Ignore the media scare-stories about strikes

Those who strike are not firebrands or ideologues, they are ordinary men and women who are fighting

As public sector workers prepare for strike action, the media narratives have already been prepared. Today's Daily Mail has a tale headlined "STRIKE LEADER'S HUGE PAY RISE" and it won't be the last. The pay and pensions of union leaders will come under scrutiny like never before as the usual suspects prepare to demonise organised workforces, and their right to protest against changes to their pay and conditions. Look at the union bosses and see their greed!

The phrase "gold-plated pensions" will be wheeled out time and time again, without ever daring to represent quite how un-precious public sector settlements really are for the vast majority of people. Strikers will be portrayed as betrayers of the children whose education they deny, in the case of teachers; as greedy, money-loving fatcats not living in the real world, pumped full of entitlement and "our money" thanks to years of racketeering from their New Labour chums, in the case of everyone else. It won't be true - of course it's not true - but that won't make any difference.

The stories are already as good as written. All the 1970s imagery, of binbags in the street and bodies left unburied, will be dragged up, whether it's relevant or not. There's no avoiding that, I am afraid. There was a time when newspapers had industrial correspondents who dealt with these matters in a reasonably even-handed way, but that is increasingly not the case. Now, the narratives do not come from the unions, or their members, but the politicians who fight them, and the corporate media in whose interests it is to demonise organised labour and workers' demands.

The anti-striker and anti-union stories will tap into a powerful, emotional sense that somehow this isn't fair. We are suffering in the private sector, so they must suffer too. Spread around the suffering. Make everyone hurt, so it's fair. We've got terrible pay and conditions, and we don't bother to do anything about it; so why should these people, who have bothered to do something about it, get better treatment? Our apathy deserves to be rewarded; we've been "good" employees and haven't made a fuss, yet we've been passed over. It's not fair.

Faced with an inevitable slew of stories about trade union leaders' salaries, opinion pieces about the selfishness of striking and articles about the righteousness of bashing the public sector, what kind of strategy could see the unions and their members win over public opinion? Is striking a trap that will play into the hands of the coalition government and give them the hate-figures they need to deflect attention from who is really causing economic problems? Are unions and their members making themselves the coalition's scapegoat?

It's a difficult decision, to take action when you know that you are going to be misrepresented; to battle against something which is described, again and again, as being the only possible option. But it all depends on how the motivation of strikers, and public-sector workers, is seen. Time and again, all they can do is to explain what has happened over the past few years - not just under this government - and why they are fighting: not to cause disruption, not out of political mischief-making, but because it is the right thing to do and the right time to do it.

All I know, from a personal point of view, is that I've spoken to a lot of public-sector workers and activists recently as part of other stories I've been writing. Time and again, I have got the impression that these are not firebrands or ideologues pushing a political agenda that comes from the top or from their leaders; these are ordinary men and women who are fighting for their futures, fighting for their families, because they believe that there is no other way, because they feel that things have gone so far that they simply cannot do nothing, or accept the axe, or roll over and die. These are not the facemasked anarchists chucking bricks in protests; these are hardworking parents seeing a bleak future for their children, and wanting to do something now to make a change for the better, to stop something that will change the country forever.

They will not be depicted that way, and they know it. But they will fight anyway, and fight to get their message across.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder