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DM2014: The Future of Journalism

17 April 2014

Delegates leaving Eastbourne on Sunday afternoon did so with a renewed sense of purpose after one of the most successful delegate meetings in recent years.

There was a strong focus on organisational reform, coupled with a determination to continue the fight to protect journalism and journalism against the many challenges confronting members across all sectors.

Subbing-hub sweatshops, abuse of interns, the stereotyping of Essex girls, new subscription rates, domestic extremists and the future of journalism were among the topics for debate.

As delegates entered the Winter Garden's slightly tatty, but charming, seaside venue they were presented with conference bags displaying quotes from the union's past heroes – George Orwell, Tony Benn and Veronica Guerin.

"Information is the most powerful weapon in the world, and always has been," said the red bags, quoting Tony Benn, a member of honour, who died last month. It set the tone.

Michelle Stanistreet's opening remarks to DM contained a positive message to delegates. The general secretary said the union's recovery plan was working, the NUJ's financial crisis had been pulled back from the brink and the union was building up reserves. Recovery plan is working: treasurer's report

Darlington News Quest Strike
Michelle Stanistreet with Newsquest strikers in Darlington © NUJ

She said there were real opportunities for the NUJ to ensure it would remain an independent organisation, fighting for journalists and journalism in the future. Yes, she admitted, there were many challenges: the relentless cuts throughout the industry were taking a huge toll, particularly in local newspapers, but the union was coming out fighting. She said:

"The recent Labour Force survey suggests there could be as many as 70,000 journalists working in the industry in the UK. Do the maths and there are 40,000 reasons to be cheerful about where our future could be headed if we all work together to secure it.
"There are opportunities in the traditional as well as the new, emerging media sectors and all members are needed to take part in recruitment. We all need to play a practical role to ensure the union has a vibrant future. I am confident our members will meet the challenge.
"One of the best tonics there is, as general secretary of this union, is getting out to chapels and branches and spending time with NUJ members. It never fails to remind me why I do this job and I know many other officials feel the same.
"NUJ members are an inspiring bunch – standing with Newsquest members in Darlington on their picket line recently and walking around the town centre handing out leaflets and talking to passers-by about why transplanting their local newspaper's production to another country was such a daft idea, I couldn't have been prouder of that chapel and their colleagues in Bradford and York taking action together that day." General secretary outlines NUJ's independent future

Delegates agreed that subscriptions would be increased annually for the next two years (details of the new rates), but a proposal by the national executive (NEC) to introduce a new, earnings-related subscriptions structure failed to secure the two-thirds majority of votes required for finance motions. A motion which would have allowed the NEC limited powers to change subscription rates if an emergency arose, given that DM is now biennial, was not carried.

Before the cut and thrust of DM proper, delegates took part in a debate on the future of journalism. A panel of members discussed how the union must position itself and adopt new recruitment strategies as the industry evolves.

For Damien Gayle, who works for Mail Online, the message was "adapt or die". The incredibly successful Mail Online, with its notorious sidebar of shame, has offices on three continents and turns out 600 to 700 stories a day (with only a small proportion generated by its staff). The website boasts 11.3m unique browsers per day but, in a fast-moving world, young upstarts such as Vice and Buzzfeed are snapping at its heels. Damien said:

"We have to adapt or die. We have to preserve our essential skills of researching and interrogating our sources and telling the story, but we have to do it in a radically different medium."

The delegates heard about new models of journalism created by crowd-sourcing, how to make money from e-books and the success of hyper-locals providing news in the heart of their communities. Executive member Sian Jones said that journalists were increasingly creating portfolio careers, doing shifts, submitting features and taking on PR contracts.

Paul Holleran, Scottish organiser, described a positive innovation, the development by the NUJ in Scotland of modern apprenticeships in digital journalism. The government-funded scheme aims to recruit between 30 and 50 apprenticeships across many media groups. He said: "This is a great way for the NUJ to be connected with the colleges and the employers involved." Report on Future of Journalism seminar

A motion proposed by Di Peasey, from Nottingham branch, revealed the future of local papers seemed far from rosy; the Nottingham Post's staff had plummeted to 48 from 249 since its Northcliffe heyday, she said, and cost-cutting newspaper owners were undermining the professionalism of journalists by bumping up content using readers' copy, sacking photographers and making the remaining staff shoulder huge, stressful workloads.

Darlington News Quest Strike
Newsquest strike at Bradford over move to subbing hub © NUJ

Newsquest titles in York, Darlington and Bradford went on strike in protest against the decision to move production of the North-East titles to a subbing hub in Newport, Wales. Bob Smith, FoC of the Newsquest group chapel, said the hubs were becoming the equivalent of sweatshop call centres and were severing the link between newspapers and the local communities they were meant to serve. He said:

"Staff are working shifts of 12 to 14 hours on a poorly-designed system and it's all they can do just to get the stuff out. It is yet another nail in the coffin of local journalism."

James Doherty, chair of the NUJ in Scotland, said as someone working in PR, he found it shameful that some papers were cutting and pasting press releases without checking them or altering a word. Subbing-hubs: the sweatshops of journalism

Conference voted to instruct NEC to create a negotiating group which would seek out new buyers and consortiums to take over newspapers that have been closed. It also agreed the NUJ would devise a plan to highlight the scandal of low pay and pay freezes in the industry and raise the importance of union membership and recognition.

The union also agreed to hold a national meeting of chapel representatives to plan a campaign demonstrating the dangers of excessive workloads and stress across the media. Speakers described how long hours, continuous intensive working, huge workloads and sky-high stress levels had become endemic in the industry.

The NEC was instructed to develop a campaign concentrating on mental health issues in the workplace and to prepare a "stress-busting" programme for employers as a matter of urgency. National campaign against stress at work

Michelle Stanistreet said while companies made cuts, those who remained were left to cope with the workload. She said:

"Our members take real pride in their work and feel personally obliged to maintain editorial standards, even if it means working under huge pressure and routinely far beyond their contractual hours. If it wasn't for that sheer goodwill and professional attitude, deadlines wouldn't be met and some editions just wouldn't get out."

Darlington News Quest Strike
Mike Holderness, Mary Maher and Eddie Barrett © Mike Dimmock

An antidote to the sobering accounts of stress, bullying and job losses was a celebration of three members of honour: Mary Maher and Eddie Barrett, two pioneering trade unionists from Ireland; and Mike Holderness, the NUJ's Mr Copyright. Their contribution to the union was warmly celebrated by DM which heard citations from Séamus Dooley, Irish secretary; Tim Dawson, in-coming vice-president; and Barry McCall, outgoing president. Members of honour celebrated

During the ethics and equality debates, the media's tendency for lazy stereotyping and its demonisation of minority groups came under the spotlight. There were calls for more women experts, more women on NUJ committees and more women on the back pages. There were motions calling on the NEC to issue safety guidance for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender journalists working in repressive countries such as Russia and to challenge the negative reporting on transgender people, Roma, Gypsies and Travellers and those on benefits More women on the back page and fewer fluffy socialites in PR

Nina Bryant, of the newly-formed Essex branch, spoke to a motion which asked DM to condemn the "inaccurate dumb-blonde stereotype of so-called Essex girls perpetuated by programmes such as The Only Way is Essex". She said:

"When I went to university, I was shocked to be judged and mocked almost immediately for my accent, for a perceived level of low intellect and for my class."

Séamus Dooley congratulated the organisers of the inaugural women's conference in Ireland. A motion praising the conference also brought a discussion about the issue of abortion and a woman's right to choose in the Republic and Northern Ireland.

Conference agreed to remind journalists to ensure fair and free reporting of all sides of that debate. It instructed NEC to provide support and materials to branches to enable this and to "actively support any campaign to have British abortion legislation extended to Northern Ireland". Eamon McCann, NEC member, said it was a matter of having parity throughout the UK.

Strong dissent came from Michael Fisher, chair of the Northern Ireland committee, Irish executive council, who warned journalists in Northern Ireland could be compromised if the union adopted a partisan position.

A motion calling for a boycott of Israeli goods and institutions was one of the last issues to be debated; it was possibly the most controversial conference motion and certainly the most anticipated. Its inclusion on the agenda had already created media interest, particularly in the Jewish press. While it provoked a vigorous debate, it was discussed calmly.

IFJ Freedom Walk 2013
IFJ Congress. Each flower represents a journalist killed
in the line of duty © Maxwell

But first Jim Boumelha introduced the international section of the conference agenda and Séamus Dooley congratulated him on his re-election as president of the International Federation of Journalists. The IFJ's World Congress was held in Dublin last year and included a moving march through the city's streets to remember the 408 journalists who died in the service of their profession in the three years since the previous congress.

DM passed a motion which deplored the killing of 1,100 journalists in the past 10 years and applauded the rapid response of the IFJ and its affiliates to incidents and their campaigns to help colleagues in Russia, Gaza, Mexico, Somalia, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. DM agreed to launch a campaign to persuade branches to donate to the IFJ's International Safety Fund which provides assistance to journalists under threat.

Jim Boumelha said journalists around the world were being killed with impunity – targeted for doing their job. The union, he said, had become expert at mobilising campaigns and lobbying governments to challenge regimes which arrest and harass media workers; in Iran for example, and in Egypt where many media workers, including three members of staff at Al Jazeera, were in prison.

He put forward a motion, passed by DM, condemning the Israeli authorities for preventing the movement of Palestine journalists between the West Bank and East Jerusalem and their refusal to accredit journalists with press cards so they can do their job. He said:

"For the past 25 years, we have campaigned in solidarity with Palestine and its journalists who face day after day of humiliation from the Israeli authorities, even if they have the right papers. They face constant harassment and arrest and that is why the union must continue to campaign for the recognition of the press card."

The motion to support a boycott of all Israeli goods and to support the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel was not carried. Alan Gibson, of London Magazine branch, said the union needed to show it was standing up against the biggest bully in the world; the Israeli state.

Michelle Stanistreet warned delegates that journalists working in the Middle East, Palestine and the Israeli-occupied territories would be put in jeopardy if the motion was passed. She emphasised that the NUJ would make decisions on the basis of union policy and would not be bullied by external forces.

BBC workers' representatives said the motion would put their colleagues at risk. Pete Lazenby, of Leeds branch, said he supported BDS and he publically campaigned for BDS, but he could not support the motion because it would put journalists in danger. NUJ rejects Israeli boycott

Joint-presidents Andy Smith and Adam Christie were welcomed, as were the council's new members, then everyone dashed to catch the coach home. Job share presidency elected The last business at the conference centre was the first meeting of the new national executive council.

Other stories from conference:

Post of DGS abolished

The resignation of the union's deputy general secretary, Barry Fitzpatrick, in November 2013 led conference to consider the role in light of a review being conducted into staff responsibilities and workloads.

Supporting a call by Public Relations and Communications branch, delegates decided the DGS post should be abolished. The motion said the general secretary, in consultation with the NUJ officials' chapel, would formalise the ways in which other officials could deputise for the general secretary when required.

The changes will be reviewed at the next Delegate Meeting in 2016.

Menace of 'free copy'

The growing menace of "free copy" and the use of unpaid and underpaid interns in the media was addressed by delegates who instructed the NEC to launch a campaign promoting the professionalism and integrity of journalists while fighting further budget cuts. The NEC is to urge chapels to resist management efforts to employ cut-price staff.

An Irish government "JobBridge" scheme, which paid interns in the media and elsewhere half the minimum wage was deplored by conference. The union's NEC and Irish executive council are to oppose the scheme and work within the wider trade union movement for proper jobs. Unpaid work the curse of freelance classes!

Barry McCall
Barry McCall © Mike Dimmock

Barry McCall, outgoing president, said that perhaps the single most frightening word in the English language at the moment was "internship". He said:

"If the only people who can get into journalism are those who can afford to work for nothing or next to nothing for an extended period, ordinary people without the backing of wealth will be locked out of the trade.
"Journalism will become the preserve of the Chipping Norton Set – the same people who gave us phone hacking, the corrupt News International Staff Association's deal with the Blair government, and the disgraceful freeze on the BBC licence fee."
NUJ healthy and fighting, president declares

Regulation independent from the owners and the state

Chris Frost, chair of the ethics council, said the NUJ supported a free, but responsible press. He told conference the Independent Press Standards Organisation, set up by the newspaper publishers, was not independent of the industry, was very limited on standards and, since it had had to delay its launch, didn't seem very organised.

DM agreed to campaign for a single, self-regulatory system based on the model of the Press Ombudsman and Press Council which operates in Ireland. It instructed the NEC to campaign for a regulator independent of politicians and the industry with a code that included a conscience clause for journalists and an arbitrator to provide cheap access to justice in civil claims. Not independent, without standards and unorganised

100 acts of minor dissent and plaudits for Edward Snowden

Mark Thomas
Mark Thomas © Mike Dimmock

NUJ member, stand-up comedian and activist, Mark Thomas, provided entertainment on the Thursday of DM. He described how he found himself labelled a "domestic extremist" for attending demonstrations, chasing tax dodgers and arms dealers and signing petitions. The police had 63 entries under his name, including a description of his bike.

Mark's new act reveals his aim to commit 100 acts of minor dissent within a year (including putting stickers on Jeremy Clarkson's books in Waterstones advising that the volume was also available in charity shops).

Conference voted to set up a commission to examine new legislation intended to protect individuals and organisations from unnecessary state surveillance. Speakers said they gave their full backing to The Guardian and its journalists for its Pulitzer prize-winning stories based on leaks from Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who revealed the mass surveillance programmes carried out by the American security service in collusion with those of the UK.

Brian Williams, FoC of The Guardian chapel, thanked all those who had supported the paper. He said: "The support we have had from NUJ members has been essential in helping us to follow up the story." Orwell's worst dream

Broadcasting news

BBC delegates at DM2014
BBC delegates © Mike Dimmock

Delegates criticised BBC management's approach to industrial relations and called for a meeting with new director general, Tony Hall, to re-establish a good working relationship.

Michelle Stanistreet said that in recent years the BBC's approach to industrial relations had been "to diminish and dismantle collective bargaining at the corporation, creating an emasculated, 'union-lite' culture of compliance where the public-sector ethos has been well and truly jettisoned in favour of an approach adopted by bargain-basement employers".

She said it was therefore gratifying that the BBC had abandoned its plans on pay and gradings, that Tony Hall had been candid about the toxic impact of executive pay, and that he had stated in meetings that he believed in trade unions and their important role in workplaces. Time for real change at the BBC

Conference called for talks between unions and the new local television companies to help create a benchmark pay structure, proper levels of training, health and safety standards, and to uphold proper editorial standards. Speakers said there should be negotiation to prevent the misuse of students, interns and casuals at the local stations, as well as avoiding the exploitation of casuals and those already working for newspapers allied to the new broadcasters. Concerns for standards in new local television stations

DM called for the "decoupling" of funding for the S4C channel in Wales from BBC Wales and to ensure that oversight of the channel's financial resources and editorial independence was devolved to the Welsh government.

Seeking fresh start with Newsquest

The NUJ is to seek fresh dialogue with the new chief executive of Newsquest, Henry Faure Walker, to secure a more positive and productive future for journalists working at the group. In his 11 years at the top, the out-going chief executive, Paul Davidson, took millions of pounds in pay, shares, pension and perks from the company while reducing the business to one-sixth of its value and presiding over the loss of hundreds of journalists' jobs, DM was told.

Against Nature

Conference condemned attempts by Macmillan's management to "retrospectively derecognise" the NUJ at Nature magazine by claiming that the chapel's house agreement had not operated for 10 years – despite a series of pay negotiations during that period. The NUJ chapel had secured agreements at Nature which gave better maternity and redundancy terms to NUJ members and he commended the current chapel's efforts to resist derecognition.

Conference passed a motion condemning newspaper publishers for setting up a regulation body which ignored many of the Leveson report recommendations; by refusing to allow journalists to sit on the code committee, by taking only limited third-party complaints and by refusing to set up an arbitration panel offering cheap redress to the public.

Time for truth about Orgreave

Barbara Jackson Orgreave camapign
Barbara Jackson © Mike Dimmock

Delegates gave a standing ovation to Barbara Jackson, secretary of the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign, and voted to support its work in seeking justice for miners attacked and victimised by police at the Yorkshire plant during the miners' strike 30 years ago.

She reminded conference how 95 miners were arrested and charged with rioting after police clashed with strikers at Orgreave, but the trials collapsed due to lack of evidence. The union will support the campaign for justice with donations, by lobbying MPs and calling for a public inquiry into policing of the strike.

The Future of Journalism

Young members & students DM2014
Young members and students attending DM2014 © Mike Dimmock

There was a special two-day taster session for young members and students. They learned about the NUJ, its structures, work and campaigns; networked with delegates; joined the Future of Journalism seminar and attended DM sessions. This is what Gemma Smith said about the experience in her blog.


Seamus with NUJ flag at DM2014
Séamus Dooley with the NUJ flag made by the daughters of
Member of Honour, Mary Maher © Mark Dimmock


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