UNISONActive is an unofficial blog produced by UNISON activists for UNISON activists. Bringing news, briefings and events from a progressive left perspective.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Hillsborough – a broader awakening?

As the justified anger of the Hillsborough revelations unfolds will the events now bring a broader awakening to the depths the establishment and the media can stoop to?

For 23 years people who knew the truth were faced by barrier after barrier from those who also knew the truth but peddled lies instead. Yet they kept up the fight, backed by some honourable politicians who also faced derision - sometimes from both sides such was the loss of confidence in anyone in the establishment. The feeling of powerlessness must have been almost overwhelming.

The dissonance between what people know and what the establishment promotes and the media says is brought into sharp focus in such tragic circumstances. It is hard for the ordinary person to make sense of this, fed as we are on a diet of propaganda day in day out from ‘trustworthy’ sources.

But it happens regularly on a less tragic level. Anyone who has taken part in industrial action knows the incredulity that ordinary union members encounter when they see themselves portrayed as the ‘enemy within’. The anger when the facts of their case are misrepresented or not represented at all. They just can’t believe it. But does it lead to a broader awakening that this happens all the time?

The danger is that these are seen as ‘one-offs’. Such is the disbelief about the possibility that it could happen routinely through a formal or informal collusion of political and financial forces, that it makes it too frightening to contemplate.

We are led to believe in the ideal of a free press that we’ve never had. A press that, with notable exceptions, relies more and more on ill-prepared journalists regurgitating press releases with precious little examination. A press that describes the world from the viewpoint of their rich owners.

The hypocrisy of the Sun is astonishing. It trumpeted ‘freedom of the press’ as it printed the trivia of a photo of a naked prince. But when it came to the real issues affecting real people, decency and above all truth, it cared not for freedom. It exposed itself as nothing more than a propaganda organ of its establishment when it defiled the victims of the Hillsborough tragedy.

But will people make the link that if it can happen once, it may be happening over and over again? Let’s not forget the role of much of the rest of the media who swallowed and repeated stories they wanted to believe.

As events unfolded, there was perhaps less of a concerted conspiracy by the media than there has been in other less tragic stories. But nonetheless, the work of the Sun, the Daily Mail and others in the broad ‘looney left’ campaigns of the 1980s exposes just how efficient the media can be in turning lies that fit their political agenda into ‘truths’ that stick for a generation.

“Baa baa white sheep”, black bin liners banned because they are racist and gay people put to the top of housing waiting lists are just three examples of press lies designed to undermine radical Labour councils at the time that became unquestioned truths, in some cases even through to today.

We recall research which showed that most people did not believe what they read in the popular press. But the same research showed that most did believe the ‘black bin bag’ story. It exposes the sheer power of repeated stereotypes and myths that people would expect such stories to be true despite their cynicism about the media.

The myths peddled about ‘elf and safety’ and about so-called European directives fall into the same category and it becomes almost impossible to shift the perception even if you can challenge the facts.

No better examples are the interviews across the media today that start with, “We all know there have to be cuts”. Oh do we?

But more frightening – and more unbelievable to the person on the Clapham omnibus – is the possibility that the police, the legal system and the political system could conspire actively or passively not only to hide the truth but also to attack ordinary people experiencing such pain and horror.

The possibility has now become a reality for many. A reality the miners in the 1980s saw when they faced draconian sentences for minor offences as a legal system conspired against them. Workers who were criminalised for exercising what they thought were democratic rights; the reality experienced by the demonised women of Grunwick; the myths about asylum seekers; the attacks on welfare benefits; the unhealthy link between the police and the media in the phone-bugging scandal. The list goes on.

So will there be a broader awakening? Will people take it into their own hands to bring their politicians to account. Or sadly will their cynicism cause them to disengage even further from the political process, unwittingly divesting themselves of what power they had?

That is where unions have a role as one of the precious few organisations where people still speak to people about real issues day in day out. It is well rehearsed that we have to turn that dialogue into organising workers in the workplace but we also need to use it to build the confidence to engage in and influence the political process.