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have been replaced by party political broadcasts but as any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
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
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.