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:


Donnacha DeLong said...

Hmmm, I find it very interesting that you failed to note (from the floor) my point that the NEC is the leadership of the NUJ (between ADMs), not Jeremy - as well as the fact that your whole post is doing EXACTLY what you accuse others of doing - concentrating on the Israel motion and ignoring the rest of the debate. I also find it very surprising that you weren't paying attention to the rest of the debate, as you appeared to be typing notes all the way through. Maybe if you'd put down the laptop, you'd have been better able to concentrate.

Rory Cellan-Jones said...

Oh dear - the allegation is that a journalist took notes during a debate - and then wrote them up. Guilty - I suppose you would rather nobody beyond the meeting heard anything of what was said.

If you want to write an account of the debate and post it here, feel free.
And as you(as an NEC member) are in charge, please feel to show some leadership on an issue which is causing great dismay to many members.

Donnacha DeLong said...

Rory, please be consistent. What's your position - if it's that the whole boycott issue is diverting attention from the real business of the union, then why exactly are you the one spending so much of your time opposing it? It seems to me that it's people like you doing all of the distracting and yet you seem to want everyone else to forget about the business of the union to talk about the bloody boycott. The NEC will, of course, discuss the issue when it meets (it hasn't had a full meeting yet), but you're the one demanding that we spend time and money on something that is a distraction from the real work of the union - I'd rather focus on the Multimedia Commission, which is more imporant.

martincloake said...

Rory, I'm afraid the way you put your case doesn't do you much good. The use of loaded words and phrases generally conveys the impression that the world divides into two groups - lunatics, nutcases and liars (people who disagree with you) and intelligent, rational people (those who do). And the report of the Frontline Club meeting seems to boil down to the fact that you went to a meting and where shocked to find that some people hold different views to you.

It sounds like quite an event - especially David Aaronovitch's bizarre attack on Jeremy Dear. It would seem you and David are in favour of a General Secretary who decides whether or not he will support the position his own union decides to adopt. That's a strange view of democracy. As Jeremy has said, he doesn't have a vote, and his job is to carry out policy as decided by members. Interestingly, the motion's supporters - and I'm not one of them - could argue that as Jeremy has not been seen personally trying to prevent the distribution of mobile phone chips made in Israel he is failing to carry out NUJ policy. So, under attack form both sides of the debate, maybe Jeremy isn't so wrong after all :-)

The fact is this is all going much further than outrage at one motion. You, and some others who say you are arguing to overturn one decision, now seem to be arguing for a much wider - and logically undefinable - position: that the union should not debate or adopt position on anything 'political'.

For this debate to move on, we have to be clear and honest about what it is we're debating.

Donnacha DeLong said...

Martin, the absolute irony of this was David Aaronovitch's comments that the action against Yahoo! was much more the union's business than boycotting Israel. So, criticising China - fine - criticising Israel - bad, clearly unaware of the strong possibility we may need to criticise Microsoft as strongly if Mordechai Vanunu is reimprisoned in Israel (Microsoft handed information on him over to the Israeli authorities that may yet be used in court).