The Thatcher Crisis Years

1980s politics blog from TV historian Tony McMahon

In these blog posts I’m getting into my time machine and zooming back to 1981. That was the year I went to university in an amazing city. The music. The politics. The vibrancy. It was an incredible place. But there were also huge problems. The riots in the summer of 1981 brought many issues to the surface. And the media struggled to cover it all. As a former print and TV journalist I’m fascinated by just how the media got to grips with a turbulent Britain under Margaret Thatcher.

There was no social media to fan the flames of anger in 1981. But broadcast and newspaper media stood accused in some quarters of ‘glamorising’ the disorders inspiring copycat behaviour.[1] There were requests to newsrooms not to over-report the incidents or sign off with comments like ‘where will it happen next?’

Almost inevitably, that 1970s scourge of television, the campaigner Mary Whitehouse, waded in to claim in the Daily Mail that TV images were fanning the flames of violence. She was incensed at footage of a youth firstly contemplating kicking in a shop window, then doing it and finally calmly deciding what to loot.

“It was that piece of film which finally persuaded me to send a telegram to both the BBC and ITN asking them if they would please consider whether the televising of acts of vandalism and violence did not contribute to the spread of riots by creating excitement, encouragement, imitation and actually teaching the techniques of violence.”[2]

Whitehouse went on to quote Tony Cliff, the founder of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) who had bemoaned the insignificant influence his ultra-left sect had exercised over the rioters. “It was only extensive television coverage and not the SWP itself that has managed to spread the riots in Britain”, Whitehouse concluded.[3]

Faced with a hail of criticism after the summer of riots, the BBC and Independent Broadcasting Authority commissioned a report from Howard Tumber of the British Film Institute.[4] He conducted interviews with youth, police and broadcasters concluding that TV had played a minor role in influencing behaviours and attitudes among urban teenagers.[5] Less than 10% of 12 to 19-year olds surveyed watched television news and so were not avidly following reports of riots around the UK.

The media took flak from all sides. Politicians accused TV news in particular of fanning the flames. The police were disgruntled by a decade of investigative reporting into 1970s policing that cast them in a less than positive light. And the rioters themselves attacked journalists who they perceived as a tool of the establishment and not merely chroniclers of events.

The media landscape in 1981 was very different. TV was restricted to a duopoly of the BBC and ITV with Channel Four still eighteen months away. The broadsheet and tabloid newspapers featured most of the titles that still dominate today but arguably with far greater influence, especially tabloids like The Sun and The Daily Mirror. There was no social media let alone cable TV or rolling news channels. Instead, there was a thriving market in print magazines and periodicals covering every subject under the sun.

Having worked for five years as a BBC News producer in the 1990s, we all operated to a big thick bible of editorial guidelines. Not many people read it cover to cover but the gist was obvious. A gung-ho, gonzo-style approach to journalism was not the Corporation’s ethos. Coming from a print background and having freelanced for the tabloids on occasion, I was berated early on for my use of sensationalist verbs like “smash” and “crash”. Language and content had to be sober.

The new media technology of the 1980s was ENG: Electronic News Gathering. The term was used throughout the 80s and 90s in the way that “digital” was employed for a while in the early 21st century when it still enjoyed novelty status. The riots were an ideal test of ENG technology and its superiority over film, which had to be returned to base and processed before it could be broadcast.

Undeniably, from journalists I have spoken to, there was a frisson of excitement over this test of ENG and whether crews could now better keep pace with events. It was even possible to broadcast live on the scheduled evening news bulletins (this was before rolling news channels) but the BBC was averse to showing any footage until it had been filtered by an experienced journalist.

The downside of ENG became obvious pretty quickly. If a rioter who disliked the media brought an iron bar crashing down on part of the equipment, the ability to get content back to the newsroom was impaired if not impossible. Tumber in his report noted one night of the Toxteth riots where BBC coverage was noticeably lighter because rioters had broken some of the ENG equipment.

The BBC made a point of sending in experienced production crews to cover the 1981 riots who had already done tours of duty in Northern Ireland, where the “Troubles” were in full swing.[6] But even newsroom editors were shocked when crews began to phone in to report that their cars had been vandalised, equipment destroyed and reporters and camera operators attacked.[7]

One news editor remarked:

“The danger of working in certain areas was something even thirteen years of working in Northern Ireland had not prepared us for”.[8]

The BBC in particular were seen by many rioters as part of the ‘establishment’ as opposed to being impartial reporters. At the same time, the police were complaining of two years of ‘biased’ TV coverage of their operations since the controversial tactics used in the 1979 Southall riots that contributed to the death of New Zealand schoolteacher, Blair Peach.[9]

But hostility to the media wasn’t just reserved for the BBC. Independent TV news crews were also subject to attack during the riots, as were print journalists. In 1981, TV and print newsrooms were heavily unionised and so the actions of the rioters were viewed in a dim light by many in the labour movement. Possibly as many of the rioters had never worked, through no fault of their own, they hadn’t imbibed the values of trade union and class solidarity.

Journalists felt as if they were in a war zone. Even the trendy, left leaning New Musical Express (NME) encountered a wall of hostility in Toxteth when it visited to take the temperature. The NME was required reading for any hip and Thatcher-hating youth circa 1981. In a pre-digital age when musical artists had tremendous influence over our lives, the NME and the other music press (Melody Maker, Sounds, Record Mirror, etc) were devoured every week by teenagers.

What David Bowie or Paul Weller had to say about the state of the world was deemed to have earth shattering significance. For us, the advent of punk in 1976 wasn’t just a change in musical fashion but an existential moment for our generation where we declared a kind of Year Zero purging our record collections of pre-1976 impurity. The NME, like the party mouthpiece in a Stalinist dictatorship, told us what was acceptable, and we obeyed slavishly.

NME reporters indulged the patience of their readership with very long thought pieces and interviews peppered with philosophical references to the likes of Carl Jung or Jean-Paul Sartre. And the political stance of the paper was resolutely anti-Margaret Thatcher. But in Toxteth, the NME found no deference.

That August as the riots simmered down, a team from the NME went to the area to find out what exactly had happened. They interviewed a woman called Anna sitting amidst a pile of rubble that had once been “Anna’s Fruit Shop”.[10] Anna was one of those retailers in Toxteth referred to by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher whose reaction to footage of the riots was:

“Oh, those poor shopkeepers!”[11]

Anna told the NME:

“They’ve just created more unemployment by putting shopkeepers and their workers on the dole. They haven’t hurt the police – it’s just their own community that they’ve destroyed.”[12]

The NME spoke to the police and were even-handed in their reporting repeating police allegations they had been spat at and called ‘pigs’ to provoke a response from officers during the riots. A garage attendant remarked stoically to the NME that “there’s good and bad on both sides”.

Then things turned uglier for the team as they went to talk to members of the Liverpool 8 Defence Committee. This was an alliance of community organisations based in the area.The reception at the Caribbean Community Centre was decidedly frosty with one individual telling the NME: “no white press in here”[13].

About twenty local youth then surrounded the NME team and asked why they only visited when there was trouble. They also berated the paper for only promoting white bands from Merseyside like Echo and the Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes. The reporter’s car bonnet was now being used as a trampoline and the team was being frisked by pickpockets. Then one individual articulated the hatred they felt for the visitors:

“You come into a trouble-torn area with your fancy cameras on your back an’ your slick tape recorders an’ fire questions a black people under pressure. An’ then you wonder why they want to hit you over the head an’ steal your equipment an’ leave you on the ground.”[14]

The reporter described his team as being “white boys in the wrong part of town” and the NME beat a hasty retreat from Toxteth.

As Tumber concluded in his report, young people were getting their news about the riots in informal settings like pubs or on the street. I recall first hearing about the July Brixton riot sitting in a pub in north-east London. A friend, Lisa, ran screaming into the bar demanding we accompany her down to Brixton to retrieve her parked car. After hearing what was going on, we decided to order another pint instead.

Pubs played a much more central role in the lives of young people in the early 1980s. In Liverpool, pubs were known to cater for different youth age bands. Mid-teens knew which landlords would turn a blind eye while later teens would drink in different establishments. There were also under the radar drinking clubs, some of which were clearly not licensed. I recall one being above a derelict menswear shop in the city centre that involved ringing a doorbell, walking past the naked mannequins and going up the stairs at the back.

It was in venues like those and on the streets that information circulated. CB Radio has been cited as playing a role with repeated accounts of “omnipresent hooded motorcyclists with citizens’ band radios[15]”. Even chalked messages on walls were a reported means of communication. To give a snapshot of life before smartphones, I recall being on a bus in Liverpool in 1983 when a youth I didn’t recognise sidled up to me:

“You’re in Militant aren’t ya?”

“Yes.”

“Yeah thought so, seen ya before. There’s a rally on tonight. TGWU building.”

And that is how information was shared rapidly between political activists, let alone rioters, in the pre-digital age. Unlike Mary Whitehouse, we were not seated in front of our TVs taking notes during the 5.40pm early evening BBC1 news bulletin.


[1] Peplow, Simon, ‘Race and Riots in Thatcher’s Britain (Racism, Resistance and Social Change)’, Manchester University Press, 2019

[2] Whitehouse, Mary, ‘Images that fan the flames of violence’, Daily Mail, 14 July 1981

[3] Ibid: ‘Images that fan the flames of violence’

[4] Ibid: ‘Race and Riots in Thatcher’s Britain’

[5] Tumber, Howard, ‘Television & the Riots’, British Film Institute, 1982

[6] Ibid: ‘Televsion & the Riots’

[7] Ibid: ‘Television & the Riots’

[8] Ibid: ‘Television & the Riots’

[9] Ibid: ‘Television & the Riots’

[10] Duffy, Mick, ‘Life in the War Zone’, New Musical Express, 8 August 1981

[11] Young, Hugo, ‘One of Us’, Pan Books, 1989

[12] Ibid: ‘Life in the War Zone’

[13] Ibid: ‘Life in the War Zone’

[14] Ibid: ‘Life in the War Zone’

[15] Unworth, Clive, ‘The Riots of 1981: Popular Violence and the Politics of Law and Order’, Journal of Law and Society, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1982, pp. 63.85

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