'SHOTS WERE A SPOILER'

UK Press Gazette – 25 July 1988

On June 24, Channel 4 television marked the forthcoming anniversary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916, by showing again its moving and potentially excellent documentary on the disaster "Lions Led by Donkeys".

I say "potentially excellent" because of the depressing decision to insert at three points, in an otherwise authentic and authoritative account, snide attacks on the current British government.

First, shots of a young man turning away from a Job Centre towards a modern Army recruitment office accompanied the tendentious claim that:

"The state of the nation in the First World War was in some ways similar to its condition today. Many young people were out of work. Those with jobs often worked long hours in dismal conditions for wages that barely kept them above poverty. Volunteering for the war meant an honourable escape ..."

Yet, the sheer irrelevance of this suggestion was almost immediately revealed by the correct observation that the Kitchener volunteers came forward after the grim casualties of 1914-15; that they did so in overwhelming numbers; and that they consisted of "men of all classes enthused by a nationwide fervour of patriotism".

Secondly, much later in the film, shots of police charging mass pickets of miners were incongruously inserted, with the words:

"At the 1985 Labour Conference, a delegate reminded the Party of the miners who fought for their country in 1916, and said that the strikers of 1984 were no more defeated than were their gallant forebears on the Somme."

That egregious comparison clearly overlooked the fact that the 1916 volunteers were not forced into battle like the unballoted and deeply divided legions of Scargill nearly 70 years later.

Finally, the closing shots of the Accrington War Memorial slowly panned to that part of it inscribed "Falklands Campaign, 1982" – and containing just two names – as if this were some modern-day parallel to the carnage on the Somme.

It ought to be obvious that if the 1916 campaign had been conceived and executed as skilfully, and had incurred as few casualties as that in the Falklands, it would have been heralded as a great feat of arms rather than a catastrophe.

Is there nothing that can be done to discourage the inclusion of such partisan crudeness in the television treatment of even the most sombre and dreadful events of Twentieth Century history?

Dr JULIAN LEWIS
Consultant
The Media Monitoring Unit
London W11