The National Press and the First Anniversary of Aberfan

In Black River, the Press are shown to have their own agenda concerning the village of Aberfan. Despite the belief of the fictional Welsh Office that the Mirror might prove to be a potential ally, a conflict of interest regarding the Aberfan disaster is revealed. The chairman of the Mirror during real-world coverage of the Aberfan disaster was Cecil King, who was also a director of the National Coal Board (NCB). Less than a year after the disaster, the Mirror made its position clear by running a story in support of Alf Robens at the NCB.

The agendas of the other national newspapers are not portrayed in the novel so explicitly, but the fictional versions of The Telegraph and the Express do adopt a negative narrative towards Aberfan in the months leading up to the first anniversary. In reality, the Express’ response to the complaint letter from S O Davies below seems to mark the point where the NCB ceased to be the only villains. Fleet Street fingers pointed at the villagers themselves.

S O Davies, MP for Merthyr, wrote to the editor of the Sunday Express, 8 June 1967.

A number of my bereaved constituents at Aberfan have expressed to me their anger, pain and disgust at the shocking and misleading article by your Sally Brompton in last Sunday’s issue of the Sunday Express. I have read the article and as someone who has lived with the people of Aberfan for 48 years I must say how disgracefully removed from the truth the article was. In all the cruel travesties of fact that have appeared in some organisations of the press, from the day of this terrible disaster the Sunday Express has on last Sunday exceeded all of them in fabrication, distortion and irresponsible journalese. May I tell the Sunday Express readers that Aberfan parents do not ‘squabble and fight while their sons and daughters suffer’. Nor are these people so divided that they become ‘the most tragically exclusive in the world’. Rhetorical filth. So is ‘the children of Aberfan are guilty of being alive, alive in a village where 116 children died’ and that ‘they are victimised because they are there’.

Reply from John Junor, the editor of the Sunday Express:

Miss Brompton was given a straightforward and simple commission. It was to ascertain the truth or otherwise of reports which had already appeared in other newspapers. I am sure that what she wrote was what she believed to be the truth.

The Telegraph ran their story in their magazine on 6 October 1967. The language of John Summers’ story and his comparison of Aberfan to a battleground is noteworthy. The two Aberfan fathers that the Telegraph article places the most focus on, both of who the Welsh Office firmly believed were being naively manipulated by the Press, are pictured underneath a photograph with the caption, ‘militant Aberfan survivors’, and another man interviewed is described as:

A short little Aberfan bereaved father with the inflamed face of an infuriated jockey.

The theme of the article is a conflict in Aberfan between the parents and Gerald Davies, a barrister who was appointed Treasurer of the Aberfan Disaster Fund Committee. The village is described as a place where ‘the reality of a battlefield of human emotions is revealed’ and ‘hysteria is always in the air’.

The fathers in the article are quoted as happy to have been given the support of the ‘dynamite squad’ of the sometimes violent end of Welsh nationalism, the Free Wales Army. A threat by this nationalist group to blow up Merthyr Town Hall is also included, and at least one other parent is described as prepared to assist them in such a plot.

In a six-page spread, only a handful of sentences are devoted to those parents who wanted to promote forgiveness and declined the help of the Free Wales Army.

According to the article, there were some in the village who believed the money was stolen by Gerald Davies to use on Merthyr town. In Black River, The Telegraph appears to want to pit the village against each other, as well as set Aberfan against Merthyr.

Selwyn Jones, Town Clerk of Merthyr, wrote to complain to the editor at The Telegraph.

I refer to the Article ‘Aberfan Fights on For ALL the £1,800,000’ included in the Supplement 157 dated October 1967 issued with the Daily Telegraph of the same date.

“ The Article seems determined to inflame passions and incite people’s feelings rather than to explain and so help heal anguish and suffering.

“Journalism is a time honoured profession which has a great responsibility and reputation to uphold and maintain…This is not so with yourarticle which in my humble opinion is in the worst possible taste, and must be an example of the worst type of reporting in the circumstances surrounding the aftermath of a terrible tragedy which was a harrowing experience and which has left many people disturbed. Statements seem to have been made and quoted and no effort taken to substantiate their accuracy.

The idea permeating through the article that my Council has had and still has something to do with the money donated to the Fund is to be used or distributed is completely false.

“The deposit of all cash donated to the Aberfan Disaster Fund with the Merthyr Tydfil Corporation was a temporary expedient adopted by the then Mayor’s Provisional Committee as the Trustees of the Fund until a Management Committee properly constituted under a Trust Deed was brought into being…. The complete management and control of the Fund is now by virtue of the Trust Deed vested in a Management Committee and my Council has nothing to do with it.

“The impression given and the question posed that the money has gone to rebuild Merthyr Tydfil is giving a totally wrong impression to those many thousands of people who contributed so generously to the Fund and particularly to the people of Aberfan who have suffered most.

My Council have felt and still feel that the best interests of the residents of Aberfan would be served if the people were allowed to lead a normal village life without any outside interference by Television or Press Authorities. We hope most sincerely that sometime, and we pray it will be soon, in the interests of the people of Aberfan, the glare of publicity will be taken away from them.

A reply from the editor of The Telegraph, 20 October 1967, stating that he checked into the matter:

I still do not see that the article in the Magazine over-stepped the boundaries of propriety or that it failed to consider the feelings of individuals involved… I really cannot find anything in your letter, however, which contradicts any of the factual statements made therein. Your letter does not dispute the fact that money belonging to the Disaster Fund was invested with the Merthyr Tydfil Corporation. You say that the money was under the control of the Management Committee and not of the Merthyr Council, but the article never suggested otherwise. I can appreciate that the money was, so to speak, a normal business investment, but again, I cannot see that the article said it was not.

Certainly the article did not say that the Merthyr Council was concerned with the distribution of the money.

It is hard to imagine that, were a similar disaster to occur in Wales today, this kind of reporting would be tolerated less than a year later. From research, it is clear that the national newspapers were only interested in concentrating on a minority of understandably traumatised parents in Aberfan.

As publication of stories about Aberfan continued over the year, S O Davies began to receive correspondence from readers of national newspapers. They condemned the people of Aberfan, and some commented that they regretted having donated to the Disaster Fund. Attention shifted all too quickly from the National Coal Board to the villagers themselves.