miners’ strike between 1984-5, with newspapers facing fresh allegations that the coverage of the strike amounted to a “propaganda assault on the miners”.

The miners’ strike started when the Conservative government, led by Margaret Thatcher, announced the closure of Cortonwood Colliery in Yorkshire. This was to be the first of 20 pit closures and, with many more believed to be in the planning, it led to the longest running industrial action in Britain since the 1926 General Strike.

Ranks of police face the picketing line outside Orgreave Coking Plant near Rotherham. this would later be dubbed ‘The Battle of Orgreave’.

My recent research, which involved analysis of both news language and press photographs of the time, shows that this year-long strike was portrayed by newspapers – on all sides – as a metaphorical war between the government and the National Union of Mineworkers.

It shows how the media used “war framing” words, phrases and photographs while reporting the strike – often drawing on iconic texts and images associated with World War I. This framing presented the miners as “the enemy”, while at the same time, it justified the actions of the government and the police as necessary and even noble.

This “war framing” is likely to have had a significant impact on the course and eventual outcome of the strike as research has shown that metaphors help to shape public opinion. The war framing even worked its way up into government policy-making.

Waging war

Front page of The Sun, March 1984. Author provided

The “war metaphor” was established from the very beginning of the strike with the headline in The Sun Newspaper on 13 March 1984: “Pit war: Violence erupts on the picket line as miner fights miner”. A few days later, in reference to violence at Ollerton colliery, the Express described “rampaging armies of pickets at the besieged Nottinghamshire pit”.

Later, The Sun went on to describe “an army of 8,000 police at battle stations in the bloody pit war”. Police officers and picketing miners were seen as soldiers on opposite sides of the “war”. Arthur Scargill – the then president of the National Union of Mineworkers – was described as an “army general” in the Express and a “dictator” in The Sun.

Police on horses at the miners’ strike. Author provided

News photographs painted a similar picture, drawing subtle analogies with World War I in particular. Images of wooden stakes at Orgreave, South Yorkshire, resembled the barbed wire barricades associated with German defences in the Battle of the Somme. Pictures of police on horseback were reminiscent of mounted warfare typically associated with cavalry charges in World War I.

Even peaceful moments that were captured on camera, such as a football match played between police and miners at Bilsthorne colliery in Nottinghamshire, stuck to the war narrative – with the image bringing to mind the celebrated 1914 Christmas Day football match played between German and allied forces.

Football played in ‘No mans land’. Author provided

This was reinforced in the caption that accompanied the photograph which described a football match “played on no-mans land during a break from picketing”.

At the end of the strike, the front cover of The Sun showed a picture of a blooded police officer accompanied by the headline “Lest we Forget”. This evocative phrase is associated with the Ode of Remembrance where it is added as a final line to the fourth stanza of Laurence Binyon’s poem For the Fallen, written in 1914 in honour of British soldiers who had already lost their lives in World War I. It serves to compare the efforts of police officers during the strike with the sacrifice of British soldiers during the Great War.

Headline from The Sun at the end of the miner’s strike. Author provided

The war metaphor eventually became part of government policy. This can be seen in Cabinet documents recently released under the 30-year rule. Thatcher was encouraged by her policy unit to pursue “a war of attrition” with the miners.

A war of words

With the miners’ strike thought of in terms of a war, it helped to define the miners as “the enemy”, who must be “defeated”. This meant that any chance of compromise or resolution in the strike was very much diminished from the beginning.

The “war metaphor” justifies the violent actions of the police “on the frontline” at Orgreave. Analogies with World War I in particular exploit collective emotions associated with key historical moments and arouse feelings of both national pride and prejudice.

Constructing the miners’ strike as a war was one way in which a powerful media demonised miners – just as they did with football fans at Hillsborough – while at the same time justifying police practices. It also helped pave the way for the government’s hard line policy toward the miners. Had the media followed an alternative strategy in linguistic and visual representations of the strike, it may well have taken a different, and less violent course.

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