#DM18: The NUJ in parliament
Liz Saville Roberts - © Paul Herrmann
21 April 2018
Liz Saville Roberts is a Plaid Cymru member of parliament representing Dwyfor Meirionnydd in Wales – she is also a former magazine writer and a long-standing NUJ member.
She was invited as a guest speaker to present the report of the NUJ's work in parliament during the past two years, just the job for an active member of the union's cross-party parliamentary group.
Liz said she appreciated the invitation, explaining she worked for a commercial magazine, Retail Newsagent, in London where she joined the NUJ. She maintained her NUJ membership when she changed jobs and moved to work for the Herald newspapers in Caernarfon, north Wales.
"This was way back in 1990, when North Wales Weekly News had only been owned by Trinity Mirror for two years and still maintained five weekly titles in the north west - Caernarfon and Denbigh Herald, Bangor and Anglesey, Holyhead and Anglesey Mail, Herald Môn and Herald Cymraeg. These were solid, much-loved local papers produced by a team of news reporters and advertising staff working out of a total of six offices in the counties of Ynys Môn/Anglesey and Gwynedd. The North Wales Weekly News titles were then in healthy competition with North Wales News titles, and also with the daily title, the Daily Post.
"It’ll come as no surprise to you whatsoever that all those offices are now shut, and that only two titles remain – both of them English-medium. Neither will it be a surprise that Trinity Mirror engaged in a steady attrition of editorial and other jobs - with creeping centralisation of print production away from Llandudno to Liverpool.
"The local daily paper – the north Wales version of the Daily Post – now effectively cannibalises the remaining weekly sister papers by using a click-on policy as an editorial 'survival of the clickiest' method of nabbing the next day's stories. On some days, this results in a diet of traffic accidents, paedophiles in court and mistreated domestic pets.
"Sadly, I wonder whether this policy of editorial piracy has played a part in the 28 per cent decline in circulation in 2017 for my former paper, the Caernarfon and Denbigh Herald.
"Please, I hope you will not take this as a criticism of the reporters working on any of these papers. They didn’t go into journalism without a head full of idealism and ambition, and with a real interest in engaging with people in their communities and reflecting both what mattered to those people and their communities.
"If something makes the news reporter on the doorstep question whether it’s right to intrude on a family at a time of grief that also happens to be newsworthy, we can balance that with the public interest justification, and also the need of that family to know that what has befallen them, their personal tragedy, is also important to the wider community. Their place in the media assures them that their tragedy matters to others.
"Mind you, I’d wonder how many news reporters even get to stand physically on a front door today. But there is also a question whether the media’s need for sensationalist fodder to reach its click quota feeds the division and fearfulness of modern society.
"There are also the different dynamics of media proprietors' interest to consider. Looking back, local newspaper proprietors would have lived in the communities where they sold their product. They would have had a political interest, but there would also be a more general interest in the good name and good economic fortune of the paper’s town.
"The same can in no way be said in these days of centralised ownership, where the click-on editorial policy is yoked to negative sensationalism, and to hell with the local impact.
"I mentioned earlier that Trinity Mirror, or Reach PLC as I understand the business is now called, has centralised its print works for north Wales and north west England in Liverpool. Besides the Daily Post, Trinity Mirror also owns Wales’s other two daily papers, the Western Mail and South Wales Echo. One of these papers is printed in Watford and the other is printed in Oxford.
"None of Wales’s major titles is now printed in Wales and yet, of Trinity Mirror’s UK-wide regional titles, I understand their circulations fare better than elsewhere, especially the Daily Post, and Wales Online’s audience is robust.
"Wales has held true to Trinity Mirror, but can the same be said in return?"
Liz then turned to the work undertaken by the NUJ's parliamentary group, with the support of writer, researcher and consultant, Michael Calderbank, and the Trade Union Co-ordinating Group.
She started by paying tribute to Simeon Andrews, who died suddenly in February. Simeon was the parliamentary consultant to the NUJ, co-ordinator of the parliamentary group and driving force behind the Trade Union Co-ordinating Group.
"He was a great stalwart of the Labour movement, and he brought about change for the better," Liz said. "He will be missed."
She explained that the NUJ parliamentary group comprised more than 40 cross-party MPs and peers, and met regularly alongside NUJ representatives to discuss matters of importance to the media today.
As part of the local news matters campaign, the parliamentary group organised a cross-party parliamentary seminar to launch research on local news, held campaign events in MPs' constituencies and successfully bid for a backbench business debate with former NUJ parliamentary group chair, Helen Goodman, and former journalist, Jason McCartney. The work culminated in a meeting with Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), Matt Hancock, and the announcement of the Cairncross inquiry into the future of the UK press.
On behalf of NUJ members at the BBC, the parliamentary group strongly criticised the lack of proper public consultation on the BBC charter renewal negotiations – and raised the impact of the extensive cuts to the core spending budget. The group organised a parliamentary event about the outsourcing of up to 60 per cent of BBC radio production with a range of speakers, including veteran arts administrator and journalist, John Tusa. The group also met Dr Julian Lewis, chair of the defence select committee, to discuss the closure of BBC Monitoring’s Caversham Park site – a plan which was roundly condemned by a parliamentary committee report. Despite that report, the BBC and the government continued to press ahead with the cuts.
Most recently, the group helped to secure Michelle Stanistreet’s invitation to give oral evidence alongside Carrie Gracie in front of the DCMS select committee
The group also worked with other unions and civil society groups to raise public interest concerns about the Fox Sky bid and expressed anger over the government's decision to scrap Leveson part two. The group also opposed amendments which would give effect to some of the section 40 powers that involved fines for publishers not signed up to a Leveson-compliant, recognised regulator.
There have been a series of meetings with the Home Office about the protection of journalistic sources, communications and materials, and the terms of the Investigatory Powers Bill before it was passed in the House of Commons.
On international issues it linked up with the Egypt all-party parliamentary group to meet a delegation from Sisi’s government and quiz them on the arrest and detention of journalists and the importance of press freedom in their country.
Liz also highlighted further developments since the report to delegate meeting was published:
She noted the previous chair of the NUJ parliamentary group, Clive Lewis, had stepped down because he was promoted to the shadow treasury team. Clive is now on paternity leave so conference congratulated him on the arrival of his baby daughter and thanked him for his contribution as chair.
The group has also expressed disappointed that the expert panel appointed to advise Frances Cairncross on her investigation into the UK's press did not include any on-the-ground journalists working for local newspapers. The group will protest to the secretary of state and will keep a close eye on the process.
There has been further fall-out on the gender pay front following the resignation of Carrie Gracie as the BBC’s China editor. Michelle and Carrie both gave powerful evidence to the select committee.
The group has also tabled early day motion (EDM 1079), calling for the Leveson inquiry part two to go ahead and to argue that “there is overwhelming public interest in an inquiry into the extent of corporate governance and management failures at newspapers organisations and the role of politicians, public servants and others in any failure to investigate wrongdoing at News International".
Liz ended her speech to conference by urging the union to make the best use of the parliamentary group. "We can amplify matters and concerns for you in Westminster," she said. "We work in a cross-party fashion and there is a will to defend press freedom. We will do our best for you in future."