Saturday, 27 October 2012

Orgreave: the evidence is out but the truth was always known

Earlier this week a BBC Inside Out programme claimed that police officers were told what to write in their statements, following clashes at the Orgreave coke works. Labour is now calling for an inquiry into claims that South Yorkshire Police manipulated evidence during the miners' strike in 1984. The shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper told the Commons the issue needed to be investigated.

The news reminded me of one particular day during that strike. One that has stayed with me ever since. During the strike I was branch secretary of NALGO at Westminster City Council. They were heady days. The now disgraced Shirley Porter was leader of the council. Just across the water. Ken Livingstone was running the GLC. 

Like many trade union branches we twinned with an NUM branch during the strike as a focus for our fundraising efforts to support striking miners and their families. In the summer of 1984 we twinned with Carcroft NUM near Doncaster in what is now Ed Miliband’s constituency.

The rest of this blog is an article, ‘They want us there today’, written by Tim Taylor (a NALGO fellow branch officer) and me following a visit to Yorkshire to forge relations with our twin NUM branch. It was published in Westminster NALGO’s branch magazine, State of the Union, in September 1984. And it describes what happened when we found ourselves on a mass picket at Gascoigne Wood near Selby the day after the first Yorkshire miner had returned to work.

Inside Out reminded me of the day and the article. For anyone who was there at the time, the revelations about allegedly falsified police accounts will come as no surprise at all. The real story of what happened has been there all along in the accounts of those who took part in the strike. And those like me who bore witness to it. 

‘They want us there today’ by Tim Taylor and Chris Creegan, State of the Union, Westminster NALGO, September 1984

The report that follows is an account of what happened when we were taken to a mass picket during our visit to a mining community in South Yorkshire. We wanted to view for ourselves the actions of miners and police on the picket lines so much talked about in the news. Quotes are from miners we met on the day.

We were staying with a miner’s family in the Brodsworth area just outside Doncaster. Having reported along with local striking miners to the welfare we were driven to Gascoigne Wood colliery near Selby where the previous day the first Yorkshire miner to break the strike had returned to work. ‘They want us there today’, commented our driver as we asked whether the police were likely to prevent us from reaching the colliery. On arrival we were met by hundreds of miners keen to indicate that support for the strike was still strong.

‘It’s as much a display of solidarity as anything else and God, we need that now.’

We were instructed to move towards the pit gates and joined maybe 2000 other pickets in a field adjacent to the colliery road, which was occupied by a line of police several thousand strong.

‘This pit has been democratically closed by those who work there. There’s all this talk of the ‘right to work’ but you don’t get this lot down (the police) when MacGregor shuts a pit, to defend our right to work.’ 

As we stood in anticipation, local union officials moved through the crowd urging pickets to remain calm. 

‘This isn’t exactly what I’d call fun. We’ve been beaten and punched and kicked and it’s bloody cold.’ 

The situation did remain peaceful until police ‘thoughtlessly’ rushed two vans towards the pit gates. Pickets thinking (wrongly) that this was the man’s return to work, surged forward in an attempt to block the road. As scuffles broke out and truncheons were drawn, police were heard to say ‘take your pickets now’. 

‘This bloke going in today, I don’t blame him. We’ve all suffered and for some I suppose it just gets too much. But he’s still a scab and he’s letting everyone down – himself, his community, his kids…’ 

The situation soon calmed and by about 11.00am miners began to drift off, anxious to avoid further clashes but satisfied that their presence had been felt. ‘Coming in? With you lot here? You must be joking’ said a superintendent as we walked away. 

Pickets were soon reflecting on the morning’s events. Many of the older pickets were critical of others’ hot headed response to the police. They were conscious of having been used and sure of what the press would have to say.

‘Mindless hooligans’, ‘mindless horror’, ‘mindless violence’ said the Express. They all got it wrong. We saw the police charge first and pickets act only in defence. Maybe they had been right – they had wanted us there that day.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Abuse, power and gender: what needs to change after Savile

I love the BBC. I can’t imagine my cultural life without it. I don’t know whether this is the worst crisis at the BBC for 50 years. But I’m pretty sure that’s not the question. Or at any rate the only question.

And it worries me a great deal that at a moment when we have an opportunity to focus on the issue of abuse, a self referential media has decided that the media itself, in the form of the BBC in this instance, is the big story. If we need reminding of the way power relations can be reinforced by elites, we need look no further than the current discourse.

But there are some other things about power that we need to remember and here are two. First it’s gendered. And second it’s about culture. And that reminds me of two articles from the world of sociology and social policy, both as it happens written by men. Academics are sometimes (rightly) criticised for living in ivory towers. But they can sometimes help us think about big issues and ideas and enable us to look at problems through a different lens. Men are rightly criticised for colluding with gendered power relations, but sometimes they have something to say about them too.

Where gendered power is concerned I’m reminded of a ground breaking article, Naming Men as Men, published in the academic journal, Gender, Work and Organisation in 1994. The authors, David Collinson and Jeff Hearn, discussed the way in which men and masculinities are frequently central to organisational analysis, yet rarely the focus of interrogation. Rather they remain taken for granted and hidden. Is this ringing any bells? Collinson and Hearn went on to argue that to understand gendered power, we need to examine the management of organisations in much more detail.

And they highlighted five masculinities which are routinely embedded in managerial discourses and practices: authoritarianism, paternalism, entrepreneurialism, informalism and careerism. I don’t know whether these accurately describe masculinities at the BBC or for that matter across the media. But I’d hazard a guess that they aren’t too far removed from either the culture that allowed abuse or indeed the culture that’s mishandling the fall out now. I’d certainly draw on Collinson and Hearn’s framework if I wanted to take a closer look.

Where organisational culture is concerned I’m reminded of a piece by Ken Young about the implementation of equality policies. Young argues persuasively about the importance of understanding the appreciative context within organisations. He referred to that context as the constellation of images, beliefs and values at work in organisations. And he suggested that when thinking about the implementation of policy it was as important as formal policy frameworks and procedures. Since there’s already talk of whether we need more legal powers to prevent abuse (we might) it’s worth remembering that any amount of regulation won’t work if values and behaviours don’t change. And when it comes to abuse, that’s first and foremost about male values and behaviours.

I absolutely agree with those who have argued that the tragic and shocking story of abuse that has given rise to the current crisis at the BBC must not be drowned out by the story of that crisis. But since everyone is talking about it and because it’s real, let’s please make sure we focus on what actually needs to change in organisations like the BBC if we’re to stop powerful men abusing again.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Why coming out is still an everyday experience

Today is Coming Out day. And it’s still relevant.

Commenting during last year’s Irish presidential election campaign on the sea change in attitudes to sexuality in Ireland, the writer Colm Toibin memorably said that recently he’d forgotten he was gay because he was too busy doing something else.  I know what he meant.

The change in attitudes in Britain that’s taken place in the last thirty years has indeed been remarkable. In 1983, when NatCen’s landmark British Social Attitudes survey was carried out, 62 per cent thought homosexuality was always or mostly wrong. By 2010 that trend had more or less reversed: 39 per cent said that homosexuality was never wrong, while ten per cent said it was rarely wrong. And as survey after survey shows that trend continues.

For those of us who came out many years ago, who’ve become comfortable in our own skin with the support of family, friends and colleagues, Colm Toibin’s experience will resonate a great deal. But it’s all too easy to forget how traumatic coming out was and can be. And it would be tempting to assume that attitudinal change has some how rendered coming out easier or even a thing of the past.

But we still live in a society where the presumption is heterosexuality. And even in socially liberal circles that presumption is still pretty deep rooted. Being lesbian or gay may not be as shocking as it once was, but it can still be mildly disconcerting or disappointing to even the most progressive people. The presumption of heterosexuality, ‘heterosexism’ in an institutional context, means that being lesbian, gay or bisexual is still a declaration of difference. It means being the other.

Being the other means that being lesbian, gay or bisexual is at best a negotiated experience.  It might not require a grand strategy, but it will still involve everyday tactical decisions. Who to tell, what to say, will anyone be offended, will it change someone’s perception of me? And so on. And coming out never stops. Wherever you go, whatever you do, that negotiation continues, however benign, a feature of normal daily life.

So if you’re at work and you’re in a relationship, do you play the pronouns game to conceal the gender of your partner? Conversely, if you’re not in a relationship, how do you come out without the prop of a partner to introduce your sexuality into everyday conversation? Research that I was involved in for the European Social Fund as recently as 2006 revealed that coming out could be a radically different experience for people working in the same building: one person talking about being in a ‘comfort zone’ and another talking about having to wear ‘an emotional suit of armour’ everyday.

For young people coming out for the first time at school or college coming out can still be a hugely traumatic and lonely experience. Yes attitudes have changed. Yes role models are more plentiful. But when the chips are down, it’s something you’ve got to do for yourself and it takes courage. For people in countries where attitudes have still to change, we know it can still be a matter of life and death.

So if you’re straight what can you do? Time and time again research participants have said to me over the years that one of the things that can make a real difference is when straight people take responsibility for creating an environment where coming out is less of an ordeal. That means not presuming and not stereotyping. It means thinking about what you say and not assuming you know everything about the people around you. It means that no matter what your private assumptions are they should remain private.

And by the way that doesn’t mean treading on eggshells. It’s not political correctness gone mad. It’s just common sense and common courtesy. Too much to ask? If attitudes have changed as much as the surveys tell us it shouldn’t be.

And you might just make someone’s coming out journey a whole lot easier.