Too many scabs

Television - The BBC survived industrial action surprisingly well writes Andrew Billen

The stri

My first stint working on the Times in the mid-1980s was interrupted by a traumatising event known as Wapping. One Friday night early in 1986, the editor delivered to journalists the ultimatum of moving by Sunday from our offices in Gray's Inn Road to News International's new plant near Tower Bridge or losing our jobs. Our truculent colleagues in the print unions, who had taken this moment to go on strike, had already been sacked. We spent the weekend in meetings that culminated in a final session at a hotel in Bloomsbury on Sunday evening, where we discussed whether or not to join on Monday the many staff journalists who had already gone to work that day.

Although some brave refuseniks held out, the game was really over for the NUJ when a copy of the next day's paper found its way into the meeting. It didn't much matter whether we went in or not: the Times had been published without us.

I thought of this as Monday's BBC strike wore on. There on the news were the shots of the picket line outside White City. It looked an impressive, committed picket line. But more impressive, really, was that there was a BBC news bulletin on which to show it. Jim Buchanan, the correspondent assigned to cover the strike, got an interview with the director general, Mark Thompson, but for the union side he had to rely on a speech delivered through a megaphone by Jeremy Dear of the NUJ. Dear was caught in the trap of being unable to cross his own picket line in order to explain his case to a journalist who had already done so.

I felt for Buchanan, who had drawn the short straw. I felt as guilty as hell crossing the Wapping picket line at the time (I don't now - in fact, I regard Wapping as a moment of liberation rather than oppression in the history of print journalism). Perhaps Buchanan felt guilty for crossing the BBC's. Anna Ford, who absented herself from reading the One O'Clock News, once crossed a BBC picket line and later told me she had done so because, with a young family, she could not afford to lose her job. And if Ford, with her high market value, thought that then, what about those much less well paid than her now, when Thompson is looking to make 4,000 redundancies?

Nevertheless, it was interesting to see who did turn up for work. There were not many surprises. From the off, starting with Declan Curry on Breakfast, the capitalist-minded City staff showed. There was no sign of their Essex Man leader, Jeff Randall, but Evan Davis, the economics editor, was all over the Camelot story. The sports journalists were also around - but then, what do sports journalists care about politics, unless a cricket tour is at stake? The obsessive foreign correspondents, with no picket line to cross, were still filing, perhaps reasoning that they would have more chance of getting on air. Meanwhile, the nation's hard-working Asian community was represented by Akhtar Khan, normally fronting a travel show on BBC World, but on Monday's Breakfast the new Dermot Murnaghan (and he was accompanied by a sportscaster called Adnan). Break-fast was a poor apology for itself, with too much about the Cannes Film Festival and too few live interviews. Inexplicably, to fill the final half-hour, management chose a repeat of a conversation between Gavin Esler and Duran Duran.

"There's nothing fluffy about Duran Duran," lied Simon Le Bon, but the interview was far too soft for the hour - just as, on Radio 4, there was something all wrong about listening to Just a Minute at 7.30am (if only, however, Today's participants had the same regard for the quiz show's prohibitions on repetition, deviation and hesitation). I had expected - as, surely, had the unions - the news to get weaker as the day went on and the pre-prepared reports staled. Instead, the scab bulletins grew in confidence.

There were some awkward moments, naturally. "Tim, sorry, it's not The One, it's News 24," came an apologetic voice just as Evan Davis was about to speak on the lunchtime bulletin. There was a general increase in the count of headless chickens scampering around in the newsroom behind the presenters' heads.

At 10pm, Stephen Cole (an underused newscaster, I have always thought) crashed the intro to Jeremy Cook's report on the Ground Zero reconstruction row. But, truth to tell, the frill-less Ten O'Clock News did its basic job of telling the day's news, even if its format resembled that of the days of Richard Baker rather than Huw Edwards. There was even something a little refreshing about its wartime austerity, just as it was a relief, in some ways, to slump in front of a Timewatch about bearded men digging up a coliseum in Chester, rather than Newsnight.

It was not until I watched ITV's late bulletin that I noticed what should have been the glaring absence at the BBC's heart that day. There was no coverage of the Tory meeting that refashioned the party's leadership election rules. Indeed, there was no domestic politics at all. Where was Andrew Marr with his extended metaphors? Where Mark Mardell and his ready sarcasm? Well, we know where they were, don't we?

The lobby. Pinkos. But it made you realise how much we rely on them.

Andrew Billen is staff writer on the Times

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