THE BLOG

Would Facebook Have Won The Miners Strike?

30/01/2014 12:25 GMT | Updated 31/03/2014 10:59 BST

I couldn't help but admire Labour's challenge to the government to apologise for the actions of Thatcher and her cabinet during the miners strike. The reaction of Tory grandees, who at the time spent their days scuttling between gutter press editors and the TV studios of slavishly compliant news shows in a bid to instigate hostility against those communities forced to fight for their very existence, has been predictable in its quantity of high handedness and outrage.

Looking back at the strike, it's easy to see how the miners faced an almost impossible task. The machinery of the state, including the BBC, major news networks and print media were set implacably against them. The government had near monopoly on the tone and perspective of the reporting that took place. Police were ready and willing to ruthlessly enforce the ideological whims and iron will of the government, and recently released papers show that armed forces were put on standby.

But how easy would it have been for Thatcher to dominate the reporting of the dispute had it happened today? Would the 'Battle of Orgreave' ended the same way if onlookers and miners alike were connected to Twitter, Messenger and BBM?

Social media has democratised the sharing of information. The Arab spring was powered by the 'Facebook generation'. Huge numbers of people can now be mobilised to a cause within hours, and the vice-like grip of traditional news institutions on the news agenda has been loosened to the point where news studios often dance to the beat of social media, as opposed to banging the drum to their own rhythm. Even now when people speak of the dispute, it's striking to note the amount of people who have built their view of the miners struggle based exclusively on the commentary provided by the 'red top' tabloids. Had the miners had social media in their armoury, the views of the public at large would have been far more balanced, with the outcome of the dispute perhaps not so stark.

Given that we now know the government had decided well in advance of the dispute to close 75 pits, and that they were intransigent in their ignorance to any form of opposing argument, and as determined to keep the truth secret as they were to decimate the coal industry, we can safely assume they didn't feel sufficiently confident in trying to win the war of information based on facts.

Mining communities of Yorkshire, Wales, Kent and elsewhere were left defenceless under the torrent of lies that flooded newspapers and television from government sources, the indefensible incidents of violence by the minority of miners dominating most reports. There were no exclusives detailing the systematic violence and bullying from hoards of police officers who manned picket lines. There were scant stories regaling details of extraordinary displays of comradeship and human kindness displayed by members of sister unions who, despite feeling the bite of poverty, donated heavily to hardship funds, giving food and clothing, and by members of the mining communities themselves who eased the burden of what was essentially an economic state blockade by sharing what little they had with their neighbour.

Many of the outrages of the strike that were perpetrated by members of both sides simply would not have happened in the social media age. Nothing infects timelines and newsfeeds of the online community like details of government abusing their power by bullying communities into destitution. Nothing arouses impassioned 'sharing' like accusations of police brutality and abuse of process. The claims of the Thatcher government that coal was simply uneconomical would have been more robustly examined and sternly challenged. Public opinion would have doubtless been turned into public pressure by the official account of the dispute being swiftly disproven, and replaced with the truth, the union garnering support by countering the propaganda campaigns that tainted public perceptions. The authorities know this only too well, and would have stepped with greater care.

Ironically, the coal industry did need reform. It also needed investment, something that simply was not going to happen, given Thatcher's preoccupation with financial services, and a disdain for manufacturing that her policies illustrated. This dispute demonstrates the risks of polarisation of any debate. It also highlights the naivety in many respects of the NUM in terms of their strategy.

Nowadays, unions are more aware, utilising social media to push their message. Anti-union laws ensure unions cannot strike without a ballot, with even lawful strikes injuncted for spurious reasons. Whereas the presence of social media would have restricted the excesses of government and media, it would also have had an empowering effect on the NUM, and the communities affected by the ravages of the dispute.

Selfies, and pictures of badly cooked food aside, the NUM in the era of social media could well have been tweeting victory in this seminal event in our industrial history.