Although national newspapers such as the Times, Telegraph and Daily Mail are never less than scornful in their attitude towards the resistance, they usually report the facts about strikes, marches and demonstrations with at least a modicum of objectivity.The same cannot be said about many local newspapers. Aware that their work is rarely exposed to rigorous political scrutiny, regional journalists have done more than anyone else to mislead the public about the struggle against the cuts.
An especially shocking example of political bias has just appeared in the South Wales Evening Post. On Thursday 30th June the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) organised a well-attended rally in Castle Square in Swansea in support of the co-ordinated strikes in the public sector. In his front-page coverage of the rally on 1st July, Rob Goodman of the Post employed every trick in the book to convey the impression that it had been a miserable failure. His article is worth examining because it typifies the work of regional journalists across the country.
Goodman's basic technique is to frame his coverage of the rally with the distorted testimony of a politically hostile witness. The very first sentence of his piece refers to the views of the Conservative AM Byron Davies, who claims that attendance at the rally was "low" and that the public clearly disapproves of industrial action. A lengthy quotation from Davies follows shortly afterwards. Later quotations from representatives of the PCS and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) are noticeably shorter.
There can, of course, be no objection to a journalist invoking the opinions of a Conservative politician. Byron Davies is entitled to his views and Rob Goodman is entitled to report them. But what is astonishing about the piece in the Post is that Davies's testimony is implicitly portrayed as definitive. In leading with Davies's words and quoting him so extensively, Goodman effectively sets him up as a sort of unimpeachable witness with whom no sensible reader would wish to disagree. This provides a context in which a number of seriously misleading statements about the rally can be passed off as the truth. For one thing, Goodman claims that only 150 people turned up. The real figure was closer to 350. He also implies that the only participants were members of the striking unions. In fact the rally drew on a much wider constituency that included political activists, pensioners and concerned members of the public. Goodman even forgets to mention that the rally was attended by three AMs (Bethan Jenkins, Mike Hedges and Julie James) and one MP (Siân James).
The other big problem with Goodman's article is that it conveys a misleading impression of what the anti-cuts movement is fighting for. It does so by giving undue prominence to the words of an activist whose views do not coincide with those of the movement as a whole. In the last column of the piece, Dave Bishop of the ATL is quoted as describing the public-sector pay freeze as "necessary". At no point does Goodman register the fact that this is not the view of Bishop's fellow protesters, most of whom regard the pay freeze as an outrageous attack on working-class living standards. By failing to make it clear that activists oppose the pay freeze as strenuously as they oppose the government's pension reforms, Goodman gives the impression that the anti-cuts movement is a more vacillating, less principled thing than it actually is. It is an old trick but no less objectionable for that.
How should the anti-cuts movement respond to distorted coverage of its activities? In the short term there are various things that can be done, even though the influence of commercial newspapers will not be undermined in a hurry. Activists must learn to bombard the press with letters of correction whenever their cause is misrepresented. From time to time they should hold demonstrations outside newspaper offices, demand the right to reply and produce leaflets informing the public of where journalists are going wrong. Above all they should play a leading role in building up the alternative media culture which the internet has made possible. There are now hundreds of websites on which dissident opinions can be disseminated. These range from overtly commercial sites such as Facebook to online socialist publications such as Radical Wales. If activists used these sites to provide comprehensive coverage of what they were doing, they would have a formidable weapon in the battle against media distortion. The British press is no more impartial now than it was nearly three decades ago during the Miners' Strike. We ignore that lesson at out peril.