David Payne: Jeremy Clarkson and public sector strikers

David Payne The eurozone is in crisis, Britain’s embassy has been stormed in Iran, youth unemployment is above a million, and the US Republicans are struggling to field a presidential candidate whose grasp of foreign policy extends beyond being able to see Russia from their back garden. So guess what the top question was on BBC Question Time last night? What should happen to Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson after he called for striking public sector workers to be shot in front of their families?

Clarkson’s face adorns most of the newspaper front pages today. He has Christmas DVDs to sell and a £1m licence-payer funded contract with the BBC to maintain, and it transpires that he told the One Show production team in advance what he planned to say.

David Cameron, a friend of Clarkson’s described his comment as “silly.”  Might the story have died sooner if both he and Labour leader Ed Miliband had chosen not to comment on his comments. I wonder?

So the Clarkson story came first on Question Time. But the panel did move on to discuss Wednesday’s public sector strike and whether or not it was justified.  One audience member likened Chancellor George Osborne to a “medieval doctor bleeding the country dry.”

Doctors (and nurses for that matter) were not among the strikers, which is probably why you will struggle to find a reference to it in the BMJ. But you can find it pretty much everywhere else, and most of it supporting the “damp squib” line chosen by the prime minister to describe the day of action. Was Cameron’s attempt to downplay the strike all that different from the “Crisis? What crisis?” sentiments of Labour prime minister James Callaghan, when he faced a similar period of unrest during the 1978/9 “winter of discontent?”

In The Daily Mail, Stephen Glover wrote: “Nothing remains of the fearsome unions that challenged Mrs Thatcher in 1979,” but elsewhere its headlines were laced with nostalgic references to an “autumn of discontent,” and “union barons.” The mid-market tabloid accused head teachers of “abandoning schools” and anarchists of “hijacking the big march.”

In an attempt to compare this week’s action with the Callaghan era, the Mail’s headline writers concluded: “Job centres remained open, courts were sitting, rubbish was collected, and driving tests went ahead.”

Clarkson praised Wednesday’s strikers because it meant there was no traffic on the roads. But not the road to Bluewater and other shopping centres, according to another Mail headline: “That’s one way to kickstart the economy! Shopping centres packed as strikers and parents whose children couldn’t get to school hit the High Street.”

The Mail, according to its Wikipedia entry, is still the only newspaper whose readership is more than 50% female. Indeed it was once described as “the newspaper of the wives of the men who run the country.” In advance of Wednesday’s strike Dave Prentis, head of public sector union Unison, told BBC Radio 4 Today programme that the protest affected millions of low paid female workers in the public sector. Might these Mail-reading cleaners, dinner ladies, nurses, and healthcare assistants have contributed to a Mail poll showing 80% of its readers supported the strike. according to Occupy London’s Facebook page.

The Sun, in contrast, is widely perceived as a male read, but took a similar line to the Mail. Its front page  headline described the public sector protest as a “flop” and, in a reference to the famous 1926 protest that saw Oxford undegraduates driving buses, a “not very general strike.” An inside page asked: “Was that it?” and a leader article urged union “mugs” to grab the “excellent” deal on the table while they can.

Associate editor Trevor Kavanagh accused Prentis of “sneering” at the £4,500 pensions for low paid workers aged 60. But Jason Beattie, political editor at its rival left-leaning red-top The Daily Mirror, said the strike plunged Britain into crisis and was the biggest revolt in 32 years. The fact that so many public sector workers lost a day’s pay so close to Christmas should convince Mr Camerson of the strength of feeling, he wrote.

Brian Groom’s analysis in the Financial Times said that the strike, although historic, was not comparable to earlier disputes. This time round union leaders carefully avoided asking members to sacrifice more than a day’s pay, he said, unlike the indefinite walkouts of 1926 and 1984-5, when the miners downed tools. This new strategy has already been successful, he argued, because it led to an improved offer from the government a month ago.

I said earlier that you’d struggle to find a reference to this week’s protest in the (trade union-owned) BMJ. But it has been the subject of watercooler conversations, and a lengthier discussion yesteday about whether it merited a Medicine in the Media article. We decided it didn’t.

My colleague Edward Davies blogs elsewhere about the impact of the credit crunch on charities after listening to a barnstorming presentation by Mark DuBois, head of Medecins Sans Frontiers, at a conference.

Ed writes: “MSF’s situation was a very timely reminder to keep our own problems in perspective. While I may have to work a year longer for my pension, elsewhere in the world people are dropping down dead because of budget cuts.”

But the two are not mutually exclusive. As a Question Time audience member pointed out last night, public sector workers are wealth creators too. My sister and her husband are 60-year-old primary school caretakers who live in continuous threat of TUPE transfers when their county council employers are asked to re-tender for the contract. They work from 6am until 9am each morning, have an afternoon siesta, and then work a further three hours from 6pm until 9pm. When there’s a parents’ evening, they stay late to clean and lock up. If there is an attempted break in in the middle  of the night, they get called by the police.

Another sister, celebrating her 55th birthday today and technically eligible to retire from the NHS after working as a nurse for more than 30 years, wants to carry on because she loves her job so much (unlike her husband, a hospital porter, who can’t wait to retire). When they do decide to go, I think they’ve all deserved a liveable pension income that enables them to live comfortably, escape fuel poverty, and donate to the odd charity.

Especially if they’ve cared for Jeremy Clarkson.

David Payne is editor, bmj.com