Peter Wilby in Media Guardian today marks the passing of an era with a look back at specialist labour reporting. He says the expected departure of Barrie Clement from the Independent under their redundancy scheme will leave only the Morning Star with a labour correspondent.
Having spent a chunk of my career doing this work there is sadness but the need for traditional labour reporting declined rapidly under the onslaught of Mrs Thatcher and the fall in union membership.
It could be both an exciting and boring job. Hours spent in hotel lobbies doorstepping negotiations inevitably led to the hard drinking reputation. One difficulty was to avoid being used by the unions and/or employers as a part of the negotiations: when all else is failing try sending a message to the other side via the media.
Relationships could be difficult. On one occasion while working for the Evening Post-Echo in Hertfordshire I rang the late Moss Evans, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union for a comment on his daughter getting her first job in a strongly anti-union company.
He spluttered, condemned the paper for intrusion. Understandably, he was not happy having his Saturday morning disturbed. An hour later he rang back for a chat about the state of the nation, the unions and life in general. That somehow encapsulated the edgy relationship between labour reporters and their sources.
Industrial relations in the 1970s and 80s was where politics were played out. Working as a journalist in this field you were at the centre of things.
Moving on, Wilby examines the role of specialist journalists. He points out that editors, with some justice, fear they can get too close to the people they report on, and eventually become their tools.
He goes on to point out that during the 1984-5 miners’ strike labour reporters were by-passed by ministers who regularly briefed newspaper editors as well as the political lobby.
Since then, he says, ministers have routinely leaked many policy plans to the lobby rather than relevant specialist reporters. He writes:
They know the coverage will be less critical because lobby correspondents don’t have the expertise on, say, health or education to challenge what they are told. That’s how governments can get away with announcing the same “initiatives” several times over or with introducing, for example, NHS reforms that go back to what was ditched 10 years ago.
To those examples can be added issues such as pensions, contract workers and health and safety, all subjects which would have been covered by labour reporters, which are not now as robustly reported as they should be.