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: