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:



Joe said...

Surely as a democratic institution, it was down to you to oppose the motion at the AGM??

If you didn't turn up, it is hardly surprising that things happen that you don't actually like very much.

Rory Cellan-Jones said...

Joe - I've published your comment, though I'm not clear whether you are an NUJ member. As I've explained before, this blog is really an internal discussion for union members about this issue.
But to answer your question - no I didn't attend ADM. I could not - the delegates are chosen at branch meetings. These are often so poorly attended that they are barely quorate.

Most union members - probably 95% - do not attend these branch meetings, though they may turn up to local chapel meetings. The result is that it is a handful of activists who determine policy. They say - that's democracy. Well if it is, it's failing.

martinshankleman said...

Martin Shankleman writes.
Joe's comment is the typical "party Line" trotted out ad nauseum by the activists. For the record my branch never even told me about the branch meetings, so I, for one, was never put in a position to register my oppostion.
Also Joe I think you have a poor understanding of the true meaning democracy. Technically all you can say is that this wretched decision is was within the union rules. But that doesn't make it right.

whealie said...

ADM passed motions opposing Trident and nuclear power and supporting the Campaign Against Climate Change. It also voted to continue to take money from the government's Department for International Development that has led to the union publishing DfID press releases as independent editorial.
These all put journalists in exactly the same position as the Israel motion, in theory - unable, as you claim, to do their job independently because of NUJ policies.
If you were really campaigning for the union to be a-political, all these issues too would be part of your campaign. Instead you have chosen the single issue of Israel.
Are you really interested in NUJ democracy and the independence of journalists or are you only interested in Israel?

Rory Cellan-Jones said...

Whealie - personally I disapprove of all of those motions. But you've got to start somewhere and the Israel one is the thing that has brought us into most disrepute. I know you think I'm just a tool of the Israeli war-machine - but I genuinely have little interest in the politics of the Middle East. I do have an interest in whether my union makes an arse of itself...

whealie said...

If I thought you were "a tool of the Israeli war machine" I'd tell you. I have said no such thing. Just because I don't agree with you does not mean I have to resort to attacking you as a puppet of someone else (see later).
I have said I did not vote for this motion. It may be a cop-out but I tend to leave the room during this section of debates as it holds little interest to me.
For years I was FoC of a chapel branch where we discussed the whole ADM order paper ahead of sending me as a delegate and I know that most of our members would rather we didn't discuss these issues and left them for members to join separate campaigns as individuals.
But none of that makes me a supporter of your single issue campaign.
Why only Israel? That remains my question. Why not campaign for more democracy in the NUJ? Why not campaign to make branches more accountable or even scrap branches and have chapels and freelance networks elect delegates? Or maybe you think we should ballot the entire membership on every decision and scrap ADM? - if so say so and campaign for it.
There is a move to set up a counter petition and activists are seeking branch supporters. My branch is split on it but I think most of us do not want our branch chair to put his name to it. The draft cover letter includes this:"Many of you will be aware of the concerted attempt by powerful lobby groups such as the US Anti Defamation League to intimidate the NUJ leadership into disavowing or reversing the decision calling for a trades union led boycott of Israeli goods taken by ADM 2007."
I don't believe you are a puppet for these people, or anybody else, but you can surely see that by picking only one of the many silly decisions ADM has taken over the years, you do raise questions.

simon said...


The difference is that to boycott something is a lot stronger than simply opposing or supporting it, as in the examples you cite. It also seems to mandate or imply action on NUJ members - to stop buying/using Israeli goods - rather than just expressing a point of view.

As an NUJ member I have long wished that my union would refrain from expressing its point of view on issues that have nothing to do with the rights or working conditions of its members. But when it starts to demand action of which I disapprove, I think it is important that members who disagree should disassociate themselves.

Donnacha DeLong said...

Read the motion, there's no instruction to members or, in fact, the union itself about the boycott in the motion. There's a statement of support for something that doesn't (yet) exist. Try sourcing your information from the actual source and not from the blatant disinformation that has been written about the motion.

whealie said...

The proposed NUJ code of conduct wording would have prevented any mention of people's ages.
I was one of many who stood up at ADM and opposed this. We eventually won (see The Journalist).
Had I lost the debate, the code of conduct would have demanded action from me about which I disagreed.
I'd have come back the following year, better prepared to argue for a change, not disassociated myself with the decision and started a petition.
The NUJ's view on copyright is not my view. I have argued internally for a change. I am a lone voice. I get personal abuse from members as a result, and pages of websites devoted to rubbishing me (from photographers) for standing out against NUJ policy.
Life in any membership organisation is a series of compromises. The overall benefits of the NUJ are still much more important and than any one individual policy.

simon said...


Fair play to you on resisting the age motion but I don't think the union should be seeking to instruct members about what they do or don't say in copy.

My conception of the union is that it represents members to employers, rather than seeks to tell members how to do their jobs.

martincloake said...

Simon – One of the things I most value about the NUJ is that it works as both a trade union and a professional body. There is a Code of Conduct, for example, that we all try to abide by - not because we agree that anyone should be "told what to put in their copy" but because we believe it is valuable to lay down shared standards. When people think anything does overstep the mark, as they did with the age debate at ADM, they seek to change it by using the democratic structures of the union.
Let's not go even further down the road and argue that not only should the NUJ only be involved in industrial issues, but that it should only be involved in one industrial issue - namely pay.

martincloake said...

Martin - above you say: "For the record my branch never even told me about the branch meetings, so I, for one, was never put in a position to register my opposition."
That's been bothering me, as the BBC is where this union is organised most strongly. The only people who wouldn't have heard about a branch meeting would be people who either hadn't updated their home addresses with head office, or who weren't members. Would either of these things explain why you didn't hear?