Industrial reporters: The lost tribe of Fleet Street
Whenever there are news reports of mergers, factory closures or perhaps redundancies, there is every likelihood the emphasis will be on the financial impact of what is being announced. Trade union leaders might occasionally be asked for their reaction but in all probability the thrust of the coverage will reflect the prospects for the company concerned and its share price rather than the interest of the employees.
Readers, viewers and listeners might not realise the full extent of the shift which has taken place: business news rules supreme and dominates the way the fortunes of Britain’s major employers are reported by newspapers, television, radio and now the internet.
The shift is most noticeable whenever the possibility of strike action is in the offing. Instead of a thorough examination of the issues which have provoked the dispute, there will be dire warnings of a fall in revenue and the potential for a loss in profits.
So, what happened to labour and industrial reporting in the UK?
Until the late 1980s/early 1990s, the leading broadcasters and national newspapers maintained a staff of well-informed industrial journalists who did their best to hold employers – as well as the trade unions – to account. If there was the threat of strike action or perhaps a fresh pay offer, the statements from either side were properly tested. Were the unions simply sabre rattling? Was there genuine new money on the table from the management?
London’s growth as a world financial centre put paid to the authoritative reporting of old. Tough employment laws, a succession of disastrous defeats and a halving of union membership had already marginalised the reportage of the labour and industrial correspondents, but they were finally displaced by financial journalists and city analysts whose pronouncements frequently go unchecked and unchallenged. Industrial reporters have become the lost tribe of Fleet Street.
The demise of the industrial reporting of yesteryear suits big business: the greater the failure of journalists to report informatively on the reasons for industrial unrest and to explain the ever-tightening restraints on the ability of unions to protect their members and stay within the law, the easier it becomes for managers to flout tried and tested procedures for settling disagreements in the work place.
Alarmist headlines about a ‘summer of discontent’ or a ‘wrecked’ royal wedding next April only to serve to fuel the knee-jerk response that all trade unionists are troublemakers; genuine grievances go unexplored or unreported.
A typical example of this ill-informed, simplistic scaremongering was a question by Evan Davis, a leading presenter of BBC Radio’s flagship programme Today when interviewing Len McCluskey, the newly-elected general secretary of the country’s biggest trade union Unite. (Today, 14.1.2011) Davis asked if McCluskey could rule out strike action at the time of the London Olympics in 2012, something no union leader has talked about or even contemplated.
As the coalition government begins to implement its across-the-board reductions in spending, the union movement is promising to mount a fight back in defence of public services and the jobs they provide. One thing is certain. Without the lost tribe of Fleet Street holding both sides to account, coverage of this crucial period in the mainstream media will be very different.