Shouts of support still follow Gilchrist after tabloid attacks

Andy Gilchrist dipped a few miles into south Wales yesterday on the final leg of his frenetic mission to meet firefighters on the Celtic fringe. At Newport's leisure centre, striking firefighters were incensed by the treatment meted out to the leader of the Fire Brigades Union by the tabloid press.

In a question-and-answer session, one FBU member tore into The Sun in particular, which recently published a large picture of the firefighters' leader on the front page with a headline "Flaming Idiot'' on top of it. Yesterday the paper asked the question: "How many more people have to die?'' in close proximity to a photograph of Mr Gilchrist.

The firefighter said: "We are discussed the way we have been treated by the press. We are saying to the press that when you insult this man, you insult us all.''

To shouts of approval from the 500 firefighters gathered in the sweltering meeting room, Mr Gilchrist said that "he didn't give a monkey's'' what the tabloid press said, that it would not deflect him from his mission to eradicate poverty pay among his members.

That is a well-worn sentiment from a union leader in industrial action. But this is very much a modern industrial dispute.

Mr Gilchrist spent most of his time with his ear glued to a mobile phone talking to officials organising the industrial action, dealing with the media, occasionally speaking to fire service management and once or twice to the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, who tends to announce himself on the phone: "JP here.''

The only respite yesterday from the phone was on the plane from Belfast to Bristol, part of his three-day Meet-the-Members tour that also took in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

During the first firefighters' strike in 1997-78 the electronic media was not omnipresent. But today, 24-hour television has its insatiable appetite for pictures and interviews with the main dramatis personae in the FBU, largely Mr Gilchrist. Ever-present was a fly-on-the-wall camera whose operator is occasional asked to give the firefighters' leader and his small entourage a break from the oxygen of publicity.

At the Temple fire station in central Bristol at lunchtime, some 300 FBU members sounded their warning sirens as Mr Gilchrist approached. In a speech outside the fire station, which is also the headquarters of the Avon Brigade, he lambasted the "barmy Bain report'', a reference to the inquiry on pay and modernisation in the fire service compiled by Sir George Bain. It was one of the Government's attempts to provoke the firefighters' strike, Mr Gilchrist said.

His members' attitude to the deliberations of Sir George was summed up in a poster in a window at the fire station "For Sale by Auction – The British Fire Service''.

The FBU leader's peroration was greeted with acclaim by his audience, who waved a placard near a brazier: "Andy Gilchrist for PM''. Underneath a rough canopy thrown up outside the building, a barbecue had been made ready to sustain those on picketing duty. It could be much in use during the coming weeks.