Labour’s media team takes part in NUJ town hall
Almost 80 union members met MPs Jo Stevens and Chris Matheson to discuss issues in the industry and the NUJ’s News Recovery Plan.
First of all, Jo Stevens thanked all the NUJ members for being there.
For holding the government to account and pressing ministers on their handling of the pandemic while Parliament was not sitting, and as the whole country relied on news organisations to provide information, for asking questions about the lack of personal protective equipment for frontline workers and measures to aid those who lost their work overnight.
The shadow media secretary was with Chris Matheson, her shadow minister, taking part in an NUJ virtual town hall of almost 80 participants from across the nations and regions, Brussels and a contingent from Somalia. Many wanted to press the MPs on how they could put pressure on the Treasury, government and media industry to safeguard jobs and also to push for the many freelances who had been cast adrift from Covid-19 aid packages.
It was an opportunity for Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, to make the case for the union's News Recovery Plan, which proposes a set of interventions to get the industry through the present crisis and then to redefine itself as a sector fully rooted in the public good.
Michelle Stanistreet said:
"The fault lines in the industry have been exacerbated by the crisis and yet have also underlined the need for intervention to protect news organisations which provide an essential service. We are not about propping up the status quo and any government funding – whether from a levy or windfall tax from the tech giants – would come with conditionality about serving all communities and improving the diversity of the workforce."
Jo Stevens said she was looking forward to an intense dialogue concerning the recovery plan and how it could inform Labour Party policy.
Chris Matheson said he was concerned that news groups were guilty of skulduggery, using the Covid-19 crisis to make cuts and fight old battles. Certain of them had paid management bonuses and then taken money from the government to put workers on furloughs. Others were taking furlough money while planning cuts.
He pledged to push to stop companies from misusing state funds this way. He said he was also quizzing the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) on its criteria for providing advertising spending. While many financially solid companies were getting the cash, independents and hyperlocals were not getting penny.
"So far the department has been evasive," he said, "but I'm not giving up."
Both MPs said they would support a planned NUJ grievance against Reach for cutting journalists' pay without consulting the union.
Jo Stevens, in answer to a question from Francis Sedgemore, chair of the NUJ's freelance industrial council and from many other freelances speaking from the Zoom chat section, said she was battling on behalf of the #Forgotte Freelances who were falling through the cracks of the Self Employed Income Support Scheme. She had written to the Chancellor and also to Tony Hall, director general of the BBC, on behalf of PAYE freelances.
"It's very difficult getting answers to letters at present," she said, "but I will be using other channels to try and get something done."
She thought it was a failure of the Treasury to fully understand the fragmentation of the self-employed sector where people had to have portfolio careers and were often forced into employment statuses which meant they now missed out.
Michelle Stanistreet told the meeting about the regular meetings the union was having with Oliver Dowden, the DCMS Secretary of State, and John Whittingdale, his minister of state. It was an opportunity in the employer-dominated group, convened by Zoom, to raise a voice for those working in the media sector. She said:
"The TUC has done a brilliant job in ensuring the trade unions have been consulted during the crisis. It led to us winning the case for journalists to be named as key workers so they could do their jobs and have childcare needs met."
Both MPs said there were concerned about the BBC's proposed cuts to the regional current affairs programmes Inside Out and the Sunday regional political shows. As MPs from Cardiff and Chester, they both appreciated the regional journalism which had a high level of trust. "Sometimes you have to defend the BBC, but other times you have to be critical," said Chris Matheson.
Michelle raised the growing problem of attacks on journalism. While in many ways this was not new, there were a number of very worrying recent cases such as Amy Fenton, the Cumbria-based journalist who is now in hiding after vile threats of violence were made against her and her child. The union had spearheaded a cross-party and Belfast media response to threats made to journalists on newspapers in Northern Ireland from a dissident Loyalist group.
Photographers had been attacked during the recent demonstrations by protestors and the police. President Trump's attacks on the press was polluting political discourse, she said. The present government had also been hostile, boycotting the BBC, campaigning news organisations and lobby journalists.
"There needs to be a stronger line taken by people in political leadership," she said.
Other questions from "the floor" were about the effect of Brexit on the publishing industry and for freelances based in Ireland and the rest of the EU who wanted to work in the UK. But as time was running out and Chris Matheson was hoping to get away for his long drive from Westminster to his Chester constituency, the MPs agreed they would continue with the dialogue. Michelle Stanistreet offered other meetings where they could speak directly to reps dealing with problems in the newspaper industry.