by Tim Gopsill
The union is mourning one of its most influential activists, who died yesterday (16/6). Ron Knowles was editor of the Journalist, the union’s newspaper, from 1973 to 1981, and a national organiser from 1981-83, but his influence spread far wider than that.
From the late 1960s he was a leading light in the “chapel power” movement - the spread of industrial militancy that saw NUJ “chapels” (office branches) rack up huge improvements in pay and conditions that raised journalists, particularly on local and regional papers, to as high a point as they have ever achieved.
As Father of Chapel at the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette in 1967 he led the first unofficial “chapel power” pay strike, which was a total success; they even won back their pay for the days they were on strike. Over the next 15 years dozens, possibly hundreds, of disputes followed around the UK, in a movement that culminated in the most significant strike in the union’s history – the seven-week stoppage that brought out 9,000 provincial journalists and won a nation-wide pay increase of 14 per cent. The Newspaper Society had offered 5 per cent.
In 1983 Ron Knowles emigrated with his wife Marina and their five children to Australia. He was a skilled sub-editor – and a fine and witty writer – and worked as a sub for papers in Sydney and Hong Kong before retiring in 2004.
Ron Knowles took the lead too in actions in defence of press freedom, notably in the sensational Official Secrets cases that arose from the deportation in 1977 of two American journalists, Philip Agee and Mark Hosenball. He was a prominent supporter of the defendants in the ABC official secrets trial and was himself a defendant in the related “Colonel B” trial, in which the NUJ itself was charged with Contempt of Court over an article in the Journalist.
Ron Knowles was made an NUJ Member of Honour in 1985. I visited him in Australia just two weeks ago and when reminiscing on his NUJ activities, he cited the Newspaper Society strike as his proudest moment..
He died, aged 68, from inoperable brain cancers that spread rapidly and killed him only three months after the first diagnosis.
Ron was far from the only fearsome NUJ activist of those momentous times but there was something special about him. He was an inspiring character, utterly honest and uncompromising, a great leader, great company and a great friend to many colleagues.
An obituary of Ron was published in The Guardian on 24 June to read it visit www.guardian.co.uk. A wake is being held in London for Ron, more details here.
Share you memories of Ron below.
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|I was FoC at the Oxford Mail and Times during the provincial newspapers strike. We were always worried that some shabby deal would be done. Ron was one of the people who knew we were winning- one of the people you could really rely on. Later, when there was a scandal about the Newspaper Society bugging the NUJ, he turned up to next negotiations with an electrical adaptor and pointed it at every member of the NS whenever they spoke! They hated him - we loved him. He shared his fire with us.
Posted by: Peter McIntyre: 27 Jun, 2008 09:35:31
|Ron had a sharp wit, an unerring eye for bullshit -- mine as much as anyone's -- and a fierce commitment to the NUJ and to advancing the rights of working people. But he was also a kindly man whose friendship will remain valued by all who knew him. Deepest sympathy to Marina and the young Knowles clan of whom Ron was so proud.
Posted by: Eddie Barrett: 26 Jun, 2008 12:17:42
|Ron was fun, fierce, and fearless. Quite one of the best people I have met in the pin ball richochets that make up life. Good to see him in Hong Kong and when he came back for 100th anniversary NUJ ADM. He gave me lots of help and confidence to be able to speak on my feet. Thanks Ron and thanks to Tim Gopsill for being there for all of us when he died. Love to Marina and the kids. Great dad, good man.|
Denis MacShanhe MP
Posted by: Denis MacShane: 25 Jun, 2008 13:32:39
|In the back of a van at 3am ( visiting SOGAT distribution points) could have been a depressing place, but with Ron it was a laugh a minute. Great man.
Posted by: Roy Cuckow: 25 Jun, 2008 10:40:30
|As a trainee I was assigned to Ron in 1971 to set up a branch office of the Cambridge Evening News in Haverhill. He was a clear and inspiring mentor, always ready to discuss and explain. He was a robust guide to covering industrial disputes and planning rows. We challenged the local council about admission to closed meetings. We also had many laughs. He and Marina and, at that time, their four children lived in the flat above the office before moving to Horseheath. They were generous in inviting me up for meals and provided their sofa for the night when I worked late, or had a few drinks, or sometimes was the babysitter. Only weeks after joining the NUJ, I was branch secretary to his chairman. Back in touch last year, we exchanged yards of email to catch up and it was great to tune in again to that same down-to-earth spirit and humour that I’d known 30-odd years ago. I don't know if Ron was ever called (among many names?) The Sorcerer, but I'm proud to have been one of his apprentices. Many thanks, mate.
Posted by: Keith Seacroft: 24 Jun, 2008 00:34:18
|My most significant memories of Ron Knowles are not that of a journalist or great leader. My fondest memories are those of a great and very proud grandfather who was gentle, kind and wasn't afraid to beat me in an argument at the age of 6. |
There was one particular part of my grandfather’s ceremony that will last in me forever. (I'm not quit sure who said this)
"Don't feel sorry for Ron's family, friends or yourself for the death of Ron Knowles; feel sorry for those that didn't have the privilege of meeting him."
Posted by: Tammy Weston: 20 Jun, 2008 00:19:26
|Ron was a teacher as well as a pal. He preached a bit, but mostly you learned from example. He demonstrated the art of getting past a big bouncer in Newcastle when an ADM setback demanded a midnight refreshment. He taught me how the Acorn House radiators worked in the height of that Summer of '76 when we left the Collins management in a locked room to sweat over our reasonable case. And he showed me how to comfort my son by the way he was with his kids. Thanks for it all, Ron.
Posted by: John Hodgman: 19 Jun, 2008 12:24:20
|Conjure an image of Ron and you remember not only the intensity of his commitment, but also the wicked sense of humour that went with it. The smile, the laugh, the aside, were as important as the unwavering dedication to the principles he held most dear.|
I first encountered Ron as a student when he was an NCTJ lecturer. He set us an assignment to cover an industrial dispute. It was the only time in his life he played the employer as well as the shop steward.
We had a good laugh about it when we next met at the Cambridge Evening News. And that was Ron. He was always making an impression. Whether you were a student, a young reporter or a crusty old hack, there was no ignoring Ron. And who'd want to when the journey was such a compelling one.
Posted by: Allister Craddock: 18 Jun, 2008 15:29:59
|Memories of Ron – late night picketing, beer and cigarettes, village cricket, compassion and integrity, quick wit, sharp writing, a friend in hard times. He was one of the most generous, gentle and inspirational union leaders of his age and people like me became better persons just by knowing him. He was funny and passionate and a man of many parts, the whole made so much stronger by his attachment to Marina and his wonderful family. Cheers Ron.
Posted by: Aidan White: 18 Jun, 2008 13:55:50
|We remember some really great times we had with Ron. Great times during struggles especially the Provincial Newspaper Strike, great times at ADM and,for Bob especially, great times laughing and putting the world (and the NUJ) to rights along with Ron Hallett round the pub. Those 1970s were years to treasure. We marched to Kill the Bill, he pushed that pram famously around the beach to out Colonel B (what an ADM that was)and the NUJ went from strength to strength.|
But we also remember how passionate Ron was about what he believed in and passionate that every battle (however seemingly hopeless to begin with)was winnable. He gave many of us the courage to stick up not only for ourselves, but also for what was right for journalists and journalism.
And didn't we always look forward to his Journalist every month!
Posted by: Bob and Pauline Norris: 18 Jun, 2008 13:07:43
|Ron was a great socialist and a witty, generous friend. I have vivid memories of putting together Journalist Charter leaflets with him, visiting his wonderful welcoming family in Haverhill, and picketing.. lots of picketing. I'm pleased to have written to him recently reminding him of a conversation we once had, He said on one return visit from Australia that he had been tremendously lucky in his life. I wrote that I didn't think it was all luck. Ron believed in being happy and putting himself out to make others happy too.|
Posted by: Barbara Gunnell: 18 Jun, 2008 13:00:58
|Ron was a fearless supporter of press freedom but was unashamedly partisan as editor of the Journalist: it was the NUJ's paper and it fought for and defended NUJ members. I echo the comments of those who have said he was great company and a very able and witty writer. He introduced me to at least one new word when referring to members of the IOJ, calling them 'myrmidons'. I could not possibly confess to not knowing what it meant and had to go away and look it up. Try as I might, I have never had the opportunity to use it myself.|
I too recall the 'beach incident' at Whitley Bay. Writing in letters twelve feet high was not easy. Ron managed that feat of typographical ingenuity with the aid of Jonathan's pram used as his writing instrument.
Posted by: Colin Bourne: 18 Jun, 2008 11:43:32
|Sitting outside Ron's little "cubby hole" (which was piled high with papers) at the back of the secretarial room in Acorn House in the late 1970s I saw a great deal of Ron. He was nearly always laughing, having a joke with us in the main room, or getting really angry at an injustice. He was always straight with you and had a wicked sense of humour that made him really good company. That was Ron, always involved, never indifferent.
Posted by: Lena Calvert: 18 Jun, 2008 11:07:23
|Ron was a tower of strength in the Agee-Hosenball defence campaign and the Aubrey Berry Campbell (ABC) campaign against the Official Secrets Act. Always optimistic, never cynical, always good fun. He embodied all that was best about trade unions and I can only ever picture him with a grin on his face.
Posted by: Duncan Campbell: 18 Jun, 2008 10:18:13
|My chief memory of him is from an ADM that was held in Whitley Bay - and it must have been 1978, for it was amidst the notorious ABC trial, and there had been an embargo on printing the names of the security officers who were responsible for the arrests and who were giving evidence. The main one and most contentious was simply referred to as "Colonel B"|
At breakfast on the first morning of the ADM, Ron saw me and asked: "Have you read the beach this morning?".
Baffled, I walked out from the hotel and across the road to the seafront. There, in huge letters in the sand - must have been 12 feet high - was the real name of Colonel B, for all the world to see (until the next tide, anyway).
Now, that was TRUE subversive journalism , the likes of which we shall not see again. Ron was a true star.
Posted by: Stuart Booth: 18 Jun, 2008 10:12:39
|Above all I shall remember my father as a loving family man, immensely proud of his children and supportive of their endeavours. By example, he instilled in all of his kids a strong sense of justice and support for the underdogs of this world. Every year he took us on family camping holidays in France - a country which was very dear to his heart. Each July we would all pile into a rented minivan or the latest in a series of large family cars (there was eventually seven of us) and drive down to the Ardeche. Many of the fondest memories I have of him were formed during these Summers. Our home in Cambridgeshire was always an exciting and stimulating place full of unionists, journalists and the occasional refugee or exile from far and wide and it was these visitors that helped form our understanding of the world and what it could be for us - a fascinating, cosmopolitan, egalitarian place. That's what my dad bequeathed to me. He thought the world of us and we thought the world of him. We need more Rons, not less.
Posted by: Jon Knowles: 18 Jun, 2008 09:51:52
|Unofficial striker? - he ran an unofficial Journalist too, having as much fun raising hell in head office as he ever did on the picket line. Didn't matter who tried to get him, he knew he'd have 'em at ADM. A great editor to work for and a true professional who lived a life of principle with a mischievous smile.
Posted by: Andrew Wiard: 18 Jun, 2008 07:30:31
|It was probably part of Ron's legacy that I went from working on the Evening Gazette at Middlesbrough to being an NUJ official, and I will remember Ron as much as a family man as a revolutionary....and I feel sad that many local journalists today are earning less than I was in 1975. The battle still clearly continues...
Posted by: charlie harkness: 18 Jun, 2008 05:22:23
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|Ron was an exceptional union member. He always gave great support to ordinary lay officials fighting powerful managements. His work during the Newspaper Society strike was quite wonderful.Many provincial jopurnalists owed him a considerable debt.He was apart from anything else,a great human being.
Posted by: Steve Brodie: 17 Jun, 2008 17:24:14
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