1985 and all that

Anniversaries play an important part in the media agenda. Last year we had the huge World War One commemorations and this year the end of the Second World War will be marked along with a host of others such as the 175th anniversary of the founding of Cunard to name just a few.

They sometimes serve as a lazy journalistic way to fill airtime or column inches because there’s not much ‘real’ news around. They can also be an excuse for a nostalgia-fest so we can all think about the good/bad old days and how much worse/better it is now.

At other times they serve to remind us in a more sombre way to stop and think for a change. A ‘lest we forget’ kind of history lesson.

Journalists and academics often try to draw parallels with modern-day events, reaching the oft-quoted conclusion that if we do not learn from history we are condemned to repeat it.

Well 2015 has already brought us an anniversary or two and we’re not quite half way through the year.

I read the news today….

30 years ago I started my journalism career in Liverpool when the city seemed to be at the eye of every news storm around. At least that’s what it felt like working in the BBC Radio Merseyside newsroom at the time.

We would be contacted sometimes on an hourly basis by London network colleagues to find out what was happening in Liverpool and why ; what’s the real story? Who should be interviewed?

And the list of big Liverpool stories can make depressing reading.

1981 – The Toxteth Riots,

1985 Heysel Stadium Disaster (1985),

1983 onwards….the clashes between the Militant-led city council and the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher and the Labour party led by Neil Kinnock,

1989 The Hillsborough Tragedy.

Most Fridays – job losses.

At times the city seemed to lurch from one crisis to another and seemed under siege from sections of the national media. The regions movers and shakers and indeed parts of the media itself developed a siege mentality.

But it wasn’t all bad news,honest. Not all of it.

As a contrast, on the sporting front both Liverpool and, for a change, Everton were the two best footballing sides in the country and among the European elite, at least for part of the decade.

The city’s music scene was also flourishing like at no time since the early 60’s.

There was Echo and the Bunnymen, Teardrop Explodes, OMD, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Wah! and many more. And they didn’t all leave for London when they found success, although a few did.

Looking back it was as if the county of Merseyside had set up its own state and declared UDI, and bugger the rest of the country, ‘We’ll do our own thing’.

Liverpool seemed always to be in the spotlight…on tv Alan Bleasdale’s ‘Boys from the Blackstuff’ created a huge impact on audiences for the brutal realism of its storylines, and Phil Redmond’s Brookside started to tackle issues that no other soap would go near at the time.

And there was the ‘erm “hugely popular” sitcom “Bread” too.

On stage there was Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers and Shirley Valentine,hugely successful and both regularly performed today.

In the national press it was also the beginning of an era when scousers were regularly being berated by some press commentators for “wingeing” and “moaning” about their lot.

Whereas in the 60’s and 70’s the media myths we were fed would have us believe that we were especially witty and artistically talented ( and by God did we believe it) in the 80’s and 90’s we were regularly ridiculed and despised as “self-pity city”.

In a way much of this focus was great for the city’s own press corps because whenever a negative story appeared in the national media our local political leaders could be relied on to come to the microphone and defend us.

The letters pages of the local papers would be filled with approbrium and the radio phone-ins buzzed like never before.

But the media spotlight increasingly led to a number of knee-jerk reactions from the Scouserati movers and shakers which only served to foster a thin-skinned,defensive image in sections of the national media.

Interestingly a name from that era has recently re-emerged in the public eye on Merseyside recently.

It’s that man again

Derek Hatton, 30 years after achieving national prominence for being part of the Militant-dominated Labour council which challenged the ruling Tory government in the face of severe and what their supporters felt were unfair financial cuts.

His face seemed to be dominating our tv screens night after night for a relatively short period in the mid-80’s….refusing to sanction cuts in “jobs and services’, trying to shout down Neil Kinnock at the infamous Labour Party conference of 1985.

Arguably. the area’s reputation for bolshiness was cemented in the media eyes during this time and so it rolled on and on.

You can blame the media or Derek Hatton himself for this but I think most people who lived through that era will agree that the city’s reputation was at an all-time low during that period. (‘The Bermuda Triangle of British Capitalism’ as it was coined by more than one newspaper columnist at the time).

It seems like a lifetime ago but it was only 30 years.

Once the scourge of the establishment, Derek has recently re-applied to join the Labour Party having been ejected along with the other Militants in 1986. In his public pronouncements ( in an exclusive interview with ITN – he always was media-savvy) he says he’s changed with the times and intimated that he is no longer on the hard left of the party. Along with the rest of he’s changed, big deal.

Silence can be golden

So how far do the local political leaders of today realise that occasionally it’s better to keep schtum rather than sound off at the first whiff of a request from a media organisation to ‘give us a a quote’.

In the 90’s I recall being impressed with the former leader of Manchester City Council Graham Stringer who,when approached by the press for a reaction to the Queen apparently making jocular/disparaging remarks about the city when on a tour in the Soviet Union , simply refused to comment.
I recall saying to colleagues that if that would have been Liverpool, politicians would have been lining up for a second siege of Stalingrad, or more likely, Buckingham Palace.

Plus ca change?

Remnants of that defensive past still occasionally rear their ugly head.

Did Mayor Joe Anderson really need to react so publicly to Jeremy Clarkson a few months ago when the ex-Top Gear man made an attempt to snipe at Liverpool in his Sunday Times column during an overnight stay in the city?

Sure Joe got his wish a few weeks later in the unrelated punch-up incident but at the time I remember thinking…’No…he/we are better than this. Times have changed. Don’t give JC’s utterings more credence than they are worth.” .

In other words, say nothing. A strange thing you might think for a media consultant to suggest.

I would seldom (never say never) advise ‘No comment’ as a press statement but it’s always good to make sure your message shows you in a positive light when the microphone is thrust in your face, a la Stringer all those years ago.

It’s sometimes better to generate more light than heat .

I think that’s something we’ve all learned to do over this past 30 years.

Well most of the time anyway.

Yes,even Deggsie.

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