Firefighters have suffered smears and physical attacks for taking action to defend the future of the fire service.

Daily Mail smear

The prejudices of the right-wing press have been nicely illustrated by last Sunday’s Mail on Sunday. In an article designed to vilify the firefighters who were on strike Monday, the paper claims that a third of London’s 5,900 firefighters have second jobs, “including accountants, undertakers, actors and models.”

Portraying this fact as an outrageous transgression by the workforce (it is in fact perfectly legal for firefighters to supplement their income with second jobs), the Mail alleges that the “second jobs culture” is the real reason why the firefighters are so “resistant to change”: “The firefighters are able to accommodate second and even third jobs because of a controversial shift system which involves them working four days on and four days off.”

Nevermind the fact that, as the Mail itself acknowledges just three paragraphs further down, this shift pattern is not even affected by the changes proposed by the London Fire Brigade.

The paper does not even attempt to disguise the fact that the point of the article is none other than to discredit the strike and turn the public’s mood against the Firebrigades Union. (On Friday, the Daily Mail ran a similar story: some of the firemen who are “plotting the Bonfire Night strike are claiming £5,000 annual bonuses for living in London when they are actually living abroad.”)

It seems that the Mail’s anger is not only directed at people without a job (who therefore have the cheek to apply for benefits), but also those who try to make ends meet with a second one. But even as a piece of smear journalism, the article failed to do its job: most people who commented on the website were baffled by the viciousness of the Mail’s attack and came out in support of the firefighters.

Talking of second jobs: Brian Coleman, chair of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, holds more than 40 positions as chairman, fellow or member of various charities, bodies and trusts. According to the Daily Mirror, “Britain’s second highest paid councillor, he [Brian Coleman] receives £34,000 from Barnet Council after recently voting to give himself a 38% pay rise. He also gets £53,439 for sitting on the London Assembly. And he pockets another £26,883 as London fire chief.”

Attacks on picketing firefighters

After last weekend’s smear campaign against London’s firefighters, the attacks got physical on the day of the strike. In Croydon and Southwark, two firemen were taken to hospital after being hit by vehicles while they were picketing. Tamer Ozdemir was injured when a car drove into the picket line outside Croydon fire station. The driver – apparently a fire brigade manager – has been arrested.

Later in the evening, Ian Lehair was hit by a fire engine outside LFB’s training centre on Southwark Bridge Road and had to be taken to hospital with minor injuries.

Essex smear

Last week, firefighters in Essex were exposed to a rather nasty smear by the Deputy Chief Fire Officer for Essex County Fire and Rescue Service, Adam Eckley, who accused members of the Essex FBU of standing by to watch people die. In fact, the FBU is concerned about the safety of Essex fire crews.

The dispute is about previous plans by fire chiefs to use Essex firefighters as reserve crews in London on strike days in the capital, thereby over-extending their resources. Mick Rogers of the Essex FBU says that “sending crews over the border without the support of London’s professional fire crews puts us at increased risk.”

However, “Essex firefighters are willing to offer the same 999 cover in London agreed by neighbouring fire chiefs in Kent and Surrey, responding to calls for assistance where major loss of life, potential environmental damage or repercussions of similar magnitude are threatened.” That does not sound like standing by to watch people die.

Yesterday, Adam Eckley issued a new proposal that has been welcomed by the union. Essex fire crews will only be sent to those areas of London on the border where Essex fire crews already respond on normal days and only where there is a real threat to loss of life.

Press pestering

In their attempt to discredit the firefighters, newspaper journalists don’t pull any punches and are eager to attack the FBU on a personal level. FBU general secretary Matt Wrack said that last week, a reporter – apparently from the Daily Mail – visited his ex-wife and wanted her to talk about him (which she declined). Another reporter came to his son’s flat when he wasn’t there, asked his neighbours about him and “rooted about in the dustbins”.

Matt Wrack is in no doubt that his family is being targeted because his union is involved in a high-profile strike. He appealed to the press to leave his family alone: “I am the target, not my former wife or my son, or any other member of my family.”

Peter Stauber

Peter Stäuber is a freelance journalist and translator. He writes for English and German language publications and is a member of the NUJ.