Conspiracy Theory is now Conspiracy Fact: Interview with Morag Livingstone on her film "Belonging"

Belonging: The Truth Behind the Headlines is a new documentary by Morag Livingstone.

Belonging: The Truth Behind the Headlines is a new documentary by Morag Livingstone. Initially inspired by the 2013 dispute at Grangemouth oil refinery and its media coverage and political response, the final film also addresses Rupert Murdoch’s acquisition of the Times and Sunday Times and subsequent protests by the papers’ printing staff in 1986, and the strike which followed the sacking in 2007 of twelve workers at Burslem postal depot. What emerges from these disparate moments of industrial struggle is the claim of a concerted anti-collectivist and pro-corporate turn in recent British history, involving the tacit or overt collusion of government, media and police. Further connections are made with the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike and with Hillsborough, confirming longstanding suspicions and open secrets in an age where “conspiracy theory is now conspiracy fact”.

In this interview, Morag Livingstone discusses the film as collective effort, the changing character and power of the mainstream media, prospects for contemporary trade unionism, and the role of the Labour Party.

New Socialist: What was your previous background in film-making and what was the inspiration for making Belonging?

Morag Livingstone: Belonging: The Truth Behind the Headlines is my first feature documentary – in fact, it is the first film I have produced that didn’t originate from a client. Previously I had made shorts, campaign films, training films, and films that raised awareness or funds. I’d also co-written two best-selling books on the care system. I’d made one short film as a personal project in 2005 which formed part of my Masters degree in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography. That work is attributed to helping change government policy around those working but still living in poverty in Scotland – but that was a multimedia piece 100% made up of stills photography and text, so no interviews or film at all. The story did require a lot of research and building trust, which embedded the importance of both in my work.

As for the inspiration for Belonging: I generally have Prime Minister’s Questions on in the background every Wednesday and I was finishing writing my second book (Tainted Love) when I heard the Prime Minister say, albeit under parliamentary privilege, that there was “a rogue trade unionist at Grangemouth, who nearly brought the Scottish petrochemical industry to its knees”. I physically turned around. I used to work in the oil industry so I knew this couldn’t be true – no one in that role would have that much power. I had been following the Grangemouth dispute already as I come from Aberdeen and know how important the oil industry is to Britain, but this really perturbed me, as the PM had just accused a guy who’d worked at the same place for 25 years of damaging the oil industry, and in turn his and his work colleagues’ livelihoods – it didn’t make sense. When I looked at the media coverage I could see that no one was really asking questions of the company, or the government for that matter. For me things didn’t add up – if Stevie Deans (the “rogue trade unionist”) was such a bad man, why were 800-plus people willing to risk their livelihoods for him? The company [Ineos], had threatened to shut Grangemouth down, and yet the trade union was being blamed? I was confused.

When I started the research, I soon found that it was not just Grangemouth where the management turned on their workforce in the name of profit. I heard similar stories repeated across the country and it shocked me just how people who are loyal to the company for years, challenge when they have to but work to resolve issues, can be vilified when management and company priorities change to focus on shareholder value and profit. We must also remember that this was 2013 – so before the Hillsborough families got justice. It was a time when trade unions were being labeled dinosaurs and “industrial terrorists” by those in government – so there were these two opposing views.

So while the initial inspiration for the film was Prime Minister’s Questions, the inspiration to keep going became every person I met and spoke to, and who put their trust in me. Those who had gone to work one day, as they had done for years, and found the company had changed the rules – they faced not only losing their jobs, but also having their reputations tarnished in the press and all the stress that goes with that. The Royal Mail dispute in particular typifies what we heard about across the country in the move towrads privatization, not just in Royal Mail but elsewhere.

It is important to note that while many trade unionists have stated “there is a conspiracy”, I went into this with an open mind – of trying to work out what was going on. I didn’t set out to prove a point, or prove that the “conspiracy theories” were actually “conspiracy fact”, although that is what has happened. It has also fundamentally changed my belief system: I was a lay trade union member at the beginning of this film – now, after all I’ve uncovered and learnt, I am a pretty active member and believe that trade unions and the legal profession are two of the last, if not the last, bastions of enabling balance in this democracy of ours.

New Socialist: Can you tell us about the process of putting the documentary together, and the individuals and groups involved?

Morag Livingstone: This is actually harder to answer than you may think. At the core there is me, as Director/Producer, and three others have pretty much been there all the way through. The production crew was made up of a core of subcontractors including the amazing Chris Leslie, story consultant and film maker; Eileen Hunter, who transcribed all the interviews, and the team at Inspired Film and Video in Stoke-on-Trent. Due to the nature of the film, confidentiality was essential, so I primarily pulled together a team that I knew and trusted or that came highly recommended.

From the beginning we have had support, particularly from trade unions, and specifically from key people within Unite the Union. Without their support, I doubt the film would have been made. Liane Groves of Unite the Union was the first to take a risk on me, to trust an unknown film maker to look at all the facts and not just what was in the mainstream media. Over time, trust was built to provide access and support within the wider union, but I am very grateful to Liane – she championed, and still champions the film, and not only provided guidance but opened many doors across trade unions, for which I can’t thank her enough.

In the film credits there are hundreds of names, and each one means so much – from the donation of pocket money, to someone who said “I don’t like trade unions, but I like you, so here is some money”, to all the trade union branches and individuals who donated money or advice and insights. The late Davey Hopper of the National Union of Mineworkers shared advice and insights with me over cups of tea when he came to London. It saddens me that he passed before the film was finished, as did Larry Tuck, a former miner who also gave good insight into what it is to fight for justice, and Callum Stanland, a young and passionate activist who donated to the film but sadly lost his battle with cancer at just age 23.

The music is very special too. The final credit song “Men of Honour” has been written by Mick Penkethman of OneTenTwelve and sung by Paul Dawson. Both are former posties and part of the Burslem 12 at the centre of the Royal Mail dispute that we cover in the film. Mick saw an early version of the film, before we uncovered any documents in parliament or at Kew and woke up in the middle of the night having written the words to the song which when I read them made me cry. When I heard the song he and Paul recorded, the talent and the raw passion was spot on – you can’t make up the emotion that they present us in the song – it’s incredibly special to have that song and know it was inspired by those in the film. If anything good came out of the Royal Mail dispute it was that these posties discovered their musical talent during the dispute – Mick in composing and writing, and Paul in singing – and the other good thing that came from that dispute was a marriage! I don’t think I will ever tire of hearing the music Mick wrote for the film – or ever lose my admiration for how quickly he wrote such a great song for the credits.

When making the film I found it very hard to get my head around the idea that the Home Office led the charge to change UK policing behind closed doors, and that the police tactical operations handbook that was published at the time appears to go beyond the doctrine of law. And then the police, certainly at Wapping, went beyond the guidelines in the police handbook; we think the same happened at Orgreave during the Miners’ Strike and have handed the documents over to their campaign too. Not only that, but the government also wrote a paper about how at the core they would shift power to corporations and limit collectivism by replacing traditional, unionized industries with new industries that would not have trade unions, and by changing what was taught in schools to reflect their values. As a film maker, you need to be able to also tell the story visually, and in uncovering various visuals that represent the story I was helped by the Exhibition on the News International dispute and Ann Field who shared the archive with me and introduced me to many who were at Wapping, former News International employees as well as photographers covering the dispute. The archive we found from Spectacle News and photographers, David Hoffman in particular, is incredible, particularly as much of this work has never been seen before. Other photographs received from amateur photographer Alan Richardson helped tell the story from the perspective of protestors.

Others were involved in the making of the film of course, but these were the team I worked with regularly. When we came to do the credits it was a surprise that so many had been involved, and I hope that I haven’t missed anyone out!

Despite all these people being involved in the film, it can be a very isolating experience – particularly when trying to work through something creatively, or when I am researching. I am aware that I become slightly obsessed with research and editing – so often I need time to hide away and work things through – especially if my brain feels full! Sometimes it’s hard for people to understand that. I am aware that it’s quite selfish but it helps me get the project to a higher level. It can seem terribly hard and difficult some days, but the challenges I face are nothing to those faced by those in the film, or by those in similar situations, and their families and communities. To have the gift of storytelling, and to have people trust me in the way they do, is an enormous privilege for many reasons – and a responsibility I don’t take lightly. I am ever grateful for that and to each and every person who contributed to the film, whether in a large or small way, behind or in front of the camera. Each one kept me going on days I didn’t want to remember what I’d uncovered in the making of the film, and its potential implications.

After Cameron’s statement at PMQs, we started filming in May 2014 – with [TUC General Secretary] Frances O’Grady. We didn’t know what we would uncover. An early version of the film was ready in June 2015, which wasn’t great and needed structure – that is a lesson learnt. But without those test screenings, we wouldn’t have heard the rumours about missing police handbooks, or documents that showed the collusion between government and business – which we all knew, but when I asked about proof of this no one could tell me, so at that stage it was conspiracy, not fact. So while it was me that drove the film forward, there was a critical point at which I took the decision to throw the first edit out and went back to basics. I re-examined everything and re-established efforts to find out whether or not the rumoured documents existed – documents which we uncovered in summer 2015. Another turning point in the film was after we interviewed Terry Smith, a former Sun compositor who said: “It’s not what’s in a newspaper that counts, it’s what’s not in a newspaper that counts”. As soon as I got home from that interview I went back to all the FOI responses and all the research I’d found, and looked with fresh eyes for what was not there.

New Socialist: As the documentary shows, investigative journalism and greater freedom of information is making it possible to confirm many open secrets of the past few decades involving the collusion of government, industry and the media and police. Can you tell us about the investigative process that uncovered the extent of the Thatcher government’s collusion with Rupert Murdoch over his acquisition of The Times and Sunday Times?

Morag Livingstone: Some of what we show, such as Thatcher meeting Murdoch for lunch, has already been published in the Guardian and in a book by Harold Evans, a former Sunday Times and Times editor sacked by Murdoch. It is what we uncovered behind these headlines that provides a depth that only investigative journalism can. For example, Thatcher had been looking to reorganize her Cabinet, and options are presented on 2rd Jan 1981 (her handwritten notes are in the film). The reshuffle was made after this meeting and her lunch with Murdoch. While there are notes of the lunch meeting there are no minutes, that we found, of the private half-hour pre-lunch meeting between Murdoch and Thatcher. Why?

It took me a long time to work out what influence, if any, Thatcher had on the sale of the Sunday Times and the Times. It was like a jigsaw puzzle – not least because it was very frustrating at times. After much searching I found not only the documents around the sale of the Sunday Times and Times but also the minutes of Cabinet meetings where their sale, against the advice of the Attorney General, was discussed. These papers were released by the National Archive in 2015, and when I read them that was a heartbreaking few days. Not only had the PM ignored her Attorney General, in that he advised her and the Cabinet not to provide advice to the Trade Secretary, but they had also discussed the sale at Cabinet, also in breach of this advice. The Attorney General’s advice to the PM and the Trade Secretary was that the decision should be the Trade Secretary’s alone, and no one else should provide input. The fact the Attorney General’s advice was ignored was surprising but when I compared the PM’s copy of these Cabinet minutes with a copy of the Cabinet minutes held by Rupert Murdoch – submitted thirty years later as part of his evidence to the Leveson inquiry – I noticed they had the same copy number. How is that possible?

In terms of transparency and accountability, I believe that government and businesses are becoming less transparent, while with new laws just passed we as individuals, not least journalists are potentially under threat. It worries me that laws are being considered and passed that could stifle the type of research that Belonging needed to find out what was going on. For example: files relating to the Miners’ Strike and Orgreave have been recalled from the National Archive to the Home Office; privatization means that companies no longer have to be transparent and accountable to anyone other than shareholders; the FOI Act is interpreted by some to enable them to withhold information. As we see in the film, [during the Grangemouth dispute] information on the private company INEOS was not released, even on appeal, as it relates to “a third party” – while the same protection was not afforded to the trade unions, also “third parties”. It is that disparity that still concerns me, as does the lack of funding that has gone into true investigative journalism since Murdoch bought the Times and the Sunday Times. There are some amazing organizations around like the ICIJ but they are few and relatively recent.

Most trade unionists I’ve met are very hard-working, decent and honourable people who believe in truth and justice. We need to ask how we can maintain, or regain trust in journalism. Whose interests does it serve to have truth in news – and whose interest does it serve to peddle a line, and use the vehicles of news to do that? We need to ask if trade unions were stronger within newspapers today would we have less, or even any, “fake news”? Who else is strong enough to say “we are printing the news not the propaganda”? History shows us it is the trade unions, as we show in the film. This is not, however, what I understood when I was growing up, because the narrative in the news, before during and after the News International dispute at Wapping was “trade unions are bad”.

Whether or not it was the intent, the News International dispute and the non-unionised workplace that replaced the 5,500 people sacked by Murdoch, from cleaners to compositors and printers, enabled the end of trade unions stopping the front pages, not because of ideology but because the newspaper was not printing truth.

New Socialist: What has the reaction to Belonging been so far from audiences and the wider media?

Morag Livingstone – It has been incredible, and very much beyond expectations. When people see the film, the response has been positive and “everyone must see this film”. People are frustrated it does not have a wider audience, and it is true that at the moment audience numbers are compact – but, as an unknown film director/producer who has no budget for decent marketing, that is to be expected. We know we are reliant on word of mouth and we know it will be a slow build, but we are building slowly thanks to word of mouth and to truly independent cinemas who have put their faith in us and screened the film. It’s a lot of work because without a distributor it is literally a case of calling and emailing every film club and community cinema in the country to get this “out there”. What is great, though, is that when people see the film they are keen to set up their own community screenings, and we are delighted to support these as we can.

Many people are shocked [to find] that people did sit in a room and decide that they were going to reduce our human rights and put the interests of corporations over those that they were meant to serve. People did design and start to implement a policy that meant privatization of the NHS and our schools and more – policies that were designed in the 1980s, but are still being implemented today because it was a long-term view – but what’s worse is they did this and didn’t tell the electorate.

Some people who have lived through similar situations, such as the Miners’ Strike, say that they knew this happened – but what they are often surprised about is that the collusion is connected across decades, and the depth to which it went. There are mixed emotions that, as one audience member said, the “conspiracy theory is now conspiracy fact”. The implications of that are potentially huge not least in terms of our human rights, but the whole basis on which our police operate today around public disorder.

Young people are shocked that they don’t know this part of our recent history, and for me, that proves the “success” of the “Trade Union 2000” and “family values” plans that Thatcher’s government wrote at the end of 1982 and into 1983, ie after the Cabinet revolt of September 1982. Young people particularly are engaging with the film – and what is very heartening is that despite all the fake news, they believe this film. We spent a lot of time checking and fact-checking. When it went for its legal review we were worried, but the lawyer complimented us on the detail and meticulous fact-checking and cross referencing.

When people see the film they want to make sure other people see it, and some of them go off and set up their own community screening, which is the best compliment and affirmation that we have told the story well. If we can build on that and have people both spread the word and hold community film screenings around the country, then I think we can make sure the people in the film are heard because of the power of solidarity and through distribution methods that in part cut through the traditional distribution models for documentary films. This would make me doubly happy because pretty much everything about this film, from its inception to distribution, has not followed the rules of traditional filmmaking – and I do doubt it would be the film it is if it had!

It is a complex film, and I make no apologies for that – some people have said the film is great the first time but even better the second or even third and every time they see something new. I like that response because it means the film is multilayered.

Our job is to disseminate a wealth of complex information as much as possible. There is much more we have that didn’t make it into the film, not just in the form of documents that we found or received through FOI but also in the interviews we conducted. Sadly not everyone we interviewed could be in the film, because in the end we had to be true to the overall narrative and build a story for those that knew nothing about trade unions – even though we know we need to build within the left wing first we hope to jump the barrier to education and those from all sides of politics. We have heard of some who were, like me, ambivalent about trade unions and have joined a trade union after seeing the film. We didn’t intend that to happen as we set out to explore the unpublicized facts, and then found a theme that ran over 30 years – so it seems we have also helped people questioned what they knew before seeing the film, and like me, some have gone from being a lay person to an active person in terms of truth, justice and fighting for a world which is better.

We have had pockets of recognition from the mainstream: a four star film review from Ross Miller the film critic, and we have already received recognition from three film festivals in the form of laurels – we hope this also builds so people are aware of the film. The audience seems to want it.

At Q&As we get questions about “Why isn’t this on Channel 4, on TV, or Netflix” etc. We have approached various people in TV and are waiting to hear back. We’ve been waiting a little while and had some rejections. The silence is interesting in itself but I am not reading too much into this – they get approaches from hundreds of people and we hope that as Belonging builds they will respond positively. We are also looking at the best way to approach Netflix as an independent film maker.

The best response has been from those in the film though. The feeling of getting it “right” in their eyes is better than anything. I can’t tell you how nervous I was when I knew they were watching it, especially Pat Rafferty, Stevie Deans, Ailis Deans and their families – because they waited until the public premiere to watch it for the first time. Their response is between us but needless to say I was delighted with it. I will be forever grateful that these people came into my life and trusted me. Not just for me as a filmmaker, but because they are incredible people and I’ve learnt so much from everyone we interviewed in the making of the documentary. Truly, I don’t think I ever have met, or will meet better people – which makes what happened to them even more wrong.

Perhaps journalistically some people will question how I can say that and be objective – but having set out to understand what was going on, it was somewhat surprising to read in the papers what “terrible people” trade unions generally are and specifically those from all three industrial disputes covered in the film (News International, Wapping (1986/7), Royal Mail, Burslem (2008/9) and Ineos (2013)) – only to find on meeting them, and meeting them often, that that is not the case at all. What I want people to do is be open to seeing the film, whatever their political persuasion, and not tell them how to think but ask them to think again about why that disparity exists.

We’ve been told the film has churned up long-forgotten memories and feelings for people both involved in the film and in some who have watched it, and that must be difficult – but on the whole people have said the film is cathartic. Others have told us that having their suspicions proven means they can hold their heads up high again – even after 30 years.

New Socialist: Do you feel the power and influence of the mainstream press, in particular Rupert Murdoch’s titles, is now dissipating in an age of citizen journalism and independent media?

Morag Livingstone: That is a tough question because I don’t think we really know how far his or other media people’s influence runs. We do know that successive governments have done very little to hold newspapers to account. We do know they wield power. Sure there was the first Leveson inquiry into media and phone hacking, but many questions were raised in that report that warrant a second inquiry. But what is happening with that? Just delays as far as we can see.

In general many of us, including those in mainstream media, have come to a point where we lament the loss of the investigative journalism of old but are still willing to peddle opinion and not fact. I am not sure how much self analysis there has been in the media. And if mainstream journalists are not going to be given the resources to do their jobs properly, of course independent journalism and citizen journalism will fill that gap – any form of good journalism should have an impact on those in power. There needs to be investment in the highest of journalistic standards again, especially in long-form investigative journalism. I don’t blame the journalists or producers of mainstream news because they are doing what is expected of them by their bosses within horribly small budgets. Of course profit is important but surely some can go to investigative journalism. Before anyone responds “but newspapers are broke” – have you ever seen a poor newspaper owner? It’s about choosing where the money in the overall business is spent.

The fact we are even talk about “power in the media” at all disturbs me. What do we mean by that? If we mean power and control over what people read in the newspapers – there is no doubt that power exists. But, when did it become about power of the media over media holding power to account? To me, journalism and media should be about truth – nothing else. To wield power means you are willing to distort that truth, or profess an opinion and dress it up as news to gain more power. It is not just Murdoch that does that; there are numerous reports on media bias in the UK.

I think we need to relook at and redefine what good journalism means in the UK as that will help remove the current power imbalance. Of course there is opportunity in independent media, but there is a danger that they are too easily discredited. We are already seeing a backlash from the mainstream to independent media to try and discredit many independent news feeds, by the more powerful. However, organizations like the ICIJ are difficult, if not impossible to discredit, as they take the time and do amazing things with the resources they have available and report the facts – but there is no doubt they hold the highest of standards when investigating and reporting.

Has Murdoch’s power dissipated? Maybe, but I doubt Murdoch and his ilk will just accept this and go away, they will reform and reappear as something else.

Ultimately it comes down to defining what journalism is, and giving those that do the job the resources and time to do it better. I don’t know how that is achieved, and arguably I am the new pretender as I made a documentary without having worked on anything like this before, and without support from traditional film funding sources – even though we tried to get grants. I am incredibly proud of what has been uncovered and the film that we made. In reality I wish there was no need for this documentary – because if there was no need, then these things would not have happened. However they did and people should be given the opportunity to know what government is doing in their name and that the collusion has gone further than suspected. A democracy needs people to hold power to account and for that we need good journalism, resourced journalism. That was lost when Murdoch took over the Sunday Times and the Times, so there is an opportunity for citizen journalism and independents, provided they do their jobs well to help rebuild democracy, free speech and even free thought.

Too much power in anyone’s hands is damaging to a free and democratic society – and I’d say the same if trade unions had too much power. Independent news outlets providing an alternative narrative to mainstream media funded by Murdoch and the like – we have to encourage and develop this. Because as long as media is run by those with vested interests in presenting a narrative that suits them and not funding investigative journalism, or people in large media organizations are too scared of losing their jobs or too overworked to be able to conduct a good investigation, and as long as governments keep reducing the regulation and consequences of breaching the rules, even breaking the law – then the independents need to find a way to fill that gap of holding power to account. Because how else will people know goes on behind the closed doors of power? How else will they be held to account?

New Socialist: Are you hopeful about the prospects of contemporary trade unionism? Should union leadership concentrate on attracting and representing precarious and gig economy workers, who may be less organized and conscious? Or might traditional trade union structures be superceded by other ways of organizing?

Morag Livingstone: Yes I am hopeful about contemporary trade unionism. Trade unions currently seem to have a self-belief that many long-term trade unionists that I have spoken to haven’t seen for a long time. They seem to be becoming relevant in a number of areas, and many unions are doing well by their members when the members decide to take industrial action – and once agreement has been reached, trade unions are communicating those successes well and getting that news beyond the traditional audience. That is in part because of social media.

Amongst many activists we have spoken to, there is a view that trade unions have been treading carefully for the last 30 years, scarred by the Miners’ Strike and the Wapping dispute. Even if that is true, trade union membership (at over 6 million) is still many times larger than political party membership put together and in some sectors seem to be politically active and holding abuses of power to account – but I wonder what percentage of total membership are really engaged or active? And that is a challenge - how do trade unions engage those lay members in the discussion as well as attracting new ones? Ironically this may be the same answer as the one for rebuilding newspaper credibility and sales: be relevant, honest and powerful enough to be effective, but have systems in place that mean that power is not abused ie be open to other opinions and influence. I’ve said it before and I will say it again, too much power in anyone’s hands is a bad thing.

It is not, however, for me to say how a Trade Union should be organized. What I can say is that many young people we have met don’t know about these disputes, despite Wapping being an incredibly important part of recent UK history. Many people who are not of traditional trade union background question what a trade union is. Many don’t like or understand some of the traditional phrases and language that many in the trade union movement use – like battle, working class and class war. These phrases are important within the trade union movement, but maybe if the trade union movement was to reconsider language this would help reach out beyond the traditional membership.

To represent and engage the self-employed, the gig-economy and develop new business structures within traditional industries that work for all is a great idea. The trade union movement has some highly intelligent people in it and I am sure they are already coming up with new models around how to engage and support the self-employed and those in the gig economy, as well as the person who has been working in the same place and paid their dues for 30 years. But also, how do you influence and create a new business model that works for both the workforce and shareholders to maintain a successful business – I know it was the trade unions who developed new business plan that were accepted and worked in some multinationals in Britain so why not in other businesses? Of course, it is not that simple to make that work both the union and the company need to be open to it and that is not always possible, so I understand why trade unions are still working out how to deal with those modern challenges and this new business environment – but a business not solely focused on shareholder value works elsewhere, so why not here. Some such as Unite Community, Bectu and Community Union are working it through and have some fantastic campaigns and new structures such as Unite Community for those not in work, but of course there is more to be done.

Of course there is opportunity - when people are angry, they engage, and they are angry now. People are now more politically aware than when we started the film and that is refreshing. I am sure there is a lot of stuff going on behind closed doors of trade unions that we aren’t aware of to work these things through - I hope so, because right now there is a great opportunity and will for change.

New Socialist: How can the Labour party play a role in supporting unionized workers, both generally and in particular situations like the Grangemouth dispute?

Morag Livingstone: I am not sure if Grangemouth would have happened to the extent it did if the current Labour Party had been in place. The easy answer is to say that the Labour Party should repeal the trade union laws. I think it needs to go further than that and look at transparency of government and accountability to the population, and to “UK PLC” – not just in the payment of taxes, but in how they treat the general population and industry access to government to form policy. For example, Ineos had a lot of time at the government table before the Grangemouth dispute, with a flurry of meetings just prior to the company shutting down the plant. There is no way of us finding out what they were talking about because under the Freedom of Information Act they are a private company and therefore a “third party”, so there is no transparency on this basis – but as they were in discussion with government over government policy, there is no transparency there either, so they have double protection. Were these meetings really about government policy, or about the dispute? I would therefore suggest that the Labour Party needs to overhaul the FOI Act and other regulatory measures to ensure government is transparent and accountable when engaging with businesses and trade unions. Or, as a minimum, ensure that the views of trade unions and other organizations are listened to when developing government policy – the documents we have show this wasn’t the case, especially in regards to what was happening at INEOS.

Additionally, on a wider basis – we need a media manifesto. The Campaign for Press and Broadcast Freedom have a great manifesto. My personal belief is that it would be very simple for a government to instill consequences for not upholding the best of journalistic standards and the “fit and proper” test for our broadcast media. If such policies had been in place at the time of Grangemouth then would trade union members have been labelled “thugs” or “Industrial terrorists” (subsequent inquiries found no justification or basis of truth for these labels) and would the journalists have been able to ask better questions of government and the company, and not just accept their PR?

For me what the Labour Party can do to support all the population is ensure that we have a transparent and accountable government and media first and foremost. I support the re-nationalisation of important structures like the railway, utilities and Royal Mail – mainly from an accountability perspective. But from a “UK PLC” business perspective it also makes sense, because at least the country would be generating income that would be held within our own borders to the benefit of the country while also rebuilding our asset base for future generations.

New Socialist: Do you see fictionalized dramas focusing on industrial struggle, like Pride or Brassed Off, as playing a similar role to documentaries like Belonging? Are there difficulties or drawbacks to either one?

Morag Livingstone: Many films that exist on trade unionism such as Pride, Still the Enemy Within, Made in Dagenham, Brassed Off or Billy Elliott are great films that look at just one dispute at a time – which is where I started with Grangemouth. What I found in my research is that the approach by companies towards trying to unhinge a strong and organized workforce was repeated over disputes and across decades: companies planned and forced the disputes, did not follow their own procedures, tried to vilify staff with long service records (in the case of the Royal Mail dispute at Burslem, the twelve men involved had over 200 years of service between them), and got the government and police involved, albeit to different extents. In all cases the companies seemed to spend more money on the dispute than it would have cost to resolve it. We found this went beyond the three disputes featured in the film – but you can only get so much into 89 minutes, and with the discovery of police tactics and government collusion as well we had a lot to get across, hence we selected the three disputes that told the story, and in the case of the Royal Mail dispute reflected what is happening more widely across Britain. So, when this pattern was identified, there is no way we could keep it to one dispute – even though each dispute warrants dramatization in its own right – we had to look beyond the dispute to successive governments because we wanted to know if responsibility for the devastating impact on individuals and communities stopped at the company level, or in the case of Wapping, with the police.

I wanted to know whether or not someone in our government sat in a room and made the decision to place corporate interests over those of the general population, to breach our human rights and use our police force, who we pay for, for corporate benefit. I had heard the rumours that this was the case – but no one could show me in black and white if these rumours were true. Sadly, we’ve shown they are. So in this regard, documentary has to be factual, whereas in dramatizations you can, well, fill in any blanks with best-guess dramatization.

While I know interest in documentaries is growing, both with the rise of Netflix and in cinemas, I personally think that there is initially more scope in drama to get the general population engaged with what went on in disputes, because these are films with a message designed to entertain, and people like to be entertained. For documentaries it’s our obligation to remain true to the story and the people who have trusted us with the story and what happened to them, to verify this and put it in context of the wider happenings in a way that ensures the viewer “gets it” without patronizing them. In Belonging there are a few laughs and lighthearted moments, but it is essentially a film that will either confirm the suspected collusion if you were eyewitness to such events, or shake your belief system if you weren’t.

So each form of storytelling is amazing and each is necessary to show others who were not there what happened, to aid understanding of other people’s lives. Sometimes to give a voice to those who aren’t being heard, sometimes to inspire, but if people come out of a film with an emotional response then we have done our job well – because it’s about sharing the human experience in a way that others want to watch. It’s an honour, and responsibility, to be trusted with people’s stories and to able to take that and present it in a way that others are interested enough to take 90 minutes out of their busy lives – and I don’t take that responsibility lightly. Long may that storytelling continue, in all its forms – because it aids understanding and with expanded knowledge we can build on that. We can take that knowledge and do things differently and most importantly, do things better.

Upcoming screenings for Belonging: The Truth Behind the Headlines are listed here.
For cinema and community screening information or to buy the DVD:
For Music Download: Men of Honour.


Rhian E. Jones (@rhianejones)

Rhian E. Jones writes on history, politics, popular culture and the places where they intersect. She is co-editor of Red Pepper and writes for Tribune magazine. Her books include Clampdown: Pop-Cultural Wars on Class and Gender (zer0, 2013); Petticoat Heroes: Gender, Culture and Popular Protest (University of Wales Press, 2015); Triptych: Three Studies of Manic Street Preachers’ The Holy Bible (Repeater, 2017) and the anthology of women’s music writing Under My Thumb: Songs That Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them (Repeater, 2017) and Paint Your Town Red: How Preston Took Back Control and Your Town Can Too (Repeater, 2021).