The Welsh Office, the Press and the First Anniversary of the Aberfan Disaster

(National Archives BD11/3809)

 

The Welsh Office story started on 18 August 1967, when they received a letter from Selwyn Jones, the Town Clerk for Merthyr Tydfil County Borough. It contained a heartfelt appeal to the Secretary of State for Wales, asking him to take whatever action was open in restricting television and newspapers from continuing to bring publicity to Aberfan. Jones commented:

I am sure that you will appreciate that in the interests of the residents of Aberfan that the glare of publicity should be taken away from them.

On receipt of the letter, Peter Marshall of the Information Division at the Welsh Office notes in a memo to other Welsh Office staff that the Town Clerk’s letter confirmed the Welsh Office’s worst fears. He wrote:

We have not been unmindful of the situation and have repeatedly spoken of the unscrupulous journalists who have moved into Aberfan.

It is fairly common knowledge in the village for instance, that there is at least one unscrupulous freelance journalist there supplying national newspapers with totally unbalanced and – in some cases – untrue stories. This man has already been involved in an exchange of blows with fellow journalists and is known to be inciting [two bereaved fathers], to spread false stories.

I am reliably informed that these two fathers have become so obsessed with gaining publicity that they themselves have been telephoning stories to the Press Association in London. PA have not used these stories because, on checking, they have been found to be totally incorrect. (There was complete mystery about a coachload of parents which left Aberfan with missiles taken from the slag which parents threatened to throw at the windows of Number 10 Downing Street. Apparently this coach reached London but the threat was not carried out).

The letter went on to state that some decent journalists had been refusing to handle potentially malicious stories and that they had also tried to discourage others from doing so.

The Welsh Office scrambled for ideas as to what could be done, given that they had less than two months until the first anniversary of Aberfan.

On 1 September 1967, Marshall sent a further memo to his colleagues about possible courses of action, including:

  • An appeal by the Secretary of State to the newspapers, together with the suggestion only rota-party coverage of the anniversary be allowed.
  • An Investigation into the activities of freelance journalists and reporting of them, if necessary, to the Press Council.
  • Certain editors could be approached to recommend around six working journalists to discuss the problem with the Press itself.

On 7 September 1967, Marshall received a letter from J W M Siberry, Welsh Secretary, chasing up information on:

… the undesirable activities in the village of some journalists who seem to be stirring up trouble in order to make news and possible ways of stopping them.

Then, on 15 September 1967, Marshall first posited the idea of approaching Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

Four days later, things in Aberfan seemed to be quietening down. Marshall sent a note to Siberry:

My most recent information is that activities of unscrupulous freelancers seem to be tapering off. This is bourne out by the reduced number of ‘tip offs’ from villagers now being received by newspaper offices.

But, despite the situation in Aberfan looking more settled, the Welsh Office still had to deal with the letter from Merthyr Tydfil County Borough asking for assistance with the Press.

On 22 September 1967, Idris Evans, Head of the Information Division at the Welsh Office, sent an official letter to his colleagues. It stated the following about Merthyr’s letter of the 18 August:

This is a direct appeal to the Secretary of State to use whatever powers are in his disposal to try to control the publicity about Aberfan during the period of the anniversary of the disaster. It may be held that the Council’s request is out of accord with the feelings of the people of Aberfan and that, in fact, the villagers do not mind remaining in the public eye. What is certain, however, is that the repeated Press and television reports of Aberfan can do nothing but harm to the people of the district and to the image of Wales. The Welsh Office should concern itself with both these matters.

In similar minutes from the Welsh Office for the attention of the Prime Minister’s Press Secretary, Trevor Lloyd-Hughes, the Welsh Office rewrote a section of the above passage more explicitly:

What is certain, however, is that repeated newspaper or television coverage of Aberfan can do nothing but harm our work of projecting South Wales as an attractive part of the Welsh Development Area.

There are two points worth noting here. The first is the question of whether Aberfan villagers were bothered about intrusion from the Press at all, although two fathers in particular were courting journalists, if not being manipulated outright by them. The second point worth noting is that the overall image of Wales was central to the issue.

The Welsh Office went on to highlight more specific concerns with the Press on the forthcoming anniversary:

It is also reasonable to assume that many Continental and North American newsmen will be in Aberfan on ‘One Year After’ assignments. Unfortunately the methods adopted by the overseas contingent are likely to be deeply resented by home news men and may well lead to trouble between the journalists themselves.

And:

We must also face up to the possibility – whether we accept it as inevitable or not is another matter – that television reporters will be standing on the site of the former school and wringing every ounce of sentiment from the occasion.

In the period between 22 and 25 September 1967, Evans sent another memo to Welsh Office staff. It was entitled, ‘the consequence of uncontrolled publicity’.

We have already referred to the adverse effect on the projection of Wales of the continuing presentation of depressing pictures of Aberfan. Equally important are the feelings of the people of Aberfan…

“(Incidentally, if a large number of the villagers have received psychiatric treatment, can it be held that their alleged indifference to publicity is based on reasoned thought?) Unless some positive action is taken on this first anniversary, is there not a danger of Aberfan becoming a running sore of damaging publicity for South Wales for a decade? The right sort of action taken now by the Secretary of State could help the people of Aberfan and prove to be of long term benefit for Wales.

It is difficult to determine the extent to which the Welsh Office was genuinely concerned villagers might be too traumatised to make reasonable judgements about the Press. They may have simply wanted an excuse to bypass the villagers’ opinions or avoid consulting them altogether. The situation was a complicated one, given that two fathers were suspected of being used as puppets by journalists.

Evans proposed the following lines of action:

  • Immediate consultation with the Prime Minister and his Press Secretary, to be approached with a view of restricting anniversary coverage to something limited and dignified.
  • Immediate consultation with the Prime Minister and his Press Secretary on the idea of an appeal to newspapers and television, in the hope they might exercise restraint during and after the anniversary. They cautioned: “This is not gagging the press. On the contrary, it would be a display of statesmanship likely to receive unqualified praise by the majority of editors.”
  • Arrangements be made through the newspaper organisations for rota-party coverage.

To conclude, Evans wrote:

Finally, it must be said that an enterprising newspaper could well do the whole of this job for us. Newspapers, generally, increased their sales at the time of the disaster at Aberfan. A single newspaper (e.g. the Mirror) might well increase its sales on a more lasting basis by starting a ‘Lay Off Aberfan’ campaign. We are confident that such a campaign would ultimately receive the support of newspapers and broadcasting organisations throughout the land.

At the same time as the memo, Evans sent a similarly drafted letter to Lloyd-Hughes at Downing Street. On 25 September 1967, Siberry followed this up with a telephone call and wrote on the following day to thank Lloyd-Hughes for his offer of help, noting:

I am so glad that you agree that every effort should be made.

However, despite the optimistic telephone communication, on the 28 September 1967, Lloyd-Hughes replied to Evans with the following clarification:

  • Government intervention would land the Government in a false position, probably without altering the actual outcome, by appearing to exert even the mildest pressure on the Press.
  • There is no single organisation with enough clout or organisation to pull it off.
  • The Government does not think any newspaper will agree to rota-party coverage.
  • Since the memorial service on the anniversary was organised by the people of Aberfan, the villagers must be prepared for coverage from the Press.
  • The Government cannot be seen to be involving itself in the Press.
  • If the Government shows anxiety about the disaster, then they may also be viewed as accepting responsibility for the Aberfan disaster for years to come.
  • The idea of a ‘Lay Off Aberfan’ campaign being run by a single newspaper is a dangerous one.
    • It was stated: “If it became known that the Government had tried to use one newspaper in this way, we would be faced with the wrath of all the rest. We should be accused of news management.”
  • Press and broadcasting authorities will probably show more restraint than the Welsh Office expect.

Naturally, the Welsh Office was disheartened and perhaps a little embarrassed. On 22 October 1967, Evans wrote to Goronwy Daniel, the Permanent Under-secretary of State, as follows:

I spoke on Monday afternoon to Mr Trevor Lloyd-Hughes, Press Secretary to the Prime Minister in order to discover his reaction to the suggestion that we should put to him for advice the request made to the Secretary of State by the Town Clerk of Merthyr.

From our talk on the telephone I formed the impression that Lloyd-Hughes not only quickly realised the serious nature of the problem… but also considered that he might well be able to use his position of authority and influence to help us solve it.

You will see from Lloyd-Hughes’ letter, however, he advises against taking any action in the matter.

Both Peter Marshall and I regret that the Welsh Office will now be prevented from helping Merthyr. However, because of our knowledge of conditions at Aberfan and the continuing activities of press men, we still hold the view… that it was advisable to put Merthyr’s request to the highest quarter for advice.

Perhaps, in the end, the Welsh Office realised that their confidence Downing Street and themselves would receive ‘unqualified praise from editors’ and ‘the support of newspapers and broadcasters throughout the land’ was nothing short of Quixotic.