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.

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

John Foster – a personal tribute

April 14, 2007

Former general secretary John Foster was made member of honour on Friday. Nobody deserved it more. His work touched not only every NUJ member but thousands of trade unionists in the UK, through his work on the Press for Union Rights campaign. But he was personally an inspiration.

In 1993, I got married, went on strike and was sacked, all within the space of a few months. I was FoC at Morgan-Grampian, a large magazine company in Woolwich, south-east London. Faced with derecognition we needed, and were given, total support from John Foster and the NUJ. This is how much:

A suggestion a few hard-core chapel members had discussed was to occupy the building. We knew we could not expect all members to occupy. We thought a small number of us could do it.

John Foster listened to the idea and called a secret meeting at Acorn House. There was Linda Rogers, our magazine organiser, the legal officer Sally Gilbert, me, John Foster and – at that time an interloper, but now an NUJ official – Barry Fitzpatrick from the GPMU. We talked through logistics, we talked through the legal problems, we even talked through the likely heavy-handed and violent response the company might uses to empty us out of the building. Barry promised some GPMU heavies – they had learnt the rules during the Wapping dispite – to help get us out safely if need be.

The action would have to be unofficial, we agreed. The union would have to officially disown us, while secretly helping where it could. The problem, as John Foster pointed out, was that the NUJ National Executive Council might just be stupid enough to take a principled stance and make the action official, causing the union to have its funded sequestrated.

It never happened in the end. We had a more tradtional strike, but we remained derecognised and I was soon sacked.

But John Foster never tried to talk us out of it, never suggested weaker action, never tried to water it down. He was brick.

NUJ in ‘time for speeches’ betting shame

April 13, 2007

For too long, journalists have been known as liars, cheats and swindlers. They have been accused of making stories up, imitating facts and adding two and two together and making five.

Well let’s not break with tradition.

I can only report on what I have heard, what I know and what I think can be made up and passed as reasonable fact…

This trainee hack, on unpaid work experience at the NUJ conference, is under the impression that high class and complex betting circles are being operated from within the NUJ.

Earlier today, during the ‘Annual Report Section 1’ – that actually translates to the General Secretary’s ramble, shout and ‘have a go at the government’ report for the year – none other than Jeremy Dear admitted to being involved in lurid betting circles.

When asked about the rumours surrounding the claims, which is simply betting on the amount of time speakers will talk for, he let slip a damning statement. ‘ I’m just waiting for a signal from my far eastern betting syndicate before I stop.’

It was hard to see, but there was a definite wink to the outgoing and much-loved member of the NUJ, Bob Norris.

This might appear to be nothing more than a sign of friendship had I not had a conversation with Bob yesterday where he stated he had just returned from Antigua.

Some of the non-sporting amongst us will again presume that after a life dedicated to journalism and the NUJ, he was merely enjoying a well-earned rest.

Think again. The Cricket World Cup is currently taking place in the West Indies and, according to some, has the most open displays of match and sport fixing in sport.

I don’t know whether lost earnings forced Norris into the shocking act of gambling on order papers but this must be exposed. I could lose my acreditation over this.

The views stated are those of NRP and are no way related to the NUJ.

report of Thursday events

April 13, 2007

Thursday,12th of April

picture of student conference
In the morning it’s the day of the student conference. But so far there is actually a lack of students. From what I hear, their train from London has given up somewhere undefined. So the start of the student congregation is delayed indefinitely so far, but it doesn’t really matter as there is so much else going on. It is actually impossible to keep track of it all, and I am getting pretty hyper and excited by now.

Upstairs in the main hall, registration takes place, and this year’s ADM bag is actually a practical green rucksack with a cool NUJ logo. I quite like it, though it is a little bit plastic (?), but it is certainly one of the free bags with a high re-useability factor. Inside is some tourist information, the agenda and announcement for fringe events.

Another stall in the hall is for reimbursement of expenses and for booking tourist like events, 2 of those include visiting the ITV central studios. One has a musical theme and the other one an art and culture one. Unfortunately there is too little time to be able to participate in everything.

The hall is also the main coffee and tea providing facility and socialising area. The lunch which is provided here is excellent. We have the choice between Mushroom and Chicken Stroganoff, traditional Italian Lasagne, some cheesy vegetable pasta, rice and potatoe wedges and maybe even some more which I could have forgotten. There is a salad bar as well including Tomatoe and Mozzarella mix, green leafed salad and some unusual chickpea based herbal veggie excitement. There is an incredible warm, soft, red and sweet rhubarb crumble with custard on offer and fruit salad. Fantastic. Whilst I am delighting myself with the culinary experiences we meet up with the rest of the Edinburgh Freelance Branch.
Thom excitedly tells me something about a motion of ours, which I completely forgot about because it actually has been quite a while ago that it was worded and put forward. He seems to be occupied with organising some standing orders, which so far I believed is a former bank turned pub in Edinburgh offering the cheapest beer prices on a Wednesday evening. All will become clear tomorrow when the intelligent discussions and debates kick off. I am looking forward to that.

Downstairs is a the internet access centre with about six little Macs set up. It works very well so far, very impressive. The exhibition is being set up and campainging stalls such like the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the Workers Beer Company, the NUJ centenary history project, some refugee support group, a campaign against domestic abuse and Thompsons solicitors are presenting themselves and their activities.

At about 2pm, the student meeting starts. There are about eleven of us, with quite an international input: we have got French Ingrid, Hungarian Janos, Pakestani Ifar, me as German Ulla and – dunno if that counts – two Irish students.

Till about half past five, we mainly talk about establishing student chapels, work experience and student media. Jeremy Dear, the general secretary, drops by and tells us that students might soon have a representative on the NCTJ and explains that work experience whilst being on a course and work experience after finishing the education are differently legislated. Later one seem to fall under National Minimum Wage regulations. He talks a little bit about the astonishing results of the recent work experience survey the NUJ has conducted and points us to the NUJ website to view the list of experiences. He says that later on this module is intended to be interactive.

Chris Morley also talks to us in his function as the outgoing president of the union. The next suggested president is a woman, a fact of which he seems proud as it generally believed to be still a rare occurance. He stresses that he is a working journalist and not paid for the union work he does and is elected for only a year to chair the ADM and the NEC. He states that he took part in an ADM in 1986 for the first time as an activist.

Ifar luckily encourages us to take a picture of us all with the organisers of the student meeting. Pics as usual also on Flickr. You could try to spot the students and the NUJ staff in the picture it can be a bit misleading if attempting to differentiate who’s who by age.

Linda King presents the trade union courses and Paul Bradshaw the blog. At 6.30pm there is an introduction to all new delegates, but me and Ifar are heading off by then to the fringe event of the Media Workers against the War, which also means we miss the book launch about the Black Journalism History and the dinner with the mayor in the Birmingham Museum.

It is astonishing how tiring a meeting can be. Sitting around for about three hours doesn’t seem to be that strenious, but it somehow is. Especially as we all don’t really know each other yet that well. The suggestion about establishing student chapels is quite interesting. I haven’t really thought about it, but even in Edinburgh we have several universities and colleges which all seem to offer some kind of journalism related courses: Napier University, now Telford College, and what I did not know but Colin told me as he studies there: Queen Margaret University with broadcasting, film and tv. Then there is Edinburgh University of course with its weekly student newspaper and Fresh Air FM. So having some NUJ chapels there would also be quite beneficial to bring media students in Edinburgh together in general. Oh and there is Stevenson College and Jewel&Esk, but dunno if they offer any courses relevant to us. There is a little bit of a passionate enthusiastic discussion about the role of campaigning and actions in student chapels taking place. With the more careerist wing of the students wanting to leave it to either the NUS or the parent NUJ. This takes us to debate why students are not allowed to vote in ballots, such as the recent question about affiliation to the CND.

Hm, maybe this could even be a good thing because of the frightening depolitisation of students. Unfortunately most students are not anymore the radical idealistic troublemakers wanting to change the world but instead want to “progress in the industry”. Maybe I should add the word British in there? There still seems to be some student action for social justice in Greece going on though, and anti-tuiton fee activities in Germany and wasn’t there some student connections with the Parisian suburban rioters? 
But actually even in Germany there isn’t anymore that much of a revolutionary drive at the moment. Seems like since the collapse of real existing socialism and communism the attraction of any alternative more social justice system has wained, giving way to the neoliberal greedy way of life, impacting of course on students as well, and not only in the way of tuition fees but also idealistically.