“In the past, there were enough labour correspondents to mount a cricket team to play the union barons before the Trades Union Congress started each year,” journalist John Mair wrote for the BBC in 2011. “Today, they could not umpire that match.”
Little has changed in the decade since Mair’s statement. In fact, labour correspondents – specialist journalists covering industrial disputes, matters relating to pay and working conditions, and the relationship between trade unions and the government – have all but disappeared.
In the last week, their absence has become glaring. Mick Lynch, boss of the RMT, has dominated the airwaves – think Ross Kemp in an industrial dispute – battering through the inane anti-union tropes of TV presenters and Tory MPs with both incredulity and fact-laden rage. For a brief moment, media amnesia around employment issues was shattered as union representatives demanded material improvements to their members’ lives in clear, accessible terms.
And yet as Alan Jones, industrial correspondent at the Press Association, tells me: “There’s hardly anyone who covers trade unions day-to-day. I’m probably the only one, aside from maybe a few of the leftwing papers that periodically cover industrial affairs. Even the Daily Mirror doesn’t have someone dedicated to covering unions. The BBC doesn’t either.”
The 1970s and 1980s – a time of relatively high industrial employment, union strength, and industrial unrest – was the heyday of industrial journalism in the UK. In 1957, the proportion of workers in industrial employment stood at 48%. By 1979, this figure had fallen to 38%, declining to 27% by 1998 and just 15% by 2016. Union membership peaked in 1980 at 12.2 million, halving by 2012.
As many disputes took place in parts of the country with historically high rates of industrial employment, specialist correspondents acted as loudspeakers for regional interests, carrying back the demands of union representatives and their members to power-brokers in Westminster.
“My personal flashback is to the decade of industrial conflict under Margaret Thatcher when BBC newsrooms and national newspapers were so well served by local and regional journalists who themselves were so well versed in industrial and trade union affairs,” says Nicholas Jones, a former BBC industrial and political correspondent. “Local reporters were out and about, visiting factories, talking to workers, calling in at union offices, while today, their much-depleted successors are so often tied to their computer screens, having to ring round their contacts or rely on social media for first-hand accounts.”
It’s worth stating that the existence of industrial correspondents didn’t automatically ensure positive media coverage of the labour movement. The media was even more instinctively pro-establishment in the 1980s than it is now. The BBC’s reporting on the infamous Battle of Orgreave in 1984, for example, saw the broadcaster accused of reversing the order of events to make it seem like the strikers initiated the confrontations with the police. Indeed, Thatcher ruthlessly exploited this media climate. But industrial correspondents nonetheless ensured industrial debates were had, with unions and their members portrayed as powerful political actors in a way that hasn’t been replicated since.
“Many of the industrial journalists writing for Conservative-supporting newspapers took pride in the accuracy of their reporting,” says Jones of the 1980s. “They insisted the facts and quotes in their stories were sacrosanct: editors could determine the headlines, presentation, and layout, but if content was altered or manipulated, they not infrequently asked for the removal of their bylines.”
The demise of the industrial correspondent can partly be attributed to the fact that the unions lost. Thatcher successfully “crushed” their power – her stated aim – and the industries they represented. Neoliberal enterprise and free market economics took over.
After the miners’ strike, instead of employment issues being reported from the perspective of workers and their trade unions, “the emphasis was increasingly on financial news and the profit and loss of the manufacturing and service sectors,” says Jones.
This decline mirrored Thatcher’s economic restructuring. According to Jones, financial market deregulation “only served to underline the demise of the trade unions. The end of nationalisation and the take-up of shares by workers in the newly-privatised industries was a stark reminder of the shift which had taken place.”
And so, as the free market ripped through former industrial areas, and as capital fled to the south east, the media obediently followed. “Newsrooms have been decimated in towns and cities across the country, hollowing out local news gathering,” Jones explains.
It helped that the British press also became concentrated in the hands of a few oligarchs during this period. These figures, such as Rupert Murdoch, who bought the Times in 1981 and benefited directly from Thatcher’s free market ethos, certainly had no love for the labour movement.
A focus on parliamentary politics further hastened the industrial correspondent’s decline. New Labour governments institutionalised an anonymous briefing system whereby political secrets were strategically fed to sympathetic lobby journalists – the political reporters allowed access to Westminster – thereby marginalising reporters outside the bubble.
“The top jobs are now political reporters. The lobby is all powerful,” says PA’s Alan Jones. Nicholas Jones concurs. “Unattributable and anonymous briefings [have] become the lifeblood of modern political journalism,” he writes, attributing this shift to the cunning public relations instincts of the Blair and Brown administrations.
The demise of local and specialist reporters has resulted in the lobby leading on all matters relating to politics and policy – starkly illustrated by the drip-feed of news during the Covid-19 pandemic via social media accounts of the connected. Trapped in Westminster, spread too thinly to have any specialist policy expertise, political psycho-dramas are the major currency of these gossip merchants.
The fate of the lobby journalist is controlled by their level of access – aka the number of MPs listed in their phonebook. Their success relies on proximity to decision-makers and on their ability to exploit the patronage of politicians, creating a system where political reporters aren’t motivated to expose the worst abuses of the powerful. Any latent radicalism within the lobby is tempered by a fear of losing their contacts and being thrown out of the club.
The decline of the industrial correspondent wasn’t inevitable. With the unions debilitated, and Britain rapidly shedding its manufacturing capacity, there was a good case for industrial correspondents to remain on the beat. If they had, we’d no doubt have a better understanding of the causes of Brexit, the sense of economic impotence across swathes of the country – induced by an upsurge in job insecurity and in-work poverty – and the Labour party’s consequent identity crisis in the ‘red wall’.
Instead, amid chronic wage stagnation, mass job insecurity, a foreign labour shortage, the rise of the gig economy and the polarisation of assets between rich and poor, we have a media ecosystem in which Piers Morgan is paid £15m annually to speculate on the hidden evil lurking behind Lynch’s Facebook profile picture. This is an industry which contains almost no official industrial correspondents who would have been familiar with Lynch before this wave of RMT strikes started.
As workers are squeezed and inequality continues to soar, there’s a clear need for a new breed of industrial correspondent. While the public is currently blinded to the aims and ideological underpinnings of union action by a media establishment subservient to those in high office, better labour journalism would help to rewrite the narratives around collective action.
Is change starting to happen? While leftwing publications have always asserted the importance of covering the labour movement and trade unionism in modern Britain, it remains to be seen if the mainstream press will follow. But as a summer of strikes looms, it might be forced to rethink the precedent set by the last 30 years and invest once more in specialist staffers.