Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Question of Leadership, A (1980)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment ltd

Main image of Question of Leadership, A (1980)
ATV for ITV, tx. 5/8/1980
30 minutes, colour
DirectorKen Loach
ProducerRoger James
CompilersKen Loach
 Barry Hines
PhotographyChris Menges
 John Davey

Participants in discussion: James Bellini (chair); Bill Sirs, George Wright, Alan Thornett, Bernard Connolly

Show full cast and credits

The effect of the steel industry strike of Winter 1979-80, on the industry itself and on these other industries that rely on a supply of steel, from the point of view of the government and workers, who describe their feelings about what is happening and union support, or lack of it.

Show full synopsis

Ken Loach's examination of Thatcherism's impact on the trade unions was made for ATV, and scheduled to appear on ITV network on 5 August 1980. But after the Independent Broadcasting Authority found it in breach of impartiality rules, ATV was forced to withdraw it. Eventually, cut by 12 minutes to accommodate a 'balancing' programme, it was broadcast a year later, late-night and only in the midlands region.

The programme presents a debate among rank-and-file trade unionists, with space also given to two officials of steelworkers' union the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation, one of whom becomes engaged in a heated exchange with a steelworker. These scenes clearly prefigure the debate over land reform in Loach's Land and Freedom (1995).

Loach's account of his intentions (quoted in Anthony Hawyard's 2005 biography) shows why the documentary was bound to upset a conservative-minded regulator:

"It was a different way of discussing politics. I tried to get away from the way interviewers sit there with their own agenda (exactly as in the 'balancing' film, in fact) and fit the discussion into it. That broadcasting person was taken out and we had the direct confrontation between the two sides of the argument, putting the steelworkers face to face with the people who had led the strike. It wasn't like anything they had ever faced before, where there's usually a moderator who won't let the dog get to the rabbit. Here, they were being seized by the throat by these guys they go out of their way to avoid."

But 'moderated' (or, perhaps, 'moderate') is exactly what that the IBA thought political programmes should be. Television then, as now, was uncomfortable allowing people to air, unchallenged, the kind of views powerfully expressed by rank-and-file trade unionists in A Question of Leadership, views even more conspicuously absent from an overwhelmingly Tory press. As a result they were regarded as 'extreme' and in need of careful handling by the regulators.

As Loach put it at the time, the film gave voice to "a body of opinion which had not been expressed in the news coverage during the steel strike and which criticised the conduct of the union leadership from the union members. Because the news hadn't covered it, when we showed that opinion, the IBA said it was not representative." And so, in a perfectly circular process of censorship by omission, that opinion remained unheard on network television.

Julian Petley

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. Suitable battlegrounds (5:07)
2. Holding the line (7:38)
Red and the Blue, The (1983)
View from the Woodpile, The (1989)
Hines, Barry (1939- )
Loach, Ken (1936-)
Menges, Chris (1940-)
Ken Loach: The Controversies
Ken Loach: Documentaries