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Tribute to former NUJ general secretary with industry & world reach

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10 August 2015

Former president John Bailey recalls the remarkable life of Ken Morgan

Ken Morgan, who has died aged 86, peacefully in hospital after a short period in care, is best remembered among working journalists of his era as one of the most generous, open-minded, perceptive trade unionists you could wish to be represented by or bargain with.

A life-long member, he served the union in many roles for more than a quarter-century, first as secretary to Manchester freelance branch and then staff member as central London’s first full-time branch secretary, later national organiser and general secretary from 1970-77.

It was a union ripe for its era, beautifully described in an understated phrase from Ken Morgan’s local paper, the Advertiser series in Salford, when columnist Beverley Mather was profiling Ken for her weekly Life at the Top feature as he was about to move from the NUJ to the Press Council. "Ken Morgan is general secretary of one of Britain’s most volatile and well-publicised trade unions – the National Union of Journalists."

His career in journalism embraced newspapers and agencies, then every arm of the media while representing the union’s members. The Press Council followed, then counselling and consulting work on press ethics in the UK and abroad, a considerable workload lecturing in universities and to government bodies overseas, and authoring associated works. 

Already part of the original Press Council as a member representing the union since 1970, he left the union’s employment to accept the post of joint secretary in 1977. He later became the council’s director for 10 years and oversaw the start of the Press Complaints Commission, serving as director for its first year, 1991.

During the year following his change of job, Ken’s service to the NUJ and the community was recognised in two ways – as a member of honour at annual conference and an OBE from the Queen. 

Ken wrote prolifically – his method perfected by drafting difficult letters by hand – with many detailed working documents about setting up Press Councils abroad, press freedom and accountability, press law and democracy … and yet delighting in the task of drafting an agenda for a meeting. All thought through to help make discussion logical and easier to reach a conclusion.

He gave evidence to successive Royal Commissions, Monopolies and Mergers Commissions and House of Commons standing and special committee enquiries into press and broadcasting freedom, privacy, official secrets, freedom of information and human rights.

He lectured abroad extensively on Press Council procedures and media freedom often helping as consultant on press ethics to commissions in places like Ghana, Fiji and Sierra Leone.

His experience was head-hunted by the British Council and Council of Europe for lectures in central and west Africa, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Spain, Greece, Germany, Russia and Japan. 

His range was broad – a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a trustee of Reuters for at least a dozen years responsible for safeguarding the newsagency’s independence and editorial integrity, a governor and honorary secretary of the English speaking Union of the Commonwealth.  

A judge for company editorial and regional press awards for two decades, he seemed to attract assignments like Methodist Recorder lecturer of the year in 1989 and, from 1998, Associate Press Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge.

Ken was also a diligent member of the International Federation of Journalists, helping to develop its world reach and the huge influence of the NUJ in Britain and Ireland. 

He continued to represent the union as a trustee and chairman of the Journalists’ Copyright Fund right up until three years ago when ill health compelled him to retire.

All this from the Stockport grammar school boy who joined his local paper, the Stockport Express, as a junior reporter in 1944 before being called up for national service in the army – joining as a private in 1946, commissioned in ordnance a year later, and transferred to the British army newspaper unit to serve in Palestine and Egypt. He was seconded to the Egyptian Mail, the Cairo morning paper.

Back in Civvy Street, Ken rejoined his old paper and was promoted to sub-editor. It wasn’t long before he went freelance, working for Stewart and Hartley’s news agency in Manchester and then, in 1954, the Exchange Telegraph. This was a time when EXTEL was expanding, attempting to rival the Press Association. Ken Morgan was given the job of launching an editorial operation to cover the North.

This was a working journalist who amassed useful contacts at every level of media and society where work took him. He could produce a name and a telephone number out of nowhere in an era before smart phones, mobile number lists and tweets, bringing chapel members to a halt in the street by producing an off-duty phone number for their FoC!

He was expert at shorthand when that skill was worth its weight in precious metal before the days of hand-held recording devices. There’s a story on the go now about a famous quote from Nye Bevan, where a contemporary colleague cites Ken Morgan’s superb shorthand as proving the quote and saving the day for the press bench.

As NUJ general secretary, even those who vociferously opposed his advice or ideas often ended up being grateful to Ken for representing them when in trouble. This was a man who could sit with Fleet Street barons or directors general of the BBC to arbitrate an NUJ member back into a job.

It is how we knew him best – finessing the fine detail of a national agreement on pay and conditions or calmly explaining to a delegate conference in uproar why the Union leadership was not only blameless, but actually wise in its handling of the dispute they didn’t want settled.

Yet his reach in the press world – and his reputation – was so much wider and unguessed at by most.

There will be many personal stories of a warm, generous-spirited man, who when under heavy attack and however wounded could still see the other person’s standpoint and be able to weather the storm.

The union’s withdrawal from the Press Council in 1980 caused him personal pain. He described it to The House, the weekly journal of the House of Commons, five years later as “a very big, personal blow”. It meant much to him, as the recommendation of the 1949 Royal Commission into the press to set up a voluntary Press Council had come about largely through the pressure and influence of the NUJ. The union became a founder body in 1953 and nominated members to sit on the council, which had as its noble objectives “preserving the established freedom of the British press and maintaining the highest standards of the profession”.

Ken argued his best for a union return to nominating members for the four seats allocated to it. TUC general secretary of the day, Len Murray, supported him. But the union never did return.

He and Margaret – a reporter and NUJ (Stockport) branch secretary herself back in those early Manchester days where, meeting as rival reporters, they married and started a family – would be sad to leave their home in Dulwich where the family blossomed after swapping Manchester for life with the NUJ and later Press Council in London, but they moved to West Wickham, nearer daughter Jenny and family. 

Margaret, daughters Sarah and Jenny and one of his grandchildren, Katie, were at Ken’s hospital bedside when he died. Ken and Margaret’s eldest daughter Helen pre-deceased him. She died five years ago.

Ken leaves a legacy in more ways than one for organisations, colleagues and a wider society. Part of it is a chest of documents and papers, plus an aural history recorded for the British Library. There’s a book in there somewhere for the right researcher-biographer.

His listed recreations – theatre, military history, inland waterways and travel – trigger a story of the occasion Ken performed the Gilbert & Sullivan comedy number I am the very model of a modern major general with great gusto in a taxi for NUJ colleagues at the end of a successful night’s work – the song and the occasion vary in the telling from Fleet Street pay talks to TUC delegation at Blackpool – but the punchline is the same: he kept the driver waiting and the taxi meter running while he finished his word-perfect performance.

Perhaps that’s the suitable anecdote, saluting a lively mind, brilliant performer, inventive bargainer, patient listener and wise counsellor.

  • Kenneth Morgan was born 3 November 1928 in Pendleton, Salford. He died in Princess Royal University Hospital, Farnborough Kent, on Wednesday 5 August 2015. He was 86.
  • Service and committal at Beckenham Crematorium, Friday 14 August at 12 noon. Family flowers only. Donations to the Alzheimer's Society via the Co-operative Funeralcare, 13 High St. West Wickham, Kent BR4 0LP

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