Activist journalists out of bounds

May 3, 2007

May. 2, 2007 12:00 AM

From The Arizona Republic Newspaper, Phoenix, USA

Well, the jig is up. Journalists are taking sides on political issues.

Make that some journalists. Some wrongheaded, activist journalists in Great Britain, to be more specific, have concluded they must boycott Israel for its “savage, pre-planned attack on Lebanon” last year.

Representatives of Britain’s 40,000-member National Union of Journalists voted last month 66-54 to condemn Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and to boycott its products.

From the union’s 51-page list of resolutions passed at its 2007 Annual Delegates’ Meeting: “This ADM condemns the slaughter of civilians by Israeli troops in Gaza and the (Israeli Defense Force’s) continued attacks inside Lebanon following the defeat of its army by Hezbollah.”

Objectivity in journalism is a delicate balancing act, at least as practiced in most Western democracies that subscribe to a citizen’s right to freedom of speech.

In the United States, journalists struggle with the implications of that balancing act pretty much every day. What’s the right word for this story? “Terrorist?” Or is it “insurgent”? What’s a proper tone for this report on the Supreme Court’s latest abortion-related decision? And so on, ad infinitum. In an instant-analysis Internet age in which all things have become political, every published word in every American journal is scoured for its prejudices.

In Britain . . . well, it’s different. Our compatriots across the pond can be considerably less scrupulous about avoiding political activism. And the union’s pretense-exploding hissy fit against Israel is an example.

It is far from the only example, though. The agenda of Britain’s largest association of journalists is larded with explicitly leftist causes. Many of them are fashionable and trendy, like cooing over the U.S.-baiting of Venezuela’s dictator-president Hugo Chavez.

So it should surprise no one that such an organization would decry the Middle East’s sole functioning democracy, with nary a word of condemnation for the Hezbollah terrorists whose kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers sparked the Lebanon war in the first place.

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quick reports of Sunday’s ethical highlights

April 18, 2007

Motion 166 was a sustainability statement, asking the NEC to carry out an environmental audit of NUJ working practises and sustainable transport should be encouraged. It was hotly debated and Pete Murray from Scotland said that it might stop NUJ members from the Shetland Islands to get to the branch meetings if they could not take the plane as it would take several days to go by ferry. So there was a discussion about re-imbursement of air- and trainfares and if that motion could change this general rule. It was then followed by a receycling argument and if the paper at the conference would be appropriately and sustainably disposed of. Other members asked to remit the motion, but it was carried at the end.

Motion 170 draw out some New Labour sympathisers asking for Jack Straw not to be called a rascist. The delegate from the South Yorkshire branch replied that he would call his policy rascist, but not Jack Straw himself.

The affiliation to StW was also discussed at some time, with one NEC member stating that we would already we doing it, and would not need to call for official affiliation. Pete Jenkins said this would be a rare occurance in that he agreed with the NEC. Someone else expressed worries that if the motion would not get through it could stop Jeremy Dear speaking at the StW rallies if the ballot would be negative. The whole discussion also featured a bit of “how political is our union” debate.

This was continued during the Trident Nuclear Weapons debate. One person stated that the defeated affiliation proposal to CND would incline that the NUJ membership would not want to oppose the replacement of Trident, but it was rightly replied that these were different issues and that many members did not want to affiliate to CND out of other reasons, and not because they would support a Trident replacement.
Anyways, there were some odd rhetorical dance moves practiced at this ADM.

Jeremy Dear closed the ADM stating 163 delegates from 57 branches were present, 65 council members and 303 people in total.


Saturday morning: What a Gem- tour, Part 2

April 18, 2007

The next stop was a visit at the contemporary jeweller shop of Lucy Ann’s. She combines handmade lace textiles with jewellery making, using a combination of metallic and silk threads, fine wires and tiny inserts of coloured silk fabrics and specialises in Bridal wear, decorated with tiny seed beads abd swarovski crystals.

By that time we were a little bit tired and so we stopped for a quick coffee before moving on to the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter. Originally it was the Smith & Peppers wholesale jewellery manufacturing company, which was founded in 1899 by Charles Smith and Edwin Pepper. Birmingham had and has still the largest and biggest Assay Office in the world, we were told by our tour guide Sarah. 4000 people are still said to work in the jewellery quarter, although in the past it was about 60 – 70 000 people. An apprenticeship lasted 7 years then.
On avwerage, Jewellers earned more 20 years ago than now, she explained. But still 70 % of the UK’s jewellery is produced here.

In 1981 the family members running Smith& Peppers retired, they had no heirs and none of the other relatives wanted to take over the business. Nobody wanted to buy the business either, so they just closed it one day and left everything as it was, in the hope there would be a possibility to continue production later when the recession was overcome.
In 1990 the Birmingham Council bought the premises to restore it as a museum.
Smith and Peppers sold their products via a wholesale catalogue and specialised in “bamboo bangles”. In the WW2 they continued to make jewellery in the afternoon and air pressure parts for planes in the morning.

The symbol for Birmingham jewellery is the anchor, but it might not necessarily be on the jewellery, but the Smith & Pepper hallmark should be. The hallmark for Edinburgh is the castle, for London the Lion and Sheffield originally had a crown before it was changed to a rose. The symbols were decided by tossing a coin, so that’s why Birmingham got the anchor without being situated at the sea.

Smith and Pepper never made any ring as the market was saturated, but they specialised in bracelets, earrrings and brooches.
The design doesn’t look aged at all, as the 1914 design came back in fashion. The bangles are light and hollow, and Sarah demonstrated how they were made at the workbench. The factory originally was also a family home till 1961, after when they converted the buildings. The white tiles on the outside of the building were used to reflect the light into the work space.

Our group was able to try out some of the tools and after a demonstration of the more heavy equipment we were able to eat our free sandwiches in the neighbouring cafe.
Walking back to the NUJ conference, leaving the rest of the group to further explore Mathew Boulton’s Soho House, home of the Lunar Society, St Pauls Square and the Royal Birmingham Society of Arts in the afternoon.


Exit stage left (theatrically, not politically speaking)

April 17, 2007

Got home at 5pm Sunday but was in bed and asleep soon after 9pm.Maybe my ADM is a-typical but it seemed to run at a fair pace, hence the Grand National steeplechase script to end the cabaret (printed at the end).

I arrived on Wednesday but shot off to meet Paul who was running this blog for the New Media Industrial Council. As chair of ProfCom (the NUJ’s Professional Training Committee) I was involved in introducing the students to Paul.

After a shower and getting changed I met with Caroline Holmes, the excellent trade union trainer to finalise the course content for the student conference. We have worked together before but never as efficiently. We drafted a really useful model agreement between us that student chapels will be able to use to negotiate over how independent student media is from the local student union and how disagreements can be resolved. Was finally free from responsibility about 7.30pm.

Thursday was the student conference all day and I was in the chair for all of it. These are bright buttons who keep you on your toes – I had to trawl rule books and speak to past motions proposers to answer their questions about why student membership excluded certain rights.Friday to Sunday I was a delegate from London Magazine Branch. I proposed three or four of our motions and spoke on a couple of others – with varying degrees of success but more successfully than in many years, when I am often the kiss of death to otherwise supportable motions.

But I was also chief scrutineer. This meant organising the nine other scrutineers to count any close votes, but it also meant counting all the ballots – and the sign of a strong and confident unions is that so many more than usual were heavily contested so needed counting.On top of that the traditional Saturday night cabaret fell to me.

Both the chief scrute job and cabaret compere role fell to me just becoming an FoC – the person doing it for years realises somebody else is now experienced enough to take over, so disappears off the scenes sharpish. The result was that Saturday evening, after conference closed at 6.30 we counted the votes until nearly 8pm (one recounted three times due to the one vote difference between elected and not elected. Then I finalised the cabaret and running order. I’d managed to write two scripts but planned actors got nervous about offending the president and pulled out at the last minute and I suddenly found out about an extra script I had no prior knowledge of.

Still we get away with it. And only after that and the raffle (oh yes I chair NUJ Extra so I have to host the raffle too) do I get to relax. It was four in the morning when I finally decided to hit the sack.

Sunday, I walked in to the conference hall just after 9 to discover the branch delegate who was supposed to be proposing out motion on the NCTJ was sleeping off her even more excessive night. I bundled up and waved my finger about, regurgitated an old anarchist joke about hierarchy being like shelves – the higher up the less use – and won over the tiny number of delegates there at that time.

I had come by motorbike so I had the joys of the M1 home. Mind you, my bike had stood outside the hotel for four days and was filthy – it never gets that dirty in London. Birmingham must be one hell of a dirty city.

It all seemed like a mad rush. Perhaps ADM will need to go back to being longer if the order papers continue to be like this? 

That final script in full: 

And they’re off.

The president has opened the centenary NUJ ADM. The first hurdle is a speech from the Lord Mayor of Birmingham and already a few delegates have fallen – asleep. SOC jockey Pauline Norris has launched order paper one and they’re over the SOC rules and onto the first speeches. The president is the front runner but coming up on the inside is general secretary Jeremy Dear and then the fate of motions annual report section causes problems. And they are over motion one, motion two, motion three – wait there has been a refusal to pay £3.45 for a pint of beer.

And it’s over to John Lister for order paper two. With a 45 minute lead, delegates rattled through the motions and The Equality order paper, with its Irish Trainer Pat Healy, moved up from its usual position on the back straight of conference to lead by a head. And delegates galloped through the fences.

The pace slowed through the international section as a rider from Columbia strayed on to the track but then speeded up when Tony Benn took the lead. Late entry, copyright, ridden by the heaviest rookie Jockey ever to wear the SOC colours, Rory MacLoud, moved up from fifteenth position to sixth. And order paper six, which nobody expected to be in the race, moved the front to take us through to the second lap.

And with all the runners and riders still in the running Finance, whipped by former jockey Charles Harkness, saw the finance department cash in its winnings with a super Euro subs hike. Owner Anita Halpin, used to winning large sums, was smiling in the winners’ enclosure. But then the going got soft with order paper eight Organisation One failing to finish when Clerk of the course Jeremy Dear, announced a late entry of John MacDonnell MP. There were a number of fallers. Snappers Organiser fell, health and safety organiser fell, and the course was briefly evacuated on the instructions of The Don, over a slice of burnt toast in the hospitality suite.

A welcomed extra runner on Alan Johnston was cheered by the crowd. Then Order paper nine, handicapped by six composites and seven late notice motions, slowed the pace, before order paper ten fell just short of the finishing line.

Finally, on order paper 11, race-goers saw an unprecedented event in the history of the NUJ – SOC allowed a motion that had been ruled out of order to remain on the order paper. At that point this commentator fell off his chair.


Saturday morning: What a Gem- tour, Part 1

April 16, 2007

Saturday Morning:

I went on the “What a Gem” tour through the Jewellery Quarter. We were picked up with a beautiful nostalgic 1956 AEC Reliance coach from the Aston Manor Transport Museum. The bus was used to transport the Aston Villa team to the matches, and took them to Wembley in 1957 when they won the FA cup final.

The mobile creche was also on board taking some kids along. First we stopped at The Pen Room – Museum and Learning Centre, where the kids were able to make some nibs. They also run calligraphy, creative writing, handwriting sessions, Braille and Jewellery Quarter history and geneology lessons.

So Birmingham was the centre of pen making, and most of the pens were made here in the 17th century. It was mainly women operating the presses, and about 90% of pen workers were women. Circa 18000 nibs were made each day; in 1894 working hours were 6 days a week, from 8-6pm, the salary was 7 shillings a week and singing and talking was not allowed.
Birmingham had hundreds of pen manufacturers, at the end of the century there were 12 left, and now there are only 2: Fountain pens and Willie & Co.
Reason for this was the invention of the biro in 1968 by an Hungarian, which enabled to write more or less anywhere. This made the industry sink rapidly.

Lots of children were employed in the pen making industry, 10, 11 and 12 years olds. They were mostly illiterate, and often suffered rather nasty injuries. The pen making process consists out of 14 processes, including Blanking, Piercing, Marking, Raising and Slitting.
The Pen Room is run by volunteers and also had a little shop selling pen fan materials, such as “The Anti-Satanic or Good Man’s Own Pen”.

Our tour guide told lots of anecdotes and gave out whistles to the kids. We stopped at a traditional medal making factory. They also make medals for the Royal Family. During the II WW they were also making parts for the spitfire, and the railings still showed the impact of a bomb shrapnell, which missed the factory.

We went on to the Chamberlain Clock and saw the Warstone Lane Cemetary with the catacombs, which were used as housing in the 2nd WW.

Afterwards we went to a famous silversmith who made Prince Charles last year Christmas presents, which apparently were semi-wooden honey pots. We watched a bit the 20min sanding and polishing process.
The tour guide stressed that handmade, made-to-order jewellery would not necessarily be expensive, a journalist tried it out and got an unique ring with her birthstone for £80.
Birmingham has the largest school of jewellery in Europe. Mainly because apprenticeships aren’t really existing because of the government is not paying for training anymore, said the tour guide.


Politicisation of the union?

April 15, 2007

There is no such thing as real objectivity, and journalists are usually the first to point this out. But does this mean the NUJ should sacrifice its neutrality and become more of a political force? Startlingly this seems to be the case. 

I was more than surprised to find a majority vote in favour of a boycott of Israeli goods, based on judgements such as the country’s conflict in Palestinian territories and with Lebanon. With a result of 66 to 54, as well as some turbulent debate, the motion did not pass smoothly – but so it should not. There is no need for such a loud political move to be taken up when the reality is that it will do little good for the union – and possibly a lot of bad.

One thing’s for sure: it is not going to make life any easier for journalists anywhere in the world.  In the current international climate, where journalists’ lives are often at threat despite their own views or neutrality, it is absolutely fundamental that the union does nothing to worsen the situation. We need to strive to maintain our objectivity when reporting and although we have a personal right to express our own views, this does not extend to the union doing the same. We are working together to protect journalists – not to endanger them.

There is another problem with this specific case. As one member mentioned, the union will ineluctably be seen by some as anti-Semitic because of this particular stance against Israel which, despite being a ridiculous misconception, is also one that needs to be taken into account. Not least because such individuals can quite rightly ask, ‘why target Israel? Why not persecute other states with bad records internationally?’ And the union has no answer.

Because, all across the world, from Vietnam to Colombia, men and women are suffering injustices. So now we have called for sanctions against Israel, what next? Do we boycott Chinese goods because of its lack of freedom of press? Do we call for sanctions on the US government because of human rights abuses in Guantanamo Bay? There are too many abuses of freedom and rights and no lack of causes out there which the NUJ could stand up and shout about. And I’m not suggesting we should ignore or forget about them. But if we become too far intertwined with such politics then we compromise our principles. It is not the union’s place to be another player on the global political chessboard; if we continue to politicise we endanger the union and our own lives.

The anti-Semitic claim has no grounding and is thus vacuous in my opinion, because the issue here revolves around unjust killing, regardless of religion or any other discriminatory variable. But the problem is that Israel’s ‘slaughter’ is not one-sided; there are a number of factions in Palestinian territorities and across the middle-east – and indeed the world – that commit such crimes. And to make such a stand against Israel at the same time as supporting links with the West Bank and Gaza, invariably suggests that we only act selectively against unlawful killing. 

I understand there are times when action needs to be taken. I am glad that the NUJ campaigned feverishly against apartheid in South Africa as it is difficult to stand back and watch such atrocities being carried out by the government against its own people and not act. But this just indicates how difficult it is to know whether or not to speak out – a quandary that humanitarian agencies have particularly had to struggle with to no apparent avail.

Being political as a union, regardless of whether it’s with a big or a small “P”, is perhaps inevitable. The way some members proudly say that we are not affiliated to the Labour party wears thin when the union refuses to be neutral internationally. And evidently if we focus and vote on every issue of this sort that rears its head then we get to the point where we are deeply embroiled in a web of political concerns. The danger therefore is that further politicisation may well have worrying implications: it could not only weaken and fragment the union both internally and externally and threaten the power of the union’s voice, but also detract it from its original purpose of representing and protecting its men and women on the ground.

Olivia Lang, Nottingham branch member


NUJ ADM: union to investigate web profits « Online Journalism Blog

April 15, 2007

NUJ ADM: union to investigate web profits « Online Journalism Blog