I’m writing this on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.
Just a week before the UK voted to leave the European Union. Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to stay. A majority in England and Wales wanted to go.
Division, spite and rancour is in the air.
Yet, for all sides, the First World casts a long across Britain. It helped make the country we live in. Never such innocence, as Siegfried Sassoon wrote, as when we marched to war in 1914. Never such shattered innocence as the first day of the Battle of the Somme. If there was a day when modern Britain was born it was this.
I’m writing this to capture the #wearehere project. At key railway stations across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland volunteers dressed in First World War battledress appeared. Talk to them and they quietly give you a card with the name of a soldier who was killed on this day a hundred years ago.
As a child, a teacher taught us how much the First World War had changed Britain not with numbers. He pulled three empty chairs to the front of the classroom.
“Those chairs,” he said, “are empty. But they would have had three children just like you sat on them. But they weren’t born because their grandfathers were killed in the First World War.”
I seem to spend a lot of time telling people in training that the key to good communication is to be human. It’s why #wearehere works. It’s a real thing with real people. And the real people who saw it and were moved shared images and thoughts online.
I don’t know who is behind the project, but thank you for a chance to say ‘thank you’ to the 704,803 who died like cattle to show us that modern war was something to avoid.
But thank you too for a reminder that we are all human.
As a historian and someone fascinated by the changing face of communications I’ve spent a bit of time on a chapter of history that’s still being fought.
It’s not Waterloo, Ypres or Gallipoli. It’s the Miners’ Strike. Or the Great Strike of 1984 to 1985 depending on your perspective.
It’s battle in British history so awkward like a parked car loaded with explosives we don’t like to go near it. Cinema? That’s fine. ‘Billy Elliott’ and ‘Brassed Off’ tell versions of the story.
Topically, it was in the news again when the police watchdog ruled out prosecutions. So expolosive it is the BBC were attacked for giving undue prominence that ‘re-heated tensions’. It’s so dangerous, it’s almost impossible to write with a neutral voice on it but heck, as a comms historian I’m going to try.
Historians in a hundred years will point to this as one of the most significant episodes in the story of modern Britain. As former Sunday Times journalists Francis Beckett and David Hencke wrote in their book ‘Marching Towards the Faultline’ there was Britain before the Miners Strike and Britain after. The two are entirely different.
Fact v Legend
Only a handful of facts are undisputed. In 1948, Britain was described as a land built on coal with 700,000 men – and they were largely men – working down them. In 1984 there were less than 200 collieries with 200,000 workers left. On the one hand, as heavy industry declined so did the demand for coal but in 2013 still coal accounts for 40 per cent of electricity. Almost all is imported. In 2015, there is one pit.
There are two versions of what happened in the Miners’ Strike.
In the first version, the Miners went on strike in 1984 because they feared secret plans were in place to close 70 pits. For many miners, closing a pit meant the death of their community as it was the only employment in their town or village. They would have won, the argument goes, but for strike breaking miners and the Trades Union movement’s betrayal of them. The result, according to the narrative? Weaker trades unions, lower pay for working people nationally, decimated communities and just one pit left.
In the second version, the Miners were wrong not to ask for a national ballot of their members and to go out on strike in the summer when no-one needed as much coal. Their industry was dying, their coal too expensive and miners leader militant Arthur Scargill was intent on bringing down an elected government. The result? Weaker trades unions led to flexibility in the labour market which led to growth and greater national prosperity.
Art, history and a battle
That’s the row in a nutshell. What led me to it? Music. A few years ago I saw a colliery brass band playing Acid House music. This was an art project by artist Jeremy Deller. I laughed at the wackiness of it. I was intrigued as a history geek at the idea of staging a re-enactment of a defining moment in the strike which became known as The Battle of Orgreave. I was struck by how little I knew of the subject. As a kid, I remember it on the TV news. Of Dellar’s re-enactment? There is a fascinating documentary on the project.
A thousand gathered to re-enact. Included were former striking miners and police officers as well as people more used to dressing up as Romans or Civil War Roundheads as part of historical re-enactments. The Mike Figgis documentary on it is here:
At the Battle of Orgreave pickets and police clashed. In the violence pickets and police were injured. Almost a hundred miners were arrested and charged with riot. All were later cleared when the South Yorkshire Police case them unravelled. South Yorkshire Police, miners will tell you knowingly, were the force responsible for policing Hillsborough a few years later. Those on the other side will tell you that they were two unrelated incidents.
For years I had had this idea to re-enact this confrontation that I had witnessed as a young person on TV, of striking miners being chased up a hill and pursued through a village. It has since become an iconic image of the 1984 strike – having the quality of a war scene rather than a labour dispute. I received the commission, which I couldn’t believe, because I actually didn’t think it was possible to do this. After two years’ research, the re-enactment finally happened, with about eight-hundred historical re-enactors and two-hundred former miners who had been part of the original conflict. Basically, I was asking the re-enactors to participate in the staging of a battle that occurred within living memory, alongside veterans of the campaign. I’ve always described it as digging up a corpse and giving it a proper post-mortem, or as a thousand-person crime re-enactment.
It was a different comms landscape
The book ‘Marching to the Faultline’ gives a fascinating and unpartisan account of the strike. For balance, it has been criticised by both sides. But it is the communications landscape it recalls that fascinated me.
The landscape of the 1980s was pre-internet. National newspapers and TV news were unchallenged. Each newspaper had a ‘labour correspondent’ whose job was to cover strikes. But this pool of gatekeepers were shunned by the miners. The National Union of Mineworkers had one press officer who openly didn’t like Press. Allegations of bias had foundation but as New Labour would show a decade later, they needed to be engaged with. Announcements still came from press conferences. But NUM Press conferences were often filled with supporters which Arthur Scargill played to. Besides, this the miners’ leader only really trusted one hard left newspaper. Journalists who did turn up on picket lines were often threatened and had to stand for safety behind the police lines driving them in effect towards the police narrative. As a media strategy, it seems as flawed in the 1980s as it seems today.
Internal comms for the miners came in print and face-to-face. The Miner was the union newspaper. Face-to-face networks dominated. Women’s support groups kept families fed and community networks built on the mutual trust of working underground were vital.
For the government of the day, ministers were slow to grasp that industrial correspondents were important. But on their side there was the unanimous support of national newspaper barons fed-up with their own union problem. Public opinion was vital and the newspapers were key.
And the cost? There’s no agreement on that, either. The government of the day said this was around £6 billion and there’s a ‘good day to bury bad news’ briefing that emerged to go with it. Further research by Brussels-based TUC have put the overall cost at £28.5 billion at 2003 prices for the cost of police, closing mines, unpaid income tax, social security, the cost of alternative energy production during the strike, coal imports and a whole raft of other factors.
Would social media have made a difference?
Of course, the historian in me recognises the folly of ‘what if?’ history which is only ever speculation.
But the comms person in me is intrigued.
Social media is excellent at putting a human face on an issue. Literature and cinema and has been kind to the miners. If happiness writes white then the Miners Strike is filled with colour. The films Brassed Off and Billy Elliott showed human stories. It showed violence too. Would smartphones on picket lines shown the uglier side of police tactics? Or the uglier side of the miners?
Social media can give real-time updates. A powerful image can go viral. The Occupy protests knew this. So do anti-austerity pressure groups like 38 Degrees. But there are still bankers’ bonuses.
So, would social media have made a difference? It’s impossible to know.
Today, the miners strike for many isn’t over. The watchdog IPCC has ruled out charging police officers for their role at Orgreave and allegations of perjury. The Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign are on Facebook and are pressing for a Hillsborough-style inquiry. And yet the miners leader Arthur Scargill now refuses all interviews and has done for years.
For anyone working in the field of communications, it’s fascinating to look back at what is a different country. It’s also living history and it will be fascinating to see how this continues to play out in art, literature and digital communications.
It’s not often I’ll re-post someone else’s content. It’s even rarer that I re-post someone re-posting someone else’s content. But this one is something of a belter and it’s entirely within the spirit to do so.
There was an excellent TED talk YouTube on Stephen Waddington’s blog from Tom Standage who is both digital editor at The Economist and an author. The book he’s written is ‘Writing on the Wall’ which shows how far from being a modern blip is actually 2,000 years old. Not only is it rooted in history it’s the last 150-years of print mass media that’s actually the faddish blip.
As a historian that really appeals to me. It appeals even more to the geek in me. And it appeals yet more from someone who helps with the brewcamp meet-ups that actually idea sharing in a coffee shop has been around before. As Standage says, coffee shops in 18th century London were known as ‘Penny Universities’ where people could share listen, talk and meet with social superiors for the price of a brew.
Tom Standage’s three phases of media
New media 1993 – to date
That’s the stuff that’s been around since about 2000. It’s Twitter and it’s Facebook and it’s this blog post.
Old media 1833 – 1993
That’s the stuff that’s powered by a steam powered printing press. It starts with the first penny newspaper and ends with the invention of the internet.
Really old media 51 BC – 1833
That’s the stuff that first emerged in the late Roman period where people like Terentius Neo and his wife write letters to each other. Letters would be shared. Books were scarce. So you wrote one copy and place it in a library. If it was any good it it would be copied and shared. Or in other words, pirated. If it was pirated often enough then publishers would step in and produce more. So you really wanted your wortk to be pirated by as many people as possible because it meant your ideas got spread.
“You say my letter has been widely copied. Well, I don’t care. Indeed, I myself allowed several people to take a copy of it.” – Cicero Rome, 106 BC – 43 BC.
News would get around on wax tablets with the same aspect as the i-pad, Standage says.
Martin Luther’s ideas go viral
Priest Martin Luther sparked a revolution when he started to question with the Roman Catholic church was selling pardons from purgatory. He writes out a list of questions he’d like answering. He pins it to a church door in Latin. It gets copied down in long hand and shared. It gets copied and further shared. It gets printed. It gets printed in German and shared even more widely. Luther is amazed. He never intended the challenge to go viral. So, the next time he gets his message out by going straight to the printer with a German text. The result? The Reformation as the Catholic church splits and Protestantism is formed.
Coffee Houses and social media
There were no barriers to class in a coffee house and in London they led to an explosion of ideas and debate. Lloyd’s of London the insurance brokers began in a coffee house as did The Stock Exchange. So did the Royal Society.
“(The coffee house) admits of no distinction of persons, but gentlemen, mechanic, lord and scoundrel mix and are all of a piece.” – Samuel Butler, London, 1668.
Deliciously, Standage points to the parallels with social media and coffee houses and points to how people thought that people in coffee houses were just messing about.
“Why doth solid and serious learning decline, and few or none now follow it now in the University? Because of coffee houses. Where they spend all their time.” – Anthony Wood, Oxford, 1670s.
What the history lesson is for today
“Is social media a fad? If anything was a fad it was the old media mass media period that was a historical anomaly. Now we’ve gone to a more social model super-charged by the internet.” – Tom Standage, Oxford, 2013.
All of that rather appeals. It means that the brewcamps, teacamps and for that matter unconferences we think of as new ideas are actually rooted deeply in something that has gone before. It’s also something that has a track record of innovation. You put people into a room with a cup of coffee – and maybe some cake – and you start to get some good results. That’s tremendously re-assuring and tremendously exciting.
A few years ago when all this digital stuff was new to me I sat in the pub with Michael Grimes who is @citizensheep on Twitter. We were complaining that people were thinking that social media was just people wasting their time. And that people had once complained about telephones. And railways in the Victorian era. And every other invention.
Tom Standage’s book is called ‘The Writing on the Wall: Social Media the First 2,000 Years’ and you can buy it from shops and the internet very soon. You can watch the TED talk here…
Open data cutting edge? Like top hats, Christmas trees and giant factories the Victorians got there first.
They may not have built a chimney sweep Google death map. But their approach was similar. Collect the data. Publish it. Draw conclusions. Argue for change.
Don’t believe me?
Look at Florence Nightingale in her funny lace bonnet. Historian Dr Stephen Holliday in BBC History Magazine August 2010 writes about how she used statistics to
revolutionise the care of soldiers in the Crimean War.
By using statistics – data – she painted a picture to show a revolution in care was needed.
“When she reached Scutari the base for casualties from the Crimea,” Halliday writes, “Florence calculated that deaths from disease were seven times those arising in battle and used the campaign to campaign for better food, hygeine and clothing for the troops.”
Battered by the force of Florence’s figures and cutting edge reporting that forged the reputation of The Times the British government was forced into changes.
After the war Nightingale used her Royal connections coupled with arguments based on charts and tables to press for better standards for soldiers who even in peacetime had death rates double that of civilians.
The result? Death rates fell by 75 per cent.
Florence herself said that statistics were “the cipher by way we may read the hand of God.”
We may have lost that religious zeal but it’s an argument Tim Berners-Lee would recognise as a modern-day Florence Nightingale with a passion for data.
Did she get it right all the time?
No. Here’s the warning from history.
By misreading available data Florence Nightingale later helped kill thousands of people.
She used statistics to wrongly argue cholera was an airborne disease. It wasn’t.
It took London GP Dr John Snow to collect his own data on death rates in his patch to argue they were caused by a contaminated water supplies.
So what’s the message to today’s open data pioneers?
That first data visualisation you have in front of you may not be the whole picture.
There may be more to it.
Remember the phrase ‘lies, damn lies and official statistics?’
Statistics were once hailed as the magic cure-all that revealed a hidden truth.
It’s been said that all data in some form or other is political. Let’s not see open data similarly tainted.