I’m writing this on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.
Just a week before the UK voted to leave the European Union. Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to stay. A majority in England and Wales wanted to go.
Division, spite and rancour is in the air.
Yet, for all sides, the First World casts a long across Britain. It helped make the country we live in. Never such innocence, as Siegfried Sassoon wrote, as when we marched to war in 1914. Never such shattered innocence as the first day of the Battle of the Somme. If there was a day when modern Britain was born it was this.
I’m writing this to capture the #wearehere project. At key railway stations across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland volunteers dressed in First World War battledress appeared. Talk to them and they quietly give you a card with the name of a soldier who was killed on this day a hundred years ago.
— James Elliott (@jselliott09) July 1, 2016
It’s a gentle reminder that those who were lost were people too. Just like you. It’s beautiful. I’ve blogged about my own family’s First World War story and the pain it caused.
As a child, a teacher taught us how much the First World War had changed Britain not with numbers. He pulled three empty chairs to the front of the classroom.
“Those chairs,” he said, “are empty. But they would have had three children just like you sat on them. But they weren’t born because their grandfathers were killed in the First World War.”
I seem to spend a lot of time telling people in training that the key to good communication is to be human. It’s why #wearehere works. It’s a real thing with real people. And the real people who saw it and were moved shared images and thoughts online.
I don’t know who is behind the project, but thank you for a chance to say ‘thank you’ to the 704,803 who died like cattle to show us that modern war was something to avoid.
But thank you too for a reminder that we are all human.
It’s not Waterloo, Ypres or Gallipoli. It’s the Miners’ Strike. Or the Great Strike of 1984 to 1985 depending on your perspective.
It’s battle in British history so awkward like a parked car loaded with explosives we don’t like to go near it. Cinema? That’s fine. ‘Billy Elliott’ and ‘Brassed Off’ tell versions of the story.
Topically, it was in the news again when the police watchdog ruled out prosecutions. So expolosive it is the BBC were attacked for giving undue prominence that ‘re-heated tensions’. It’s so dangerous, it’s almost impossible to write with a neutral voice on it but heck, as a comms historian I’m going to try.
Historians in a hundred years will point to this as one of the most significant episodes in the story of modern Britain. As former Sunday Times journalists Francis Beckett and David Hencke wrote in their book ‘Marching Towards the Faultline’ there was Britain before the Miners Strike and Britain after. The two are entirely different.
Fact v Legend
Only a handful of facts are undisputed. In 1948, Britain was described as a land built on coal with 700,000 men – and they were largely men – working down them. In 1984 there were less than 200 collieries with 200,000 workers left. On the one hand, as heavy industry declined so did the demand for coal but in 2013 still coal accounts for 40 per cent of electricity. Almost all is imported. In 2015, there is one pit.
There are two versions of what happened in the Miners’ Strike.
In the first version, the Miners went on strike in 1984 because they feared secret plans were in place to close 70 pits. For many miners, closing a pit meant the death of their community as it was the only employment in their town or village. They would have won, the argument goes, but for strike breaking miners and the Trades Union movement’s betrayal of them. The result, according to the narrative? Weaker trades unions, lower pay for working people nationally, decimated communities and just one pit left.
In the second version, the Miners were wrong not to ask for a national ballot of their members and to go out on strike in the summer when no-one needed as much coal. Their industry was dying, their coal too expensive and miners leader militant Arthur Scargill was intent on bringing down an elected government. The result? Weaker trades unions led to flexibility in the labour market which led to growth and greater national prosperity.
Art, history and a battle
That’s the row in a nutshell. What led me to it? Music. A few years ago I saw a colliery brass band playing Acid House music. This was an art project by artist Jeremy Deller. I laughed at the wackiness of it. I was intrigued as a history geek at the idea of staging a re-enactment of a defining moment in the strike which became known as The Battle of Orgreave. I was struck by how little I knew of the subject. As a kid, I remember it on the TV news. Of Dellar’s re-enactment? There is a fascinating documentary on the project.
A thousand gathered to re-enact. Included were former striking miners and police officers as well as people more used to dressing up as Romans or Civil War Roundheads as part of historical re-enactments. The Mike Figgis documentary on it is here:
At the Battle of Orgreave pickets and police clashed. In the violence pickets and police were injured. Almost a hundred miners were arrested and charged with riot. All were later cleared when the South Yorkshire Police case them unravelled. South Yorkshire Police, miners will tell you knowingly, were the force responsible for policing Hillsborough a few years later. Those on the other side will tell you that they were two unrelated incidents.
For years I had had this idea to re-enact this confrontation that I had witnessed as a young person on TV, of striking miners being chased up a hill and pursued through a village. It has since become an iconic image of the 1984 strike – having the quality of a war scene rather than a labour dispute. I received the commission, which I couldn’t believe, because I actually didn’t think it was possible to do this. After two years’ research, the re-enactment finally happened, with about eight-hundred historical re-enactors and two-hundred former miners who had been part of the original conflict. Basically, I was asking the re-enactors to participate in the staging of a battle that occurred within living memory, alongside veterans of the campaign. I’ve always described it as digging up a corpse and giving it a proper post-mortem, or as a thousand-person crime re-enactment.
It was a different comms landscape
The book ‘Marching to the Faultline’ gives a fascinating and unpartisan account of the strike. For balance, it has been criticised by both sides. But it is the communications landscape it recalls that fascinated me.
The landscape of the 1980s was pre-internet. National newspapers and TV news were unchallenged. Each newspaper had a ‘labour correspondent’ whose job was to cover strikes. But this pool of gatekeepers were shunned by the miners. The National Union of Mineworkers had one press officer who openly didn’t like Press. Allegations of bias had foundation but as New Labour would show a decade later, they needed to be engaged with. Announcements still came from press conferences. But NUM Press conferences were often filled with supporters which Arthur Scargill played to. Besides, this the miners’ leader only really trusted one hard left newspaper. Journalists who did turn up on picket lines were often threatened and had to stand for safety behind the police lines driving them in effect towards the police narrative. As a media strategy, it seems as flawed in the 1980s as it seems today.
Internal comms for the miners came in print and face-to-face. The Miner was the union newspaper. Face-to-face networks dominated. Women’s support groups kept families fed and community networks built on the mutual trust of working underground were vital.
For the government of the day, ministers were slow to grasp that industrial correspondents were important. But on their side there was the unanimous support of national newspaper barons fed-up with their own union problem. Public opinion was vital and the newspapers were key.
And the cost? There’s no agreement on that, either. The government of the day said this was around £6 billion and there’s a ‘good day to bury bad news’ briefing that emerged to go with it. Further research by Brussels-based TUC have put the overall cost at £28.5 billion at 2003 prices for the cost of police, closing mines, unpaid income tax, social security, the cost of alternative energy production during the strike, coal imports and a whole raft of other factors.
Would social media have made a difference?
Of course, the historian in me recognises the folly of ‘what if?’ history which is only ever speculation.
But the comms person in me is intrigued.
Social media is excellent at putting a human face on an issue. Literature and cinema and has been kind to the miners. If happiness writes white then the Miners Strike is filled with colour. The films Brassed Off and Billy Elliott showed human stories. It showed violence too. Would smartphones on picket lines shown the uglier side of police tactics? Or the uglier side of the miners?
Social media can give real-time updates. A powerful image can go viral. The Occupy protests knew this. So do anti-austerity pressure groups like 38 Degrees. But there are still bankers’ bonuses.
So, would social media have made a difference? It’s impossible to know.
Today, the miners strike for many isn’t over. The watchdog IPCC has ruled out charging police officers for their role at Orgreave and allegations of perjury. The Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign are on Facebook and are pressing for a Hillsborough-style inquiry. And yet the miners leader Arthur Scargill now refuses all interviews and has done for years.
For anyone working in the field of communications, it’s fascinating to look back at what is a different country. It’s also living history and it will be fascinating to see how this continues to play out in art, literature and digital communications.
Open data cutting edge? Like top hats, Christmas trees and giant factories the Victorians got there first.
They may not have built a chimney sweep Google death map. But their approach was similar. Collect the data. Publish it. Draw conclusions. Argue for change.
Don’t believe me?
Look at Florence Nightingale in her funny lace bonnet. Historian Dr Stephen Holliday in BBC History Magazine August 2010 writes about how she used statistics to
revolutionise the care of soldiers in the Crimean War.
By using statistics – data – she painted a picture to show a revolution in care was needed.
“When she reached Scutari the base for casualties from the Crimea,” Halliday writes, “Florence calculated that deaths from disease were seven times those arising in battle and used the campaign to campaign for better food, hygeine and clothing for the troops.”
Battered by the force of Florence’s figures and cutting edge reporting that forged the reputation of The Times the British government was forced into changes.
After the war Nightingale used her Royal connections coupled with arguments based on charts and tables to press for better standards for soldiers who even in peacetime had death rates double that of civilians.
The result? Death rates fell by 75 per cent.
Florence herself said that statistics were “the cipher by way we may read the hand of God.”
We may have lost that religious zeal but it’s an argument Tim Berners-Lee would recognise as a modern-day Florence Nightingale with a passion for data.
Did she get it right all the time?
No. Here’s the warning from history.
By misreading available data Florence Nightingale later helped kill thousands of people.
She used statistics to wrongly argue cholera was an airborne disease. It wasn’t.
It took London GP Dr John Snow to collect his own data on death rates in his patch to argue they were caused by a contaminated water supplies.
So what’s the message to today’s open data pioneers?
That first data visualisation you have in front of you may not be the whole picture.
There may be more to it.
Remember the phrase ‘lies, damn lies and official statistics?’
Statistics were once hailed as the magic cure-all that revealed a hidden truth.
It’s been said that all data in some form or other is political. Let’s not see open data similarly tainted.
Florence Nightingale –http://www.florence-nightingale.co.uk/cms/
BBC History Magazine August2010 http://www.bbchistorymagazine.com/issue/august-2010
Crimean War data visualisation: Wikipedia.
Cholera map: Wikipedia
Tim Berners-Lee: Paul Clarke via Wikipedia