The NUJ is the bulwark, challenging those who threaten our freedom to report on the world - #heartunions
10 February 2016
James Doherty, communications manager and chair of NUJ Scotland
I had never been part of a trade union, but coming from a working class family from the East End of Glasgow, it was certainly in my blood. I grew up watching my father throw things at the telly, every time Thatcher and her cronies came on. When we lived in London – economic migrants in the early 80s – my dad taught me to spit as we walked past Downing Street, and I was never that uncouth. We came from one of the poorest parts of the UK and with each passing year, things were getting worse. Politics, disorder, agitation, they were always there, always part of my childhood and adolescent years.
But I did quite well. I stuck in at school and went to university. Before then, I knew I wanted to be a writer and after doing well in a BBC scriptwriting competition, at the age of 21, I was quickly out of university and off to Liverpool, as a somewhat precocious young scriptwriter. It was incredible fun and led to me writing for a number of shows. But I wanted something more. I wanted to be able to give a voice to those who didn’t have one and that led to me writing, first of all for my local freesheet in the East End of Glasgow and latterly, with the Big Issue in Scotland. The moment I became a journalist, I had to join the NUJ – for me, it was an easy fit. I did not want to be part of a political party, I wanted to be part of an industry that held truth to power. The NUJ stands up for journalism and journalists. The NUJ is the natural home for writers, broadcasters, photographers, public relations professionals, indeed anyone who is involved in delivering editorial content that has purpose and meaning.
For me, it was a natural fit. As a young journalist, I was surprised just how poorly paid the job was. Coming from writing for television, which pays very well, it was incredible to think that people were getting by on the wages on offer, particularly in local newspapers. For many, they had two degrees. I was lucky. I didn’t have a degree, let alone any formal training, but I knew what made a good story, a strong interview and how to translate it for my audience. The NUJ gave me the support through my branch to know that I was on the right track – membership brings not just a press card, but a network of people who want to see you succeed.
I quickly got involved. I became chair of Glasgow branch, at the same time as I began working for The Scotsman in the early 2000s. Then the industry was in decline, but we had a robust newsroom in Glasgow – by the time I finished a few years later, a fair number of colleagues had gone. I knew that 'quality' journalism had gone when I was asked to write about Big Brother and Britney Spears in the same day. Churning out nine news stories a day from PR copy was not what I had in mind - a glorified typist, as I called it.
The same was happening elsewhere. I was determined to fight against the shareholders, interested only in the bottom line. Through the NUJ, I fought for equality – as a gay man, there was still a lot of homophobia in both newsrooms and wider society that had to be tackled. I became chair of the Scottish council and was a strong voice for Scotland on the national executive council. I was a working journalist, working with my colleagues to fight against the cuts, bringing to life our campaigns to fight for local newspapers, for the future of public service broadcasting, not least the BBC, which is still under attack.
In 2008, I was elected president of the union I love. By this point, I had left print journalism and made the jump to PR – given the tumbleweed newsroom I was leaving, the decision to go to Glasgow city council and manage their PR output was an easy one. Again, it was a natural fit, but a disconcerting one. There were too few people left to ask the difficult questions. Press releases would be issued and increasingly cut and pasted into various forms of media. Good for me, not so good for a functioning democracy.
Whether on a march with the elusive NUJ banner (we can never remember who had it last), or on the picket lines in Leeds, Glasgow and elsewhere – being part of the NUJ means we have a better chance, united, of resisting the attacks. We deliver first class training which builds confidence and gives new skills to those who have been forced out. We’re fighting to protect pensions – I remember sharing a platform at the FT with Tony Benn, a privilege indeed, and we’re fighting again for our members there.
In Scotland, we’re working with all political parties to ensure that the media, in all its shapes and forms, is fit for purpose as the biggest constitutional debate in 300 years continues to dominate the news agenda. I was fortunate enough to visit Kurdish Iraq during my time as president, ostensibly to talk about the importance of a free press – I found myself ruminating that we faced an existential threat here, in the UK and Ireland, to those very ideals we have fought for centuries to preserve. The NUJ is the bulwark, challenging those who threaten our freedom to report on the world.
This is my NUJ and this is why we must fight against any attempt to weaken our right to organise as part of an effective trade union.
The NUJ is supporting the TUC week of action #heartunions to celebrate the work of the trade union movement and to campaign against the government's divisive trade union bill.