NUJ module 1 submission
NUJ submission to Leveson inquiry module 1
Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press
NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet told the inquiry on Wednesday 16 November, 2011:
Yours is an unprecedented inquiry into the press that could have far reaching implications for our industry, so we at the National Union of Journalists felt it was essential for the union that is the voice for journalists and journalism throughout the UK and Ireland to play a central role. We were therefore very grateful to you for recently granting to us Core Participant Status.
The NUJ is an independent trade union and has been representing journalists throughout the media industry for over 104 years. We are a democratic, lay-member led grass roots organisation – it is members in our workplace chapels and our branches who shape union policy and direct priorities.
We speak on behalf of our 38,000 members who work throughout the industry, as freelances and in staff roles in newspapers, news agencies, magazines, online, book publishing, in public relations and as photographers. The NUJ's headquarters are in London and we also have offices in Manchester, Glasgow and Dublin.
We represent members collectively where we have collective bargaining rights and recognition, and individual representation also forms a large part of our work. As well as our bread and butter industrial work we campaign on issues ranging from quality journalism and defending public service broadcasting to fighting for protection of sources and press freedom.
I was elected General Secretary of the NUJ in April and took over the role in July. For the three previous years I was the elected Deputy General Secretary and had previously been the union's lay vice president and president, after having served on the ruling National Executive Council for 8 years representing all members of the union working in Newspapers and Agencies.
During this time, I was working fulltime as a journalist – I joined Express Newspapers in 1999, working on the Sunday Express. During my time I worked in the City Department as an interviewer and feature writer, then to the newsdesk where I worked as a feature writer and then Books editor until I was elected to the full-time role of Deputy General Secretary in the NUJ.
It was my experience as an NUJ chapel rep at the Express – where we operated a joint chapel between the Daily Express, Sunday Express and Daily Star titles – representing members individually and collectively in a range of issues, that galvanised my activism within the NUJ and gave me a deep insight into the issues facing journalists working in the press today. My team of officials represent and engage with journalists working in national and regional newspapers – tabloid and broadsheets alike – on a daily basis.
It is vital that, in an Inquiry reflecting on the problems and issues within our industry, that the concerns, experiences and insights of ordinary working journalists are heard. I know you are very much alive to this. They are the workers at the sharp end, who deal with the reality of life in a pressured, busy newsroom every single day.
Our members strive on a daily basis to serve the public – balancing the need to inform, educate and entertain with the need to serve the competing and sometimes conflicting demands of publishers and commercial interests. It is a daily challenge – it is frequently a battle.
The NUJ is making a good deal of effort to identify journalists to give evidence and to share their experiences with the Inquiry. However, the stark reality is that in many workplaces there is a genuine climate of fear about speaking out.
In order that it is not simply those who have retired, or who have been made redundant and left the industry, who feel able to make a contribution we are working with the Inquiry team to ensure that journalists who wish to contribute to the Inquiry can give their testimony in confidence, to afford them protection from retribution.
The fear is not of immediate punishment but of finding that a few months after your Inquiry ends a journalist who has spoken out may find herself on a list of redundancies. We support your draft protocol on anonymity and will discuss specific measures in relation to particular witnesses with the Inquiry team.
Of course, predictably, the newspaper owners are unhappy about this. The reality is that putting your head above the parapet and speaking out publicly is simply not an option for many journalists, who would fear losing their job or making themselves unemployable in the future.
In our experience, that fear has been a significant factor in inhibiting journalists from defending the principles of ethical journalism in the workplace – and in media organisations hostile to the concept of trade unions there is a particular problem.
There has already been discussion of the important role journalism plays. Journalism is a force for good, a vital part of any democratic society. People choosing to enter the industry don't – believe me – do it for the money or the career prospects. They become journalists because they want to make a difference; they want to play their part in holding power to account, to shining a light in those dark recesses of society. They want to do their job well, professionally, and they want to keep their communities informed and expose wrongdoing.
And the reason why we're all here today is because of excellent, dogged investigative journalism which brought this scandal to light.
Journalists do not, however, operate in a vacuum. It is important to place the examination of the industry's culture and practices in the broader context of the current state of the industry. The newspaper industry, particularly in the local and regional press, has been in crisis over recent years. The scale of cutbacks, redundancies, casualisation and entire closure of titles has made it a very challenging and insecure time for journalists.
This has been the inevitable result of the entire economic model within the newspaper industry. Greedy employers have stripped profitable and once-proud newspaper titles of their assets. When the days of 25, 30 per cent profits ended, rather than settle for more modest profits that would do nicely most of our major blue-chips, the response of the major newspaper groups was to slash costs and cut the bottom line, sacrificing quality and content in the process.
This is not a sustainable business model and we're seeing the results of this bad management on a daily basis with ever more cutbacks and redundancies. These owners are playing fast and loose with our industry. You can't do that without sacrificing quality journalism; you can't do it without cheating readers of the newspapers they deserve; and you can't do it without sounding the death knell of an industry that plays such a critical role in our society.
In this context, the more resource-intensive areas of journalism, such as specialist correspondents and investigative journalism have become something of an endangered species and a journalists' ability to get out there and research and deliver work thoroughly has been diminished. Agency copy is topped and tailed, press releases are churned out as news.
The pressure on journalists to deliver is relentless, often to unpredictable and unreasonable timescales, and without the resources to do the job well. Such pressures lead to short cuts and can result in the abandoning of fundamental principles.
That's why it is important for your Inquiry to understand the reality of newsroom culture and the pressures that journalists in some workplaces have come under to deliver the goods, to write stories that are inaccurate or misleading. These practices are the product of the culture. You cannot separate the practice of journalism and the culture which underpins the industry. To paraphrase the Irish poet W B Yeats, you cannot separate the dancer from the dance.
It's not journalists who develop and foster the culture in any one newspaper group. In any workplace, where does the power reside? Not at the bottom, where the majority work to get the job done. It's at the top. In journalism, the reality is that there's often a stark expectation from on high – Deliver the goods, get the job done, bring in the story, whatever the means. If you don't, well the consequences are often simple and clinically brutal.
At the heart of any newspaper culture is the editor – what he or she says goes. For anyone who's worked in a newsroom, the concept of an editor who didn't know just what their troops were getting up to is laughable. Editors rule the roost. They set the tone – not just in the editorial line of their newspapers but in the way that the newsroom operates. What's accepted, what's not; the tone of an editorial conference; whether bullying – sadly commonplace – goes unchecked; the dispensing of praise or the nature of the inevitable roasting when the goods aren't delivered.
To imagine editors as mere bystanders whose underling reporters run rings round them would be fanciful in the extreme. That's why, to anyone with any journalistic nous, the peddling of the line that hacking was the action of a "single rogue reporter" operating in splendid isolation was as daft as it was unbelievable.
And that's why it is vital, when considering the culture and the practices of the press, to examine the broader context of how that culture is forged and cultivated.
For NUJ members, a significant way in which they input collectively into that workplace culture is through their workplace NUJ group, the chapel as we call them. But that can only happen in places where there is a functioning organised chapel – this mainly happens in places where there is a legal recognition agreement in place and a collective bargaining agreement.
Mere membership is not enough – there are many newspapers where journalists feel very anxious about their employer knowing that they are members of the NUJ or that they are active in the union outside of work.
Nor is the limited right to representation in disciplinary or grievance proceedings enough. The only way a union is able to sufficiently and actively protect the interests of its members is by the establishment of genuine collective bargaining.
That process involves putting other issues central to a journalists' work – whether that's staffing resources, commercial pressures, bullying behaviour in the workplace, or ethics – squarely at the negotiating table. Believe me – senior executives in this industry only sit down with our workplace reps and with NUJ officials because they are obliged to, because we have recognition and an agreement on collective bargaining.
Whilst I'm sure there are many employers who would much rather not to have to bargain collectively with their workforce, there are many media employers who have a particularly intransigent view in this regard and indeed will go to great lengths to block the NUJ from its titles.
Take Rupert Murdoch – he created and funded his own proxy union, the News International Staff Association, which was later refused a Certificate of Independence by the Certification Officer because of its lack of Independence from the employer. This was cynically established on the eve of the legislative changes being introduced that saw the restoration of trade union recognition rights. All to keep the NUJ and our sister unions out of Wapping.
Staff at News International, mostly on the News of the World, who have been dismissed or made redundant in the wake of the hacking scandal have learned in recent months to their cost the impact of not having strong and independent workplace representation. There cannot be a genuinely robust and confident representation from any organisation that is not independent – where by means of its funding and actual existence is effectively in the pocket of the company's owner and senior executives.
A well-organised union provides a counterbalance to the power of the editors and proprietors, it can limit their excesses and gives journalists the confidence to raise their concerns. The collective can tackle stress and bullying and defend principles of journalistic ethics as well as dealing with the bread and butter industrial issues of pay and terms and conditions.
One of the many members to come to the NUJ in the wake of the closure of the News of the World was Derek Webb. He, as you may have seen, told his story to BBC's Newsnight in some depth last week. Mr Webb was hired as a private detective by the News of the World and carried out surveillance for the company for many years. However, he alleges that in the wake of the arrest of the paper's Royal Editor Clive Goodman, he was taken aside by a senior executive on the News of the World and told he had to "stop being a private detective and become a journalist."
The same senior executive also apparently told him that he must join the NUJ and acquire an NUJ press card. This he duly did. This is a breathtakingly cynical move on behalf of the News of the World but also an interesting perspective on an organisation that is so hostile to the NUJ. Clearly, in the minds of senior executives at News International, presumably a proper journalist is one who is a fully fledged NUJ member with a union press card rather than the ones News International dispenses to its staff.
You suggested earlier this week that the essential question in this Inquiry might well be "who guards the guardians". The NUJ can help here. For one of the key ways of ensuring "systems within an organisation which promote or induce good behaviours and tend to expose bad behaviours", to quote Mr Jay, is for journalists to have the protection of a trade union.
The establishment of collective bargaining as one vital means of preventing the unacceptable "culture, practices and ethics" under investigation in this Inquiry should not be seen as some form of special pleading on behalf of a vested interest group. For the right to collective bargaining is as fundamental as the right to privacy under Article 8 of the Convention and the right to freedom of expression under Article 10.
Article 11 protects everyone's freedom of association and "the right to be a member of a trade union for the protection of his interests".
In a unanimous Grand Chamber decision of Demir and Baykara v Turkey the European Court of Human Rights concluded:"the right to bargain collectively with the employer has, in principle, become one of the essential elements of the "right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of [one's] interests" set forth in Article 11 of the Convention… "
The interrelation between Article 11 and the right to collective bargaining had been earlier described in Wilson and others v UK, a case which arose out of the considerable steps Associated Newspapers took to de-recognise and disempower the NUJ in the 1980s.
In that case the Court (which included Lord Phillips, as he now is) held:"the essence of a voluntary system of collective bargaining is that it must be possible for a trade union which is not recognised by an employer to take steps including, if necessary, organising industrial action, with a view to persuading the employer to enter into collective bargaining with it on those issues which the union believes are important for its members' interests.
Furthermore, it is of the essence of the right to join a trade union for the protection of their interests that employees should be free to instruct or permit the union to make representations to their employer or to take action in support of their interests on their behalf. If workers are prevented from so doing, their freedom to belong to a trade union, for the protection of their interests, becomes illusory. "
The Court held that the UK had a duty to protect that right. We don't expect to persuade you to recommend legislation to protect collective bargaining for journalists. We will seek to persuade you to make recommendations which recognise the vital role the NUJ has in protecting journalists from (amongst other things) pressure to engage in unethical practices. We will produce a note on the legal matters referred to above which we hope you will find of value.
In case it might be thought that the empowerment of trade unions to protect the interests of their members at work is not the stuff of public Inquiries such as this, the NUJ would draw attention to the recognition given to the role of trade union representatives in the protection of the safety of employees by Lord Cullen in the Piper Alpha Inquiry Report, a role which finds statutory form in the Offshore Installations (Safety Representatives and Safety Committee) Regulations 1989.
We believe there is a clear link between a strong trade union presence in a workplace and a strong ethical awareness. Collective trade union representation is a moral, human right and journalists should not be denied this right in our newspapers.
I can speak from personal experience when I say that having the collective confidence of a robust union presence can make an enormous difference when individual journalists want to speak out on matters of journalistic ethics.
In September 2001, when I was one of three NUJ chapel reps at Express Newspapers, we took the unprecedented step of making a complaint to the Press Complaints Commission about the reporting of the Daily Express' coverage of asylum seekers.
Some journalists at the title, particularly those directly involved in the coverage, felt so upset and angry about the racist tone of the Express' coverage, and so powerless to individually do anything about it, that they were considering leaving their jobs. The NUJ chapel met and issued a public statement about the "hate stirring" front page headlines – one of which was ASYLUM SEEKERS RUN FOR YOUR LIVES – and what we felt to be editorial interference from the proprietor.
It wasn't the only public stance NUJ members felt impelled to take. In 2004 the chapel once again complained to the PCC over the inflammatory and blatantly inaccurate coverage of so-called Gypsies coming to the UK during the enlargement of the EU. In both cases, we believed the paper was guilty of breaking the PCC's code of conduct on discrimination – which states: "The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to a person's race, colour, religion, sex or sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability."
And in 2006 journalists on the Daily Star walked off the editorial floor to hold an urgent chapel meeting and demand that a "spoof" page, called the Daily Fatwah, whose only purpose was to mock Islam, was pulled. The management backed down and the page was indeed pulled that night – their collective intervention, on a matter of their journalistic ethics, made a difference.
In each of these cases, a common factor in the offending coverage was that editorial decisions on the content were being cynically made on the basis of the resulting spike in sales. It would be impossible for a single journalist to tackle this. Another common factor is that the PCC did absolutely nothing at all to help.
In fact, our complaints merely warranted a short written reply from the then chair, Sir Christopher Meyer, saying he was satisfied that no journalists were being put under any pressure to write inaccurate or unethical material. Perhaps he got that impression from the paper's then editor who sat with him on the PCC, but he certainly didn't get it from any journalists at the Daily Express as no one from the PCC even contacted us to investigate.
The NUJ is a trade union which has its Code of Conduct at its heart. Established in 1936 it is embedded in our rule book and by signing our membership form, it is made clear to journalists that they are signing up to abide by the Code. The NUJ has an Ethics Council which is a key part of our union structures – we run an Ethics telephone Hotline, which journalists regularly access to gain advice and support.
And of course as part of that Code, we commit to robustly defending the public interest test and the ability of journalists to do their jobs freely and professionally. The NUJ would vigorously defend members using "other means", sometimes of course unpalatable and unpopular, if it is in the pursuit of a story that is clearly in the overriding public interest. That is the duty of a journalist engaged in informing the public.
But our Code is also about public accountability. It commits journalists to do nothing that would intrude into anybody's private life, grief or distress unless justified by overriding consideration of the public interest. It commits journalists to do their utmost to correct harmful inaccuracies. It commits them to obtaining material by honest, straightforward and open means, with the exception of investigations that are overwhelmingly in the public interest and where that evidence can't be obtained by straightforward means.
Clearly the industrial scale of the use of hacking at News International and the breadth of the scope of the stories generated as a result, do not comply with the principles of the NUJ's Code of Conduct.
It is in this context – of the cut and thrust business of journalistic ethics and the commercial and editorial pressures that our members can face – that we have been campaigning for some years now for a Conscience Clause in contracts of employment. So that when journalists stand up for a principle of journalistic ethics they have a contractual protection against being dismissed. And – crucially – so they have the confidence and the security to put their head above the parapet in the first place.
The idea of a Conscience Clause was raised by the NUJ when giving evidence to the commons select committee into privacy and media intrusion in 2003. The committee recommended such a clause but it was rejected by both the PCC – which has no say in industrial matters – and the Society of Editors, which does.
The text of our clause is: "A journalist has the right to refuse assignments or be identified as the creator of editorial which would break the letter of the spirit of the Code. No journalist should be disciplined or suffer detriment to their career for asserting his/her rights to act according to the Code."
That is why the NUJ does put forward special pleading on the issue of a Conscience Clause. The introduction of such a contractually binding protection would be a great advance for journalists and for journalism in the UK.
We will come on to the detail of press regulation and any future model in the later part of this Inquiry. It is the view of the NUJ and its members that the PCC has failed, abysmally so. We would absolutely resist any changes that would lead to anything akin to the licensing of journalists or anything that would in the slightest dilute press freedom – that would not be a solution to the problems the industry finds itself in.
For years we have had the media bosses' model of self- regulation. It is one that excludes both the producers and the consumers of the media output and represents only the owners. The general public and journalists themselves have had to contend with what has been little more than a self-serving gentleman's club.
And not even a club that all newspapers are obliged to join, as illustrated so finely when Richard Desmond's Northern & Shell walked out of the PCC. It's a model that has failed – but there are plenty of other models of regulation out there – models that have teeth and provide more than a thin veneer of accountability on the owners' part, models that actually hold newspapers to account and genuinely deliver when it comes to protecting the interests of the public and of journalism.
An interesting and relevant example is the establishment of the Press Council of Ireland in 2007.The NUJ played a key role in the establishment of the Press Council of Ireland.
We are represented alongside editors and civic society nominees on the basis of full equality on the Press Council. The NUJ's Irish Secretary Séamus Dooley sits on the Council's Code Committee.
It is interesting to note that the very same newspaper groups, whose executives won't sit down in the same room as the NUJ in the UK, manage to work quite happily and collaboratively across the water in Ireland as part of the Press Council of Ireland. Indeed, just yesterday the Irish Secretary attended a meeting of the Finance and Administrative Committee of the PCI alongside a senior representative of News International.
Irish journalism – and Irish society, has benefitted from such enlightened co-operation in the public interest.
The increasing consolidation of media ownership and the disproportionate power and influence this brings with it also needs to be considered by this Inquiry. When newspaper titles are bought and sold, there should be a rigorous public interest test. The highest bidder shouldn't be allowed to simply walk away with our national titles in their pocket and the accompanying power and influence that brings. Currently there's a dearth of genuine scrutiny and most sales are usually completed on the basis of a secretive sealed bid where it's only the money that talks.
It should not be possible for our titles – whether a national title or a local newspaper – to be bought and sold on the whim of one man, or corporation, or used as pawns to further an individual's commercial or ideological interests. A media owner shouldn't have our police and our politicians in a stranglehold for fear of their personal peccadillos being splashed over the front pages of a newspaper. No media group should be allowed to achieve such dominance.
I have given some examples today of how a robust, well organised NUJ presence can make a real difference and a positive contribution to the culture within a newspaper and to the broader industry. We are currently engaged in efforts to encourage our members to come forward and play their part and enable you and the Inquiry team to have as good an insight as possible into the reality of working life and newsroom culture for journalists working across the newspaper industry.
This will provide examples from across the industry, including testimony from journalists who can shed real light on the culture within the News of the World, on cases of bullying at a senior level, all key factors we believe led to the scale of hacking within the newspaper. I hope to be able to submit more detailed written testimony arising from this work in the coming weeks.
This is an Inquiry that could shape the future of our industry and it is vital that the views of working journalists – and journalism – are heard and seriously considered. The NUJ will do all it can to assist and to ensure our members can concentrate on what they do best and what gets the vast majority of journalists out of bed each day – serving up quality journalism that informs and entertains.