Dorothy Byrne on the Channel 4 programme ‘Union World’

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Then I went to work on Union World, and I had to pass a test to work on Union World. So I was called in by David Kemp – many people said, “I don’t know why you don’t work on Union World, because you’re Scottish,” and there seemed to be at Granada, as they called it, ‘the mackia’ – but I was called in, and I can’t remember what the questions were, but I had to show a knowledge of obscure trade union leaders of the past, and strangely, I didn’t know who they were, you know, you would name somebody and you had to say, “Oh, yes – he was general secretary of the TGWU in 1973,” or something like that.

And Union World was an extraordinary programme that was made for Channel 4 by Granada, and we only interviewed trade unionists – we didn’t interview the bosses. And every now and then the bosses would ring up, the factory owner or whoever, and say they wanted to be interviewed, and they were told, “We only interview the trade union side,” because this was part of Channel 4’s vision of balancing the way that the media was perceived to be more in favour of the employers. When I think of that now, the lack of due impartiality was extraordinary. But Union World… I mean I worked there during the miners’ strike, and I would say that we had the curse of Union World, a bit like the curse of Hello magazine, about how many people who are interviewed in Hello magazine end up divorced. I can honestly not think of a dispute that I covered for Union World where the workers won. And I used to feel a bit bad if I turned up on their picket line to interview them about their dispute, because I think, “Well, you do now, because I’m here, because there is no dispute that I have covered where the unions have won.” Of course, that was because, when the NUM was smashed, you could just see on Union World all the waves moving out beyond that, which meant dispute after dispute in completely different areas were lost.

Union World was not a good programme to watch, I think I have to be asked about that, and it was really boring. It was great fun to work on and it was really politically interesting, but Arthur Scargill was quoted as saying he would rather watch the test card. No programme like that would ever be allowed now, not just because it wasn’t duly impartial, but it was so boring and it had tiny viewing figures, but it was good practice. I think the lowest viewing figure that we ever had was when the presenter, Gus McDonald, said whatever was the opening headline and then said, “But first I have with me in the studio the industrial organiser of the Communist Party.” And you just think, “Woah! And that’s a lure?” I mean, how many people wanted to hear from the industrial organiser of the Communist Party? We interviewed an awful lot of right-wing Labour Scottish trade unionists, and indeed every now and then I would meet a right-wing Labour Scottish trade union official of some sort – with glasses, they nearly always had glasses on, they were all white, they were all men – and I would say, “Oh, my God! I can’t believe it – you are a white, right-wing Labour Scottish trade unionist with glasses, and you haven’t been on Union World! How did that happen?” We didn’t cover women’s issues nearly enough, and also we saw trade unionism far too much as a programme – I don’t mean I saw this, I mean this is how the programme saw it, I certainly didn’t see it in this way – but the programme saw trade unionism too much from the top downwards, and I think that was also the problem of trade unionism itself, that one of the reasons that unions lost so much power is that they weren’t sufficiently in touch with the every day interests and problems of their members in their lives, and particularly women, whose problems were so much to do with how they would look after their children, were they getting the same pay as men, you know, their basic conditions and health and safety at work.

Who else would have been working on Union World?

Well, Gus was the presenter…

Gus MacDonald?

And he was Scottish, David Kemp was the producer, and he was Scottish, I was Scottish, Denis Mooney worked there as a researcher, he was Scottish, Charlie Rodger worked there as a researcher, he was Scottish… it was bizarre really.

Who was your reporter?

Ann Lester did some reporting, Julie Hall did some reporting, Mike Walsh occasionally did reporting… those are the reporters I can remember. But English people were allowed to work on the programme so long as they passed the test demonstrating that they knew who old trade union leaders were. I don’t think one would say that that was a programme in touch with the spirit of the times, but as I say, it was fun to work on, and I think I learned a lot about going out and making, and setting up 20-minute films on my own, and I think… you know, it’s a programme of a bygone age. I tell people at Channel 4 now where I work now that there used to be a programme on Channel 4 that only interviewed trade unionists, they actually don’t believe me –they just go, “That can’t be right.”

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