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NUJ pays tribute to Bob Norris

Bob at TUC Congress  -  © Private

12 October 2018

Tributes have been paid to Bob Norris, retired assistant general secretary and member of honour who has died aged 78.

News of Bob’s death was announced by the union's general secretary Michelle Stanistreet at the beginning of the national executive council meeting on Friday morning and in a tribute Michelle recalled Bob’s humour, enthusiasm, commitment and dedication to the principles of the NUJ. She said:

"Bob is one of our NUJ legends who, throughout his life-long membership, played an enormous role both as an activist and as an official during his service as assistant general secretary of the NUJ. Always keen to enlarge the NUJ family, Bob spent many years after he retired from work continuing to recruit and build strength and solidarity in our branches and workplaces. He will be much missed, and our collective thoughts are with his wife Pauline, their son Drew and wider family at this very sad time." 

Bob was in many ways an NUJ institution and took particular pride in the fact that he and Pauline were both members of honour. He had a special interest in education and training and was firm in his belief that education was key to the  promotion of journalistic diversity. He served on the board of the National Council for the Training of Journalists for 39 years, stepping down in November 2006. Through his involvement in the NCTJ he developed an incredible network of contacts across the media industry and was held in high esteem even by those who did not share his staunch commitment to trade unionism. 

At its last meeting NUJ Book Branch passed this motion:
“Book Branch has been saddened to learn of the death of Bob Norris, the NUJ official who pioneered union organisation in book publishing. The branch recognises that its existence is largely thanks to him, and it hails his huge contribution to the work of the NUJ, both in the book sector and more widely.”
Many branch members, including myself, were also grateful to Bob for the masterly way he sorted out personal cases and achieved advantageous settlements. All book branch activists liked him immensely and found him great company at meetings and conferences, as well as down the pub afterwards. We miss him very much.
Annie Pike, Book Branch Chair

Bob supported the writers in prison initiative with what amounted to missionary zeal and was a consistent advocate of what later became known as second chance education. He was also a relentless campaigner for media freedom. 

His record of service to the union stretched back to his early days as a chapel officer. In 1965, aged 25, he became the union’s youngest NEC member. He was closely involved in the union's attempts to merge with the IOJ and served on the IOJ’s national council.  

Bob also served as an industrial official over a range of sectors and brought to his work a degree of painstaking detail which was always appreciated by NUJ members. He served members in the book sector for 30 years and was proud of his part, with Anne Bolt, in achieving the UK Copyright Act 1988, when he was the union's freelance organiser.

As assistant general secretary, then the number 3 position in the union, Bob enjoyed the cut and thrust of union meetings but also enjoyed the social aspect of the role, being fond of beer, banter and good company. 

The union's conference, known as delegate meeting (DM/ADM), was his theatre and Bob played a starring role in debates, not least because of his acknowledged expertise of union rules and procedures. The NUJ cabaret was for years a highlight of the event and no cabaret evening would be complete without a sketch inevitably featuring Bob and Pauline. He loved poking fun at people - including himself, but Bob’s humour was never unkind or wounding.

He was a man of diverse interests and enthusiasms and despite failing health in recent years he indulged his passion for travel, enabled by the care and attention shown by Pauline.

Bob was noted for his sense of humour and often lightened the mood at DM. Writing in the Press Gazzette in April 2007 Axe Grinder noted a typical Norris intervention. He wrote:

"Spare a thought for recently retired NUJ activist Bob Norris. The recruiter of hundreds of impressionable students across the land and champion of all things NUJ is described in this year’s annual report as having been on the NCTJ board since the union’s inception. Norris addressed the conference floor in outrage: 'This is wrong, it is ageist and I want it changed. I have been a member for 100 years I’ve even been an NUJ member for 200 years, and I would like a correction.'"

Seamus Dooley, assistant general secretary, added:

"Bob Norris was a journalist of rare passion and vision. He retained his sense of curiosity which, combined with his impish humour, endeared him to  NUJ members of all ages. Bob was committed to the promotion and protection of ethical standards and this was reflected in his work with the NCTJ. As a full time official and in his countless roles within the union’s structures Bob helped shape union policy and practices. He was at home at DM and enjoyed not just debates but the social events. Bob and Pauline were a feature of ADM sketches for many years and he took pride in Pauline’s pivotal role as chair of the standing orders committee (SoC). Theirs was an NUJ marriage and so many of us enjoyed their friendship as part of a wide and colourful extended clan."

"A lovely man who always made delegate meetings less boring and made a massive contribution to the union." Charlie Harkness

"Bob was always so helpful to me when I was secretary to London SE branch (1970s to 1987). His wise advice on difficult matters involving NUJ rules and disciplinary complaints was invaluable. He was also very encouraging when there were efforts to re-establish a branch in East Sussex in the late 1980s. He was also great fun, enjoying a pint at delegate meetings. He will be greatly missed for all the work and commitment he gave to the union, particularly in  its difficult times." Gloria Pearce

"I was saddened to hear of Bob’s passing and extend my heartfelt condolences to Pauline, family and friends. I knew Bob as assistant general secretary and we started to work together when I became active in the NUJ Paris branch in the 1980s. The branch covers the whole of France - making it bigger in area than the rest of the NUJ in Scotland, Ireland and Wales put together. At the time we had fewer than 50 members and growth was top of the agenda. Bob's invaluable help and experience with recruitment helped us enormously with building Paris NUJ without the expense of travelling all over the country, especially by encouraging us to produce a successful monthly newsletter for journalists involved in all sectors of our profession located all over France. His ideas helped us to steadily increase membership and later set up several NUJ chapels in France-based agencies and broadcasters where members work in co-operation with the various French journalists' unions. It worked! Bob will be remembered for helping to put our members in France on the NUJ map and playing an invaluable role in setting up the Continental European Council.
We’ll miss you, Bob. Never to be forgotten." Jeff Apter

"What can one say about Bob?! He's always been there. From the moment I joined right up until last year’s delegate meeting. Whether as an official or a lay delegate, Bob was the epitome of all that’s best in our union. All best love to Pauline and Drew. We all miss Bob, but we pledge never to let down the union he loved and served so well." Anita Halpin

"When I got a message from Seamus Dooley saying that Bob had died it never crossed my mind to ask Bob who? Bob Norris has helped more individuals in personal difficulty and in employment crisis than anyone I know. He has been at the beck and call of NUJ members for perhaps 40 years and often handled far more cases simultaneously than was humanly desirable. He was knowledgeable and confident and the NUJ and its members benefitted greatly from the expertise he had to offer. I first met him around 1966/67 when I was first elected to the NEC as the representative of Northern Ireland. He had just come on to the executive then for his area of assertive young man who drove a red sports car. Then being on the NEC was like being on the Supreme Soviet in Brezhnev's time because of age profile. All men of a certain age who wore dark suits and who conducted meetings according to the existing bibles governing the subject. Younguns like Bob and I who felt we had a contribution to make to a debate sat with our hands up unrecognised and not called upon to speak. Bob had those early hurdles solved early too because he befriended Lawrie Kirwan who was quite expert and finding ways and means to contribute to debates even though his viewpoint would have not been much shared in that forum.
Over the years Bob just blossomed into the all-round organiser.... had train would travel and he was involved in some of the most serious disputes the NUJ ever conducted for the rights of workers. He will be missed. Even in recent years when his health began to fail he did not flinch from taking what part he could in all activities and was able to explain why it was he hadn't as much to give as he used to. Sympathy to Pauline and family. He will be much missed." John Devine, former NUJ president

"Sad news, what a character, old school." Nigel Dickinson

"I was thinking about Bob this week before the sad news of his passing on, by one of those coincidences. He helped me deal with redundancy, and was the NUJ member who said to me: 'You never know when you need a friend'. And he emphasised the NUJ would always be that friend."
Mark Chapman
"Bob and I knew each other for many years. In the NUJ he was a tower of strength and I have much to be grateful to him for. In particular he was instrumental in helping Belinda, Tony and me set up and create the Netherlands branch and, especially, get a dual linking agreement with the NVJ. The branch continues to flourish. NUJ stories about Bob though there will be enough and he was active in much more than just the NUJ. Like me Bob enjoyed a good pint, and here we're talking real ale. Like me Bob was a member of the Guild of Beer Writers and of CAMRA and he was active in both. He brought the same wit and humour to meetings as he did to the NUJ and with the same effect. I have fond memories of various brewery visits with him where so often he would find an apposite comment at the appropriate moment. Then there was the annual Guild Dinner. We always sat at the same table which throughout the evening he would entertain making an already convivial event even more so.
Bob we miss you." Guy Thornton

"Such sad news. I remember first encountering Bob when he recruited me to the NUJ while I was at college. I had no idea then that I'd be seeing him at plenty of delegate meetings and other union events over the years. Love to Pauline and the family." Paula Dear

"A great loss. Sad day." Andrew Wiard

"So sorry to hear of the passing of Bob Norris. When I was a rookie NUJ official he was a sure and invaluable guide to all the ups and downs and quirks of the union and remained a good friend throughout." Linda Baker Rogers, former NUJ magazine organiser

"Sad news indeed. Condolences to Pauline. Rest in peace." Michael Fisher

"So sad. Bob always made me chuckle at delegate meeting by introducing himself as 'Bob Norris, Portsmouth nil' - a commentary on the fortunes of Portsmouth FC. Condolences and solidarity to Pauline and family." John Jones

"I am so sad and sorry to hear that Bob is no longer with us. He was already a legend when I became an activist in 1974. He was an inspiration and a role model when I became a full time officer. I will not forget his commitment his humour or his friendship. My heart goes out to Pauline and to Drew"
Colin Peter Bourne

"I am lost for words - and that doesn't happen often." Chris Wheal

"Very sorry to hear of Bob Norris’s death. Bob described himself, accurately, as a workaholic. He was a fast, fluent, stylish writer who could have had a fine career in journalism if he had not chosen to leave it for union work. He would write long, detailed reports for the NEC on the matters he was dealing with.  As one of these landed on the table with a dull thump, I remember one NEC member - it might have been Jim French – muttering 'Is Norris on lineage?'
He was great company after work in the pub, or on the long treks around the country which I did with him, dealing with disciplinary matters. No matter where you were in the country, Bob – an enthusiastic member of CAMRA - always knew a pub somewhere where something special could be obtained – a furiously potent local beer, or a drop of an exceptionally smooth whisky." Francis Beckett

"Ah sad news .. honoured to have been a work colleague back in the day.. my thoughts are with Pauline and family .. a great union man.. Salud!" Eoin Ronayne

"Very sad news indeed." Pete Jenkins

"Bob came to the first meeting of the reformed Nottingham NUJ branch twenty years ago next month. Always the source of a great joke and the skits he and Pauline did at delegate meeting were very satirical and funny." Diana Peasey

"Sorry to hear it and condolences to Pauline." Phil Sutcliffe

"Lovely, lovely man." Eamonn Rafferty

"Bob was the NUJ's Everybody, he did everything. Started as a local newspaper reporter and came into the union as rep for the provincial press, but he got into national papers, magazines and books, freelancing, broadcasting, legal affairs, international … Bob was active everywhere, and he never let the members down; gave unstinting support to members willing to put up a fight.
When he retired to deepest West Sussex Bob carried on running his local branch in nearby Portsmouth, and doing his reporting as well, filling a weekly page in the Chichester Observer with village events in the Witterings … how did he do it?
A very jovial man, good company for all, drank a lot of beer, made a lot of terrible jokes and jollied everyone along. Unions need people like Bob, especially when times are hard."
Tim Gopsill, former editor of the Journalist 1988 to 2009

"The death of Bob is such sad news. He was a wonderful colleague, always supportive when help was needed, a members official rightly deserved member of honour – one of the unions very best. Bob was NUJ through and through. Our love to Pauline – together they always gave each other and us strength when it was needed most."
John Fray, former NUJ deputy general secretary  

Tribute to Bob Norris from Jim Eadie, former NUJ Irish secretary

I have many happy memories of Bob Norris. He was on the NEC that appointed me the union's first Irish organiser in 1965. Eventually he became an official himself based at head office rising to the level of assistant secretary following the retirement of Ron Hallett. In that capacity he spent years servicing the union's complaints procedures under which the NEC would appoint a committee to investigate complaints and grievances by union members against other members. Complaints by outside bodies including other unions were also included. While membership of the committees would vary depending upon location and nature of complaint Bob was such a constant that he became an expert in procedure and diplomacy.
He also developed a very strong sense of natural justice. I remember a case in Dublin in which the union sponsors of a prominent former rugby player and retired coach were appealing for his admission to the union against formidable opposition on grounds of ineligibility. He had been offered a column on rugby by an editor provided he joined the NUJ. Bob detected what he called a potential miscarriage of justice, and the appeal was allowed.

After some fraught sessions at these hearings a little relaxation was in order, and Bob was always ready for a good party. There was a dispute between some members in the Limerick area about freelance work and the NEC had appointed Bill Heald, Ivan Peebles and Francis Beckett to investigate, with Bob, as usual, the servicing officer.

The hearing was prolonged when it was revealed during lunch that a recording device had been found under the table. The side against whom there was a complaint admitted responsibility. The recording was removed. At the end of the day Bob asked me about arrangements for the rest of the evening as they were unable to get back to London from Shannon airport. I rang Vincent Tobin, a good union man and press officer at Shannon Free Airport Development Co who invited us to a press reception already arranged for some visiting continental journalists. That started a long night of entertainment and hospitality including a visit to the famous pub, Dirty Nellys, and the medieval banquet in Bunratty Castle. We were impressed.

Bob also led a campaign to emulate a copyright licensing system that was operating in some European countries where newspaper and magazine publishers, journalists and authors would combine to form an agency that would issue licences to outside parties to use published material for agreed fees. The NUJ, SIPTU and some others  registered such an agency in Dublin but the publishers did not come on board, so the initiative failed, sadly.

Outside of the NUJ one of Bob's interests was improving the standards of British beer in terms of taste and flavour. Hence he became an advocate and spokesperson for the Real Ale Campaign.

Following requests from the Irish membership for more union autonomy in Ireland, the NEC set up a committee to study the issue. George Findlay was chairperson. Eddie Barrett was also a member. Among recommendations was the upgrading of the Irish Office.

The position of Irish organiser would be upgraded to assistant secretary (Ireland) and there would be an additional official graded as Irish organiser. The NEC rejected this on the usual grounds - cost, precedent, Scotland would want the same. Privately, I was told Bob Norris would object to a grading equivalent to his. While there were mutterings of dissent from other quarters Bob Norris never did object. In fact I had not put in any claim along those lines at all. Some years previously I had requested upgrading to national organiser level as distinct from regional organiser. That was rejected by Ken Morgan, general secretary, at the time.

Eventually, it was the delegate meeting in Portrush that agreed to the recommendations despite strong opposition from the NEC which was in no hurry to carry out DM wishes. When it did agree to do so, Bob did not voice any objection to me. For that I was grateful.
To Pauline whose work for NUJ is also most impressive, and to their son, Drew, I wish to record my sympathy. My wife Bridie and daughter Caroline, who was a member of London book branch during Bob's days, join me in this sympathy.

For those wishing to remember Bob, Pauline and Drew have invited donations.

Death of long-serving former NUJ representative on NCTJ board.

Tags: , obituaries, obituary, member of honour, delegate meeting