December 4, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

1981 UK riots – front page news

2 min read
The 1981 riots presented the news media of the time with a huge challenge covering live events around the country that sprang up at a moment's notice

I was in the sixth form when the 1981 riots kicked off and arriving at university in Liverpool as they finished. The summer of 1981 saw a wave of violence sweep across every major city in the UK. And the tabloid press made it front page news. For the media, this was a test of their ability to keep up with events.

No rolling news for the 1981 riots

We didn’t have rolling TV news or online media in 1981. It was TV, radio and print. But the media was changing. Through the 1980s, colour began to appear in newspapers as opposed to just the Sunday supplements. TV moved from film to electronic news gathering with the potential for live broadcasting of news events.

And the riots really tested the ability of reporters and journalists to keep up with what was going on but also analyse it – discover what the true causes were behind the violence. Looking back now at the coverage, it’s not as bad as I feared!

1981 riots in the news

Even newspapers like The Sun captured the views of those involved on all sides while the broadsheets wrestled with the question of whether it was racism or unemployment that was the biggest factor behind the disturbances from Toxteth to Brixton and Moss Side.

However, the news industry also gave platforms to the likes of Enoch Powell to argue for repatriation and some awful characters on the political Right who demanded the return of hanging and flogging – and not metaphorically. They literally wanted the gallows wheeled back out.

DISCOVER: What new technology looked like in 1983

As we advanced into July 1981 and the violence just didn’t stop – some newspapers carried front pages that hollered – when will this be over? Here is the Daily Express announcing that the country was “in turmoil” and for a few hot months that summer it certainly seemed like it was.

Brixton exploded first then riots spread across the UK in 1981

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