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Aberfan conference

‘Remembering, Forgetting and Moving on’. Media coverage and trauma 50 years after Aberfan

The Tom Hopkinson Centre for Media History was created to ‘align scholarly research with historical issues and problems in real-world contexts’. This conference, held on 16 September 2016, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster, fulfilled this aim ideally.

It brought together the scholars, students, journalists, photojournalists, documentary-makers, media activists and other practitioners that the centre expects to attract – along with people directly affected by the Aberfan disaster. It discussed fundamental questions about the coverage of a major traumatic event, not only its expectations, practices, effects, and audiences but also journalism’s role in the evolution of social history, art and memory.

Aberfan is a community 20 miles north of Cardiff and four miles south of Merthyr Tydfil. The Aberfan disaster on 21 October 1966 was caused by colliery tip material sliding down the mountain, engulfing Pantglas School and surrounding houses. It killed 116 children and 28 adults. It was an event that became burned into national and international memory.



Jeff Edwards

Jeff Edwards, a survivor of the disaster, speculated that it achieved such prominence because it was the first major event to be televised and was accompanied by the production of iconic photographs of children. The treatment of the community after the disaster - by the Charity Commission and the National Coal Board - kept it in the news, but it was also the nature of the disaster itself which made it unforgettable.

A video of this talk is available on YouTube.

Elwyn Evans

Journalist Elwyn Evans was present on the day and greatly affected by it. He recollected it as a disaster for himself and said he had spent the last five decades trying to forget it. He recalled that he spent eight hours frozen to the spot, failing to be either a reporter or a rescuer. But he said it made him the journalist he became, sensitive to people and to suffering. He was a participant who tried to forget the tragedy, but could not - and a theme of the conference was whether such events should be forgotten, so people might move on. You can read the transcript here.

The first session ended with moving contributions from the floor – many from people directly affected by the disaster who had never spoken in public before. A transcript of these discussions is available to read.

A video of this talk is available on YouTube.


Stephen Jukes

Stephen Jukes, a journalist who worked for Reuters covering Dunblane and Columbine, is now a professor of journalism at Bournemouth University and Director of the DART Centre for Journalism and Trauma. He responded to the powerful recollections of those who spoke from the floor after the opening session. He described news as not only the first draft of history, but as framing the way the public continues to view an event. He touched on the difficulties of being objective in such coverage, the demands of the news cycle and the impossibility of forgetting.

A video of this talk is available on YouTube.

Chris Morris

Chris Morris, an award-winning documentary film maker, has ensured that in some form the disaster is not forgotten. He described the production of the film An American in Aberfan, which he made for the 40th anniversary. Many people in the community were tired of media intrusion, the continual regurgitation of the black and white archive, and wanted to be involved in the construction of a documentary to create a different picture of Aberfan.

A video of this talk is available on YouTube.

Louise Walsh

The media coverage of the disaster was scrutinised by Louise Walsh, author of a recently-published novel, Black River (Carreg Gwalch, 2016), whose central character is a reporter who covered the disaster. The idea for the book came from an attempt by the Welsh Office to get the press to ‘Lay Off Aberfan’ after the disaster. Her research in the archives revealed the difficulties of dealing with the misreporting and sensationalising press.

A video of this talk is available on YouTube.

A transcript of these discussions is available to read.

Moving on

I. C. (Chuck) Rapoport

Photo-journalist Chuck Rapoport talked about his photos and described the six weeks he spent in Aberfan after most of the press had left, capturing the heart of the village as the community tried to move on in their lives without children. For him Aberfan was the most important photo essay of his life, staying true to his belief that in the minds of people photos engender caution, remembrance and realisation. He talked of bringing Christmas gifts to the villagers, of quoting Dylan Thomas to save himself from being beaten up, the first wedding and the first birth after the disaster, and of the impact of his photography on John Collins, who lost his whole family in the disaster.

A video of this talk is available on YouTube.

Tony Curtis

Along with fellow poet Grahame Davies, Prof Tony Curtis was commissioned to write poems to accompany an exhibition of Chuck Rapoport’s photographs to be held in Merthyr Tydfil to mark the anniversary of the Aberfan disaster.  Accompanied by the image which inspired it, he read his poem Where Were You?

A video of this talk is available on YouTube.

Gaynor Madgwick

A survivor of the disaster, Gaynor Madgwick is the author of Aberfan, a Story of Survival, Love and Community (Lolfa, 2016). In conversation with journalist Melanie Doel, she described her own family’s experience and the process of uncovering their story – and that of many others – in the process of writing the book. The discussion revealed the complex nature of ‘moving on’.

A video of this talk is available on YouTube.

A transcript of these discussions is available to read.

Vincent Kane

The day ended with Vincent Kane’s searing journalist’s verdict on the disaster, its causes and its aftermath. He explored the responsibility of the National Coal Board, the National Union of Mineworkers, of men from the community who worked on the tip. He highlighted the betrayal of the victims by the Charity Commission and the Labour Government, whose Welsh Secretary was George Thomas. And he did not spare himself and others in the media for their failure to be passionate – not pedestrian – in the face of vicious criticism of the victims themselves.

A video of this talk is available on YouTube.