scenes from David Miller’s formative years
The row between the Glasgow University Media Group and the editors of Ill Effects, Martin Barker and Julian Petley (see here), highlighted a fatal flaw in the group’s work.
Under Greg Philo, and later his protégé David Miller (who went on to found SpinWatch), the Glasgow University Media Group highlighted media bias. Television news they thought ‘has a profound effect’ on ‘people’s thoughts or actions’, and ‘controls the crucial information with which we make up our minds about the world’ (Glasgow University Media Group, Really Bad News, 1982, p 1).
When called to account by Barker and Petley, the Glasgow Group replied that they knew the media had a decisive effect from their studies of audience responses to news reports of picket line violence in the 1984-5 miners’ strike, claiming ‘54 per cent believed that picketing was mostly violent and overwhelmingly cited the media, especially television, as the source of their beliefs’ (Philo and Miller, ‘the effective media’ in Message Received, 1999, p 29).
Not for the first time, Philo and Miller had wholly failed to understand what was in front of their noses. The simple truth was that however much the media went on about picket line violence, it was the Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock who gave the charges credibility. Instead of standing up for the miners, Kinnock begged Margaret Thatcher:
Will the Prime Minister understand once and for all that I condemn, and always have condemned, violence in pursuit of industrial disputes, even when it occurs among people who feel impotent in the face of the destruction of their jobs, their industry and their communities? Parliament, March 13th 1984.
At the Labour Party conference in September 1984 Kinnock used the issue of picket line violence to try to damage miners’ supporters:
violence, I do not have to tell this Congress … disgusts union opinion and divides union attitudes … and is alien to the temperament and intelligence of the British trade Union movement
Viewers who got the message from the media that picket line violence believed it because it was confirmed by the leader of Britain’s Labour Party, the party that the trade unions supported. Newscasters like Sue Lawley or David Icke did not have to persuade viewers about picket line violence, they could just report what Labour’s leaders were saying.
Not just over the miners’ strike, but throughout their history, the Glasgow group blamed the media for the failures of the Labour Party, especially its left wing, and of the trade union leaders. There was a simple reason for that. The Glasgow Media group was largely supported by the Labour Party and the trade union leaders. The group had the support of the ACTT leader Alan Sapper, Jimmy Milne at the Scottish TUC and Labour Party apparatchiks like Austin Mitchell, Michael Meacher, Michael Foot and Brian Sedgemore, as well as the left wingers Tony Benn, Eric Heffer and radical leftists like Jock Young and Mike Gonzales.
Having supporters was no bad thing in itself, but the problem was that these were the very people whose programme for defending working class interests failed so spectacularly in the 1980s.
Over and over again the Glasgow Media group was on hand to explain just why it was that trade unionists were blamed for the rise in inflation, or why the Labour Left wing’s democratisation of the party ran into trouble, how the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament lost the argument over cruise missiles, or why the miners lost the 1984-5 strike.
In every case, the Glasgow media group produced reports that put the blame on the media, showing bias in the news coverage of these issues. But in every case the news coverage was a secondary matter. The real reason that the left lost the argument was that its programme was not a good enough answer, and the Labour Party in particular undermined the fightback.
It was not the news, but Labour Chancellor Denis Healey and leader Jim Callaghan that told the trade unions that their pay claims caused inflation. The Left’s campaign to ‘democratise’ the Labour Party ran into trouble because everyone could see it was a diversion from the real attack on working class living standards. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament spent so much time trying to convince the public that it was really patriotic at heart, that there was little left of its case against militarism.
The 1980s were a long process of defeats for the left, throughout which they never once stopped to ask what it was that they were getting wrong. The Glasgow Media Group kept on supply the alibi, and the alibi was that it was not the left that had failed, but the media, that, by mind control, had the masses in its grip.
It was an attitude that SpinWatch’s David Miller stuck to, making more and more ridiculous excuses for the left’s failures, by reference to secret conspiracies. So it was that in 2008 William Dinan and David Miller tried to explain the Labour Party’s rightward drift as the work of a sinister conspiracy:
To neuter the Labour Party was arguably a world historical task undertaken not simply by business, but also in alliance with government and intelligence agencies in the U.S. and U.K. (A Century of Spin, p 128)
There was no need for a conspiracy to neuter the Labour Party. The whole argument is a deus ex machina. The Labour Party was the force that neutered the working class movement. Throughout its history Labour was the party that reined in militancy in favour of moderate reforms.