Newsquest management rebuffs local politicians
28 September 2016
Newsquest management has brushed off concerns from MPs and Assembly members about the situation at their newspapers in south London.
NUJ members have voted to take industrial action, starting on Thursday 29 September, in response to company plans to put nearly all of the newsroom staff at risk of redundancy. The journalists will work to rule, but are considering escalating the action if they do not get a reasonable response from the management.
Siobhain McDonagh, MP for Mitcham and Morden, wrote to Henry Faure Walker, chief executive of Newsquest, the UK's second-largest newspaper group, to ask for reassurances regarding quality journalism, excessive workloads, high stress and a recruitment freeze in south London. She said she feared "young trainees who start off thinking they are beginning their dream career are dejected and burned out by the workloads and lack of support".
He responded dismissively, saying this was "a misleading view of the south London business". He said titles had been badly affected by the move in advertising from print to digital and denied there were "questionable working practices and culture at Newsquest".
Henry Faure Walker insisted it was misleading to suggest South London staff had "cripplingly high workloads", yet when the only reporter on the Richmond & Twickenham Times/Wandsworth Guardian desk was on holiday, the papers and websites were left to be produced by the news editor, a work experience student and reporters from the Croydon Guardian.
Similar letters to Henry Faure Walker and Tony Portelli, managing editor, from London Assembly members Fiona Twycross, chair of the economy committee, and Steve O'Connell, received dismissive replies blaming advertising revenues. The NUJ's cross-party parliamentary group is still waiting for a reply from Newsquest.
A wide range of local politicians has condemned Newsquest's plans. James Berry MP for Kingston and Surbiton, described the planned cuts as "bad for local democracy", while the leaders of Merton, Richmond, Kingston, Sutton and Croydon councils said local papers were vital to upholding transparency and openness and described them as key to the democratic wellbeing of our society.
Bob Neill, MP for Bromley and Chislehurst, condemned the "cyclical unrelenting manner" of the cuts made by this company and drew attention to the "complete absence of any form of duty of care to its staff and, perhaps more damaging from a reputational perspective, a flagrant disregard of the readers it reports to".
During the London mayor’s question time on September 14, Sadiq Khan, said: "Local press is vital to a healthy democracy by providing scrutiny of political decisions and holding politicians and decision-makers to account." He added that he hoped that Newsquest would "honour previous assurances to continue to produce high-quality local newspapers in London".
The NUJ chapel said the way the company had acted made it clear it would not honour these assurances. Since the redundancy announcement, five journalists have resigned. A new structure for the newsroom has been proposed, with one editor for the whole of south London where there used to be eight editors. In all, there will be 12 reporters to cover Newsquest South's London territory; fewer than six months ago there were 22.
The chapel agreed a statement which said:
"The company’s proposal for the future of this newsroom and its news output is indicative of its continual lack of appreciation of its editorial staff, and its repeated failure to recognise the hard work and professional pride that goes into their work. It is a great shame that, despite our repeated efforts over the past few months, our managing director and those above him will not speak to our chapel to find a way to solve this dispute. We want nothing more than to resolve this in the best interests of both parties in a timely manner.
"However, the chapel is frustrated by the lack of consistency and transparency shown by the company during this process and throughout the past six months. The chapel has no choice but to consider further industrial action unless the company can assure us that our demands are being taken seriously."
Laura Davison, NUJ national organiser, said:
"There is a stark dichotomy between management's bunker attitude and the appalling reality on the ground for badly treated Newsquest employees in South London. We are grateful for the support we have received so far from politicians across the spectrum in south London and the NUJ Parliamentary Group. Our democracy depends on newspapers reporting high-quality and relevant news. Journalists should be well treated for the work they do. That is what we want to achieve. We need to convince the company to wake up to reality and rethink their dire plans."