This seems a small detail to have fuelled my sense of burning impotence, but the more I consider it alongside all the other small details that together form the steady, incessant drip-feed that gurgles just below the surface of what we are presented for news, the more incandescent it made me.
On 8th April 2013, Margaret Thatcher died. It was Monday and I’d been out of work for seven weeks. Not, I hasten to add, because of any hard-luck story or dastardly deed by an employer. No, it was my own stupid fault and the only reason I mention it is that I had time on my hands and was able, for the first time in a long time, to watch a big news story unfold in this age of 24-hour rolling news. I flicked around the news channels, mainly between sky, BBC and Al Jazeera, interested in how differently they would examine and present the story. As I watched that day I simmered, then effervesced and finally, boiled with anger and indignation.
From the outset, I must be brutally honest in stating my intense dislike of Margaret Thatcher. I despised her because of her methods and policies and I’m not about to revise that viewpoint now that she’s dead. However, neither am I about to launch into a vitriolic attack on her. What made me boil over that day was nothing to do with my politics, or indeed the politics of any of the contributors to the programming. Something more subtle was going on and I slowly realised that many of the participants, including some of the presenters, were parties to it unintentionally.
The first thing to hit me was the immediate, obvious difference between how the two English channels went for blanket, full-on tabloid, whilst the more international Al Jazeera merely inserted it periodically (as an important item nonetheless) into its output. Al Jazeera’s coverage was therefore less frenetic and, usually, by the time they revisited the item there had been some fresh development or interview, which made their analysis less repetitive. Whilst I appreciated this style more, I couldn’t help becoming drawn to a comparison exercise between the other two. Over the years, in a similar fashion to the two main political parties, the BBC and Sky News have become frighteningly alike. While the Tories and labour have been involved, first in a serious head-on pile up in the centre ground, then a sickening lurch towards UKIP on the right, the two broadcasters’ styles and formats have become increasingly familiar.
Frankly, the tabloidesque style is hardly surprising in Sky’s case, given its ownership and its eccentric American cousin, Fox News. Interestingly, the BBC has gradually come to the same conclusion as the Tories and Labour that, if the punter can’t tell the difference between you then they won’t particularly care which they’re watching and just vegetate and stop switching from one to the other. So, like the tabloids with their red tops and cover pictures of meaningless ‘celebrities’ being sick in the backs of taxis while the plane disaster is on page 23, they have grown indistinguishable. If you flick the television over nowadays, the picture doesn’t alter. The same thick, brightly coloured band is across the screen with the same teleprinter style legend: ‘Breaking News’. The same ticker-tape message is scrolling underneath it. The same Ikea furniture is arranged feng-shui. The same strange whooshing noises accompany those disembodied heads in the corner of the screen. And the same pair of
idio sorry, presenters – are staring at you. I mean staring at the autocue.
The similarities that day didn’t end there. On both channels, the clear presumption was there from the start that any person in possession of their full faculties was going to “recognise” the “towering figure” that had cast a “long shadow” and would surely “acknowledge” her “great achievements”. I use the quotation marks because these terms simply littered the content of both programmes and were used by contributors and presenters in equal abundance. What was also disturbing was the even clearer presumption that anyone who wanted to say, “Hey you know, I didn’t really like this woman and I think her policies were discriminating and vindictive” was a freak who should really keep quiet on a day like this.
These presumptions were never actually laid out or stated, but they were there all right. They were evident in the language and behaviour of presenters and admirers whenever one of these ‘ne’er-do-wells’ had spoken and they were patently obvious in the allocation of airtime. People who thought that Mrs Thatcher had actually not been good for the country were bizarrely asked if they identified with the tiny minority of gormless yobbos who celebrated on the streets of a few cities, which they clearly didn’t.
The important thing to remember here is that when your old aunt Mabel whom you dislike dies, you can either simply not go to the wake, or go along for your mum’s sake and just smile when everyone says how nice she was. However, when the person who dies has been the most controversial and divisive Prime Minister in generations, to let only those who come with praise do any of the important speaking and pooh-pooh any who dissent as small-minded irritants is an act of political and historical vandalism. The canonisation of Mrs Thatcher on both channels went on apace, with the gushing admirers demanding that anyone who held unsympathetic views about her be silent “out of respect”, whilst they themselves held forth with gusto, airbrushing away – with no respect themselves for the victims of her vindictive policies – the more distasteful actions from her term of office to all who would listen. Then something very curious happened.
No account of the Thatcher years would be complete, without some reference to her long-running battle with the city council in Liverpool, in particular the members of Militant. It was no surprise therefore, that the BBC contacted the former deputy leader of that council, Derek Hatton – who had many bitter clashes with her government – for a statement. If they were hoping he would appear on screen swigging champagne and singing hallelujah, they were to be disappointed. Mr Hatton answered the (by now) de rigueur question of whether he’d joined a street party by saying he would not celebrate the death of a human being (What a pity Thatcher failed to observe this maxim as she encouraged Britons to “rejoice” over the deaths of over 300 human beings on ship outside and sailing away from the Britain’s “total exclusion zone” around the Falklands). He did go on, however, to say that didn’t stop him from stating how profoundly wicked and cruel he found her policies to be, ruining lives and destroying communities. Nothing surprising there then. That’s exactly what one would expect him to say. He added that she had instigated more change than anyone who preceded her but qualified that by saying that was all well and good if we agree change was actually required, particularly change that made ordinary people worse off. The change implemented by Mrs Thatcher, in his opinion, was vindictive. That was where it got curious.
All morning, the admiring honourable members had been queuing up to pay their tributes and, almost to a man, each one told how she had instigated “more change” in her term than any other leader for a century. It was the one great thread, the ongoing theme from guest to guest: ‘more change than anyone’. Only Derek Hatton had qualified that statement by criticising this change.
As pointed out earlier, the presentation by both channels was more-or-less, a continuous loop, resulting in the same items and interviews recurring with annoying frequency. Each item was edited and/or shortened slightly after the first, live interview and inserted into the loop. The curious thing about Mr Hatton’s interview lies in this editing. I obviously can’t state that whoever edited this piece acted deliberately, but if you edit something, surely you must make sure its inherent sentiment remains intact and, ergo, proof-run it.
Within an hour of Derek Hatton’s interview, this edited version (which was to be replayed throughout the day, whilst the full interview was only aired the once – live), had become a fixture in the loop. In the edit, Mr Hatton says that Mrs Thatcher instigated an unbelievable amount of change, with the item ending on that word. No qualifying statement. No criticism. The result, when shown repeatedly all day alongside all the other items in the loop, gave the impression that Mr Hatton was repeating Mrs Thatcher’s many admirers; that he held her in the same respectful awe as they did. This editing, whether deliberate or not, totally altered the complexion of the interview and distorted Mr Hatton’s contribution for later viewers, the majority of whom would not have seen the original, live interview. One could be tempted to say this was an early example of BBC ‘creative editing’, were it not for their report on the miners’ strike at Orgreave 29 years previously, when they showed footage of the miners defending themselves, before showing the initial police mounted charge, thus fostering the indelible impression the miners had initiated the violence, not, as was the case, the police.
It seems some things never change . . . . . .