Thursday, 21 June 2007


This article in the Journalist by my BBC colleague Nick Serpell - who is on the NUJ's National Executive - sums up better than I could what we believe about the direction our union is taking:

I joined the NUJ for a variety of reasons. I wanted the assurance that I would have help and support if anything went wrong at work. The NUJ negotiates my annual pay deal and I did not believe it was right to take advantage of this without contributing to the union. I also believe in a free press and the right of all journalists to report the truth and keep the public informed without the fear of threats, intimidation or worse. Journalism matters and, long before the campaign of that name, it has always mattered to the NUJ.

What I and thousands of NUJ members did not do was join because we wanted to be political activists or have our subscriptions and the name of our union linked to campaigns and organisations which we either do not support, or which have nothing to do with journalists or journalism.

The recent decision by ADM to call for a boycott of Israel is just the latest in an attempt by some members to use the NUJ to pursue their own political beliefs. The same applies to the move to get us to affiliate to CND, happily defeated, or the current call for a ballot as to whether we should affiliate to the Campaign for Climate Change.

I have two main objections to those who would use the name of my union to support their own causes. Firstly impartiality and independence should be the watchwords of any journalist and it is particularly important for your fellow members who work in public service broadcasting. It undermines our ability to do our job if our union is taking a public stance on contentious issues.

Secondly, I do not want the money I pay each month to this union to be diverted into organisations which I do not support. If you, as an individual, want to join the Stop the War Coalition, boycott Israel or join CND you have every right to do so. But, don’t assume all your fellow members feel the same and don’t use my subscription, and link my name to your campaigns. I want my union to be concentrating on journalism and journalists, not acting as some sort of quasi political party.

I don’t think I am alone in this view. At the time of writing over 300 NUJ members in the BBC have signed a petition calling for the vote on the Israeli boycott to be reversed. That’s five times the number of people who supported it at ADM.

Other unions may want to play politics, but, in my view, we are not other unions. By all means follow your own beliefs in your own time, but let’s keep this union politically independent. We will be the stronger for it.

Keep signing the petition:


Tuesday, 19 June 2007

WHERE IS THE NUJ? which I mean the leadership.

I've just taken part in "World Have Your Say",a programme on the BBC World Service, which was debating boycotts. I was there as an NUJ member - not as a BBC reporter - stressing that my concern was not Middle Eastern politics but the fact that my union was taking sides in a bitter conflict, putting those members who value their reputation for impartiality in an impossible position.

And that conflict raged around the studio, with accusations flying back and forth between the pro and anti-boycotters, while I tried to keep my head down.

But there was one empty chair in the studio - it had been offered to the NUJ but over a period of two days the union failed to find anyone from the General Secretary downwards to fill it. It seems clear that the leadership just hopes this issue will go away. It won't.

Oh - and keep signing the petition:


Friday, 15 June 2007


Jeremy Dear, Tony Benn and David Aaronovitch debated the role of the NUJ in a new media world in a meting at the Frontline Club in Paddington on Friday evening. The discussion was lively, at times heated. The small audience was, by my reckoning, largely made up of NUJ officials or activists – and mostly sympathetic to the boycott. Here is an impartial (and we can debate that til the cows come home ) account of what was said.

David Aaronovitch warned that the NUJ had to be careful about a situation where “activists pull clear of where the members are.” He recalled his far-off days as President of the National Union of Students (I’m old enough to remember this former Communist as student leader). He said he would have seen a problem like the boycott coming and would have headed it off, and suggested it had got out of hand because of Jeremy Dear’s failure of leadership, Later he mounted an attack on Dear’s whole political approach to the job, accusing him of posturing: “You make it sound as if you are Lenin..” He wanted to know where the General Secretary actually stood on the boycott because he had given the impression that he was against it.

Jeremy Dear said others had assumed that was the case because he hadn’t voted for the motion at ADM – but that was simply because he didn’t have a vote. He explained that he was “frustrated” by the motion because it was a “distraction” but made it pretty clear that the rulebook did not allow any possibility of a ballot or any route to changing things. He admitted there were “deficiencies” in the union’s democracy but said he was just carrying out the duties of a General Secretary as set down in the rules: “it’s a no-win situation – I was elected to carry out union policy and ADM is the supreme policy-making body.”
He said the emails he had received about the issue (around 100) were evenly split. While eight branches and chapels had passed motions decrying the boycott, seven “had declined to do that”. (Surely that isn’t the same as being pro-boycott?).. I was no clearer after hearing Jeremy on whether he was for or against a boycott.

Tony Benn could not see what all the fuss was about. Everyone was at liberty to express their personal opinions – a journalist was no different in that from a doctor or a teacher. “this idea that journalists are special is so snobbish..” He personally favoured a boycott.

Speakers from the floor included Tim Gopsill, editor of The Journalist who said the NUJ was more democratic than the society in which it operated but:” The boycott call happened because the level of democratic participation is too low.”

A woman who said she had been a BBC representative at ADM said she had voted for the boycott policy and was proud to have done so: “It is a decision I took democratically. It is their(the opponents') problem.”

I said a few words supporting Aarononvitch’s warning about a union where activists lose touch with the membership and describing the difficulties for colleagues reporting from the Middle East while carrying two cards – a BBC ID which said you were impartial, and an NUJ card which said you were a biased reporter.

A man, who described himself as a former Today programme producer, said you could not be an impartial reporter in the Middle East if you did not understand the need for a boycott.

There followed a sane and interesting debate about what the NUJ’s role should be in setting standards in a new media world. But I found it difficult to concentrate, so shocked and depressed was I by the mood of the meeting.

If you believe that the NUJ’s role is to strike postures on everything from Hugo Chavez to the Middle East, then you would have been cheered by the views expressed at the Frontline Club. If, like me, you believe that the wider membership needs to reclaim the union and focus it on what really matters to them, then please sign this petition:


Here is a letter which the Guardian published this morning:

The UCU has called for discussion of an academic boycott of Israel. Its general secretary, Sally Hunt, makes it clear (Letters, June 14) that she opposes a boycott and would like the issue put to a ballot of all members. My own union the National Union of Journalists has gone much further. A motion passed at its conference calling for a boycott of Israeli goods is now union policy. Yet our general secretary sits on his hands, refusing to give leadership on this issue. Many NUJ members who value their reputations as impartial journalists are dismayed and embarrassed by their union's stance. Don't they at least deserve a ballot?
Rory Cellan-Jones

If you want to sign the petition calling for a ballot click here:


Thursday, 14 June 2007


Sally Hunt, General Secretary of the lecturers' union the UCU, makes clear in a letter to the Guardian that she thinks her members deserve a ballot on any boycott. Why doesn't Jeremy Dear tell us where he stands on this issue? Here's the letter:

Following a recent debate on your letters page and a full-page advert about the University and College Union's congress decision to discuss an academic boycott of Israel I feel it is important I clarify the position. The union is bringing forward proposals to allow a debate to take place within our branches on the arguments for and against an academic boycott of Israel. This does not mean an academic boycott is in place, or that UCU is committed to such a boycott in the future.

My contribution to the debate is to say, as I have many times, that I do not believe an academic boycott of Israel is supported by the majority of UCU's membership. Nor do I believe that it is an issue that members want the union to prioritise.

Following the debates, which need to happen and be concluded as soon as possible, we will need to make sure that the majority of UCU members support whatever position is reached. The best way to do this, in my view, is to hold a ballot of our full membership on the issue.
Sally Hu

So why don't journalists deserve a ballot? Please add your names here if you think they do:

Monday, 11 June 2007



I've been contacted by quite a few people who wanted to sign the petition - but couldn't work out how to do it on this blog. So I've now made it into an online petition - just click on the link and it will take you there. It's another way of showing the National Executive that they can't just sit on their hands at their July meeting.
Once again, here is the text:

"As NUJ members we are dismayed at the passing of a motion at ADM calling for a boycott of Israeli goods. As members of a profession which prides itself on providing impartial news coverage, we cannot associate ourselves with this policy. We believe motions that take sides on geopolitical matters divide the union's membership and undermine the solidarity it needs to defend our professional interests and campaign for the freedom, safety and welfare of fellow journalists around the world. We call on the union to hold a ballot of all members to see whether they support the view taken at ADM on an issue which could have a profound effect on the way all British and Irish journalists are viewed at home and abroad."

NB Please remember - NUJ members only.

Saturday, 9 June 2007


I've been getting involved in arguments on another blog - an NUJ group on Facebook - with people who accuse me and other broadcasters of being undemocratic. They maintain that it is only BBC staff who are making a fuss about the boycott of Israel and that we have no right to try to overturn what was a democratic decision taken at ADM. I have pointed out that Reuters, The Observer, Manchester and Belfast branches are among those who've also joined this campaign. If I felt that this policy was backed by the majority of NUJ members - those who don't make it to branch meetings - then I would have kept quiet. But I believe most union members would rather the NUJ left them to decide themselves where they stood on international - and domestic - political conflicts. Am I right?

Here's an example of the criticism:

"Simply because not every member or delegate to ADM works at a major broadcaster doesn't make them less aware of the subject matter or a bunch of radicals with some 'agenda'. The fact that the campaign to overturn this democratically taken decision is overwhelmingly led and followed by BBC workers is getting a little worrisome. Frankly, whatever one's opinion on this matter, who are the BBC workers in the NUJ to have some veto over the rest of the union?

The motion was taken in a democratic fashion, as was the election of the delegates who voted for or against the motion. The motion was in the agenda, which every member was sent (electronically) and one can only assume thus that in fact the membership did support the motion if they elected delegates who then voted in its favour. That's representative democracy. Going outside democratic channels, as this campaign is doing, is the real threat to democracy in the union.

In the end, for Pete's sake, a boycott is completely non-violent. We're talking Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. here. It's not like we've passed a motion to organise fundraising disco house-parties for Hezbollah or something.

I really don't understand what all the fuss is about."

Wednesday, 6 June 2007


Last week I sent an email to around 70 NUJ branch officials across the UK and Ireland, politely asking them to pass on a message to members in their areas about this campaign - and directing them towards this blog. I was concerned that, while members in the BBC and at a number of other chapels had made their feelings about the boycott abundantly clear, the National Executive would ignore them unless there was a wider call for a rethink from right across the union.
Unfortunately, I've so far received just three replies, one of them from an official who made it clear he supported the boycott and saw it as the union's job to pursue all kinds of political causes.

My worry is that this whole affair is showing the huge hole in the democratic structure of the union. Sparsely attended branch meetings elect delegates who go to ADM to vote through policies which most of their colleagues would not support if they knew about them in advance. But when I ask officials to give their members a chance to express their views on this issue, they seem strangely reluctant.

I've had other comments from activists who say people who cannot be bothered to attend branch meetings have no right to complan. But if that covers 99% of members (as it does) then the NUJ has a problem which it needs to address.

I've also emailed a number of friends at various newspapers to ask them to get involved in this issue. Most have replied that they have already resigned from the union in disgust. If we want to keep this union in good shape, then we need to make sure that journalists are proud to be members and believe their voices will be heard in union affairs - isn't, that, after all, the point?

Sunday, 3 June 2007


NEW YORK TIMES June 3, 2007

The University and College Union, a newly formed British union of college teachers, shamefully called last week for a boycott on contacts and exchanges with Israeli academic institutions. That follows on the shameful call in April by the National Union of Journalists in Britain to boycott Israeli goods.

It is hard to imagine two organizations that should be less given to such nonsense. Who would respect the judgment of a scholar who selects or rejects colleagues on political grounds? Who would trust the dispatches of a reporter who has been openly engaged against one side of a conflict? The unions argue that they have an obligation to demonstrate labor-union solidarity with the oppressed, as they did in opposing apartheid. That is absurd.

First, Israeli journalists and academics are among the most dedicated critics of their own society. Second, the lack of similar “solidarity” by these unions with any other oppressed or suffering people in the world, and there are plenty, reduces these gestures to an exercise in hypocrisy, or worse.

It is good to see that most respected British journalists, scholars and students — including the preponderance of British editorial writers and the heads of Oxford, Cambridge and 20 other top universities — as well as representatives of all major political parties condemned these malicious gestures.

Critical thinking and well-thought-out criticism are intrinsic to good scholarship and good journalism. These boycotts represent neither. Posturing like this only alienates the very forces in Israeli society that should be encouraged and offends the calling and honor of journalism and academia.


Here is to day's Observer leader on the UCU and NUJ boycotts:

"This week sees the 40th anniversary of the Six Day War between Israel and an alliance of Arab states. It was the ultimate Pyrrhic victory. Israel saved itself from annihilation, but condemned itself to decades of further conflict by seizing land from its neighbours. It also condemned millions of Palestinians to a life in exile or under military occupation.

By coincidence, British academics, as represented by the University and College Union, last week passed their judgment on the Six Day War. They voted to recommend a boycott of Israeli universities in protest at the occupation of Palestinian land. The union will now debate the matter over a year.

Apart from the fact that the timing was quite good, there is nothing positive to be said about this decision. It will not ease the suffering of Palestinians and it will not soften Israeli policy. In fact, by snubbing even liberal Israeli academics, a boycott strengthens the case of hard-line politicians who prefer isolation since it justifies unilateralism and disengagement from the peace process.

This is not the first such vote by a British trade union. University lecturers debated a similar move last year. Last month, the National Union of Journalists voted for a boycott of everything Israeli, an absurd gesture since, if implemented, it would make reporting from Jerusalem impossible. All that motion achieved was to send a signal worldwide that, collectively, British journalists take a partisan view of Middle East news. Likewise, British universities have shown that they cannot distinguish between the policies of a state and the opinions of individuals within that state. They believe in the collective punishment of academics simply for being Israeli.

That would be sad enough, were it not that Israeli universities and media are among the freest in the Middle East. If British unions are in the business of solidarity, they might consider flinging gestures at Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria or Egypt where journalists and academics are imprisoned and tortured for expressing dissent. But they target only Israel.

Forty years after the Six Day War, the prospects for lasting peace in the Middle East are bleak. It is depressing that, for what paltry influence they carry, British trade unions have done what little they can to make matters worse. "

So journalists at the Observer - and we know their chapel rejected the boycott - are now writing pretty trenchant criticisms of their own union. That's not enough - what are we going to do to change matters?

Friday, 1 June 2007


Quite a few anonymous posters have sent messages to this blog, nearly all of them attacking the union over the boycott. I have not published them - not because I want to censor their comments - but because I cannot be sure they are NUJ members. As I've made clear, the only function of this blog is to act as a forum for union members discussing the boycott policy.
So please give your names. And if you don't want them to appear on the blog, email me direct at work. I won't post my email address here for obvious reasons - but it isn't hard to guess.

Rory Cellan-Jones