1st February 2002

The BBC and ITV seem to have a policy that no public meetings are to be reported, unless they lead to trouble, in which case they are covered with dramatic pictures of the police in action against some 'troublemakers' and the ritual denunciation of the violence by some Minister.

All we usually see, TV news, of a peace demonstration will be a man in a George Bush rubber mask, an angry shouting bearded Muslim and a few young people with posters, but we are never allowed to hear what is said from the platform.

The only exception I can think of was when the Countryside Alliance held their big demo in London in support of fox hunting where a few clips were shown of some Tory front-bencher warning that the rural areas could not survive unless the gentry could continue to practice their barbaric blood sport.

But strike meetings, which are now going on around the rail disputes have had no coverage, nor have the mass of gatherings large and small which go on and have gone on for years in and around the issues which matter to the Labour movement, and it must be because the TV pundits do not want those views to get through to the public.

There is, I suspect, another reason which is more human, namely that the top rank media commentators do not want to share their God-given right to address the nation and tell us what to think, with anyone who is not a superstar, and even when people are interviewed they are always told to look away from the camera for fear that if they spoke direct it might have too much impact.

Most viewers and listeners therefore never hear about public meetings and so the media tell us that public meetings are a thing of the past, as I discovered recently when I was invited by the BBC to do a programme on the death of the public meeting and however times I tried to tell them about the number that I, personally attend they still persisted with their obituaries.

Maybe the tradition of the old hustings at election time have been replaced by party political broadcasts but as any active member of any progressive organization will tell you, meetings allow important issues to be raised publicly.

That is how the Poll Tax was beaten and the mass meetings against the Afghan war brought together those who were opposed to it, and the Environmental movement used them to get Green issues on to the political agenda.

During the miners strike in 1984-5 huge meetings were held all over Britain, and many abroad in their support and the funds raised helped to keep the families going as they did for the Liverpool Dockers and in both case the women from the support groups made brilliant speeches which I shall never forget.

The annual Durham Miners Gala is an inspiration, attended by thousands from the mining families, joined nowadays by trade unionists with their banners from all over Britain, and, until Neil Kinnock stopped going was always attended by the Labour Leader who spoke to the crowds on the Racecourse about the Movement and Socialism to remind us of where we all came from.

The biggest public meeting at which I ever spoke was in 1960 in Bombay alongside Pandit Nehru and Krishna Menon against the Portuguese occupation of Goa, attended by half a million but even here a hundred thousand turned out in Trafalgar Square last November on the war.

Nor should we forget the role of Folk music in keeping alive popular traditions at festivals all over the country where singers like Roy Bailey remind us of the struggles of past generations and keep our spirits up, which is why an interest in folk music was noted by the Un-American Activities Committee at the time of the infamous MacCarthy witch-hunt, as an indication of those who might be political subversives.

Of course many meetings are much smaller, as they were last Sunday, when a hundred people stood in the pouring rain at the Battersea cemetery, listening to speeches commemorating the life of John Burns, one of the first working men elected to parliament in 1892 as a Labour candidate, alongside Keir Hardie.

Later that afternoon the Irish Centre in Hammersmith was packed to the doors to discuss Bloody Sunday at which some brilliant speeches were made, while outside the police kept an eye on a small disconsolate group of youngsters with Union Jacks who might even have been convened by the National Front.

Some, in New Labour, speak contemptuously of meetings as preaching to the converted but even if that was true, which it is not, they ought to know that the Christian religion has been kept alive for centuries by doing just that in tens of thousands of churches across the world, and if, instead, the Pope had relied upon a few photo opportunities when there was a miracle at Lourdes he would have no influence at all.

Of course it would be great if the media reported our meetings so a wider audience could hear what is being said, but even if they did, it would be no substitute for the self-confidence we all get from attending them, not only to hear the speakers, and sometimes heckle them, but because with a big crowd we realize that we are not alone in our faith and can draw strength from the others who have come along to demonstrate their own deep commitment and determination - which is the key to success for the cause now, just as it was for the pioneers.

Worldwide people are also demonstrating for peace and social justice and their cause is our cause too.



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