Fifty Years On: Remembering the Aberfan Disaster

Stephen Jukes, chair of Dart Europe’s board of trustees and professor of journalism at Bournemouth University, reflects on a conference held to mark the 50th anniversary of the Aberfan tragedy in South Wales and how media frame such tragedies.

Mention the year 1966 and it tends to conjure up images of the Swinging 60s, The Beatles, Vietnam protests and England’s one and only victory in the World Cup against what was then the mighty West German football team.

But it was also the year of one of the worst tragedies in post-war Britain.

Fifty years ago, on October 21, after days of heavy rain, a colliery spoil tip above the Welsh mining village of Aberfan slid down the hillside, engulfing a primary school and killing 116 children and 28 adults. A few hours later, and the children would have been safely at home, enjoying a half-term break. As it was, the tragedy robbed the village of a generation of children, devastated the community and became seared in the memory of a nation.

Some of the survivors of Aberfan, pulled from the debris that swept through the Pantglas Junior School, gathered with journalists and academics in advance of the 50th anniversary at Cardiff University for a conference exploring the themes of remembering, forgetting (or rather what should and should not be forgotten) and moving on.

I had been invited to speak on how the media cover such disasters and the role that journalists play in framing our perceptions of them, both in terms of the breaking news story and, as time advances, on recurring anniversaries.

The conference had begun very differently with personal testimonies of the survivors of Aberfan and some of their rescuers. My colleague from Cardiff University Richard Sambrook has written eloquently about how several stood up from their seats and told their stories, some of them for the first time in a public setting. It was deeply emotional, and for some deeply upsetting. Many in the audience were moved to tears by the intensity of the survivors’ recollections so long after the event.

But how do the media remember such tragedies and what role do they play in shaping the public’s memory of them?

The cliché goes that journalists write the first draft of history and, it is inferred, that historians come in later and write the ‘real’ account. My experience, however, is very different in that the way media frame coverage in the first hours of a disaster – through text, image and sound – often tends to stick. I too had been a schoolboy at the time in 1966 but still have vivid memories of the news coverage and, particularly, of black-and-white images of the distraught miners-turned-rescue crews on television. I still have vague recollections of the veteran BBC broadcaster Cliff Michelmore and his heart-felt words in a broadcast from the scene:

“I don’t know how to begin…never in my life have I seen anything like this. I hope I shall never see anything like it again,” he said, as if speaking to the nation.

It is not just words, but also images that are particularly powerful in framing our memory. Many of us will remember how the second plane – footage looped on TV news channels – flew into the World Trade Center, the aerial shots of students fleeing Columbine, the grainy mobile phone pictures from the London underground bombings in 2005 and the picture of the drowned Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi. The lasting impact of media framing emphasises the weight of responsibility on journalists covering such tragedies.

In a way, the very emotional tones of Michelmore’s eyewitness report was very unlike the BBC, with its culture of a stiff upper lip and factual style. But it illustrates another theme that I highlighted in Cardiff, namely that any pretence of upholding the journalistic norms of detachment and objectivity – itself an impossible ideal – can often be abandoned at times of such national crisis. Again, as witnessed in the coverage of Aberfan and September 11, media can even take on a kind of “pastoral” role while authorities try to reassure a shocked or concerned population.

As journalists know only too well, a cycle of coverage tends to unfold with a clear dynamic: Reporters arriving on the scene initially establish the facts of a breaking disaster while at the same time engaging an audience emotionally (while themselves being exposed to the distressing nature of the story they are covering). This phase can be quickly followed by a second burst of stories that shift focus to the mourning of victims, stories of survivors and the search for blame. In the case of Aberfan, coverage in both of these phases was seen with hindsight as having been problematic.

Arguably, at a time in post-war Britain when media were generally still deferential to those in positions of authority, not enough attention was paid to investigating why the Aberfan tragedy took place. The subsequent Davies inquiry did squarely lay the blame at the feet of the National Coal Board, but the veteran broadcaster Vincent Kane, who concluded the conference with a speech recalling coverage, said he felt the media had in fact let the community down. The controversies that followed the breaking news stories, he said, tended to generate a climate in which the surviving community appeared to be a problem, as he put it: “awkward, greedy and grasping troublemakers.” In many ways, Aberfan marks a failure of investigative reporting. Journalists covering the story did not appear to revise that “first draft of history” soon enough: the community had legitimate complaints around how they were treated by the authorities that required more sensitive and attentive reporting, as Huw Edwards and Roy Greenslade have argued elsewhere.

Those caught up in the disaster spoke about how they quickly differentiated between local journalists and those who were “parachuted in” from London and abroad. The former knew the region and culture of the mining communities in South Wales very well. They were generally empathic in their questioning of the bereaved families and some of them formed lifelong friendships. (This empathic technique is very much advocated by my colleagues working with the Dart Centre). By contrast, those who were not local were viewed as intrusive and sometimes seen as being responsible for the friction that grew between the community and the big daily newspapers in London. In contrast to today’s instantaneous and immersive news environment, it had taken hours for the scale of the disaster to be known, even the fact that it had occurred at all. Equally it is difficult to envisage the same form of empathic local newspaper journalism being possible today, with the crisis in the news industry reducing staffing levels in such towns and regions in South Wales to virtually non-existent.

It can, of course, be very difficult for journalists to cover such stories, and sometimes it is the anniversaries that prove to be most challenging. In my experience, journalists often manage to shield themselves from the horror of what they witness during a breaking news story, driven by the need to “get the story”. The mixture of training, competitive pressure and adrenaline makes it possible to deflect the traumatic impact of such stories. But as anniversaries beckon, news editors often, understandably, send the same journalist back to the scene of the original story. And that can be very difficult for both the survivors and for the individual journalist who has had time to reflect on what he or she witnessed and will no longer be working under that same protective cloak of  competitive pressure.

I finished my talk at the conference with the five key lessons I have drawn from my experiences with such stories:

  • Be aware that the way we, the media, frame tragedy has a lasting impact on how it is remembered.
  • Do not neglect investigation of the “why” and “how”. Journalism can help the recovery process if it is part of a search for justice.
  • Be aware that witnesses can be in a state of trauma and unreliable as sources of information.
  • Take care of yourself as a journalist covering tragedy; be aware of the impact and its potential to affect judgment.
  • Avoid the temptation to find a happy ending or “closure”; a new “normal” may be established and people may move on. But that is not the same as forgetting.