The outgoing President's submission to the NUJ's annual report
IN COMMON WITH MANY of my 105 predecessors, the most enjoyable aspect of serving as the NUJ's president has been meeting activists from all around our union. In pursuit of this, I have endured a midnight train into Blackburn, the lumpy mattress of Oxford's dingiest B&B, and airport departure lounges in the liminal hours between one day and the next. All were modest travails beside the reinvigorating pleasures of fraternising with like-minded members from all over these green isles.
I'm sure too that I am not the first senior office holder who, when invited to deliver a presidential address, has fallen back on well-used themes and phrases. The real joy of this, however, is that my optimistic report to branches, councils, and executives has become more demonstrably true with each iteration. It is evidence, I believe, that the National Executive's strategy of recent years has born the abundant harvest for which we had hoped.
Reduced to a simple headline, this might produce a satisfying three deck splash such as: FUTURE/ASSURED/FOR NUJ.
My certainty in saying this rests on sturdy pillars.
Recruits deliver stability
The details of our stability are iterated elsewhere in this report [for members only]. The fundamentals, however, are straightforward. In the post-financial-crash era, broadly from 2008, savage media job cuts caused the NUJ's membership to fall. Once this was evident, we budgeted for annually-reducing income - making some uncomfortable but necessary decisions along the way. Over the past four years, however, aggregate membership has staged a modest recovery. As a result, the union's most important income stream remains sustainable.
That said, there is still enormous potential for growth. At an optimistic estimate, only half of those who call themselves journalists in the UK are members. Density in Ireland is probably higher, but there scope to recruit there too.
More important for our financial security than the modulating vagaries of membership numbers, however, has been the closing of the NUJ staff final-salary pension scheme. Superannuation arrangements of this kind have played grim reaper to over 100 UK trades unions in recent decades. In each case protective merger has been necessitated by bankrupting pension-fund demands. During my presidency, our sister union Bectu, for example, has become part of the managers' union Prospect as a result of just such pension liabilities.
It is an enormous credit to our staff that, through their unions, they recognised what an issue this was and entered into a difficult negotiation in an open-minded and clear-headed manner. The NUJ's pension liabilities have not entirely evaporated, but the chance for an unexpected demand for contributions in excess of our annual income is hopefully a thing of the past.
Smoke signals need for renewal
Recovering finances provided the funds to renovate and transform our headquarters and principal asset, Headland House in London. As the internal fabric of the building become visibly threadbare, the necessity for this was clear. Our lift's condition was emblematic. During one NEC meeting it twice billowed smoke, necessitating building evacuation and the attendance of the fire brigade.
In addition, space in the building was all poorly utilised, and our existing tenants were paying below-market-value rents.
Staff vacated the building in the summer of early spring of 2016 and decamped to serviced offices further down Grays Inn Road. During the following months, a comprehensive refurbishment was undertaken as well as the conversion of the hitherto unused basement into a meeting room/venue and the ground floor into a cafe/bar - now know as The Chapel.
Perhaps inevitably, the building work was slightly more complex and expensive that our original estimates allowed for - hitherto undiscovered asbestos had to be removed during the build, for example. However, by the Autumn, NUJ staff had returned to the first and second floors. Since then, the third, forth and fifth floors have been let at premium rates and the cafe/bar has been successfully launched.
The income from commercial use of the building will take some time to appear in our books, not least because of the market norm of offering leases with introductory rent-free periods. It does, however, represent guaranteed income for at least five years.
The venue space has already become popular with NUJ branches and the organisers of speaker events whose audiences can seamlessly transfer to the bar at the conclusion of formal business. Byline, in particular, has organised five or six successful events of this kind. I have also pioneered NUJ training masterclasses in the new space.
Fresh recognition for pay campaigns
As will be evident elsewhere in this report, industrial work is the core of the NUJ's activities. A number of clear trends are discernible. Employment in traditional newsrooms continues to decline, albeit not at quite the precipitous rates of a few years ago. Despite this there are possibly more people who describe themselves as journalists than at any other time. And, journalists are increasingly concentrated in London and the south east.
The NUJ has continued to campaign wherever possible for recognition - with success over the past two years at Vice, Newsquest Stourbridge, and the South Wales Argus, among others.
There has been some general pay advance for many of those in employment. Achieving a 2 per cent increase at Express Group Newspapers after an eight-year campaign was particularly gratifying, and testimony to that chapel's unwavering determination.
Known freelance rates, however, have remained stagnant at best, with many members struggling to find sufficient work to sustain them. Obtaining some industrial traction in this field should be an priority in the coming years.
Local news for ministerial review
In the summer of 2017 an NUJ delegation met with the then junior Department of Culture Media and Sport minister Matt Hancock MP. He surprised us by taking seriously the union's case that government action was required if quality local news provision is to survive. Since then he has become Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and initiated just the kind of enquiry we were urging. Optimism would be premature, but in 30 years of lobbying politicians it is one of a tiny number of direct hits for which I can claim a partial credit.
The success of the union's Local News Matters campaign of 2017 - with over a dozen events all over the UK and Ireland -showed how widespread is concern about reporting our communities. We must now translate this concern into an effective legislative lever.
The NUJ also scored a notable success in Ireland where a 12-year campaign resulted in legislation to allow specific groups of freelance workers, among them journalists, to negotiate and publicise minimum rates. Like the right to protect sources, the right to report public meetings, and the legal right to union recognition, it stands as one of the union's most significant legislative achievements.
Not everything has gone our way, needless to say. Despite intense lobbying, the Trades Union Act (2016) introduces damaging new restrictions on organised labour. The campaign that I initiated against the imposition of a levy on unions to pay for the Certification Office has gained some momentum - but the outcome of the Government's consultation is still pending. The Investigatory Powers Act (2016) also creates dangerous new rights for the state to snoop and spy, with insufficient safeguards for journalistic material.
Distant places aid focus on home
The NUJ's international work is probably the area that has most changed my thinking. During the past two years, I have attended the International Federation of Journalist's conference, lobbied in the UK on behalf of Turkish and Egyptian journalists, and addressed meetings on the plight of reporters from Iran and in India. I have also represented the IFJ in meetings with the International Labour Organisation and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
Journalists in many parts of the world face terrible problems that can make the frustrations of working in Britain and Ireland look pettifogging. But to concentrate on issues external to our home territories even for just an hour a month is to be potently reminded of how precious our freedoms are. It is also to build up a web of defensive links so that should the need arise for UK journalists to seek help form abroad, there would be a well of reciprocal solidarity on which we could draw.
Photographers’ fresh exposure
The union organised a successful photographers' summit in 2017 bringing together nearly 100 lens-based journalists to discuss the challenges they face and strategies to counter these. This year the #useitpayforit campaign has encouraged amateur photographers to change for their work when it is published. It is ongoing at the time of writing but appears to have successfully taken an NUJ message to a new audience.
Paper - a rare medium
I had no involvement in the Union's communications review, aside from receiving its results as a member of the NEC - indeed, it is essentially a report to the Delegate Meeting. The acuity of its prescriptions are striking, however. To aid my own understanding, I asked a number of questions about communications delivery when I spoke at various branch meetings. Of those that I asked, only a quarter had bought a printed newspaper on the day of asking, or a magazine that week. All, however, had used social media and news websites on the day in question. Whether or not we approve of the gradual eclipse of print as a delivery mechanism, it is clear that for most journalists, online delivery of information is more important by far than print. The time for the union to reflect this in its resource allocation is surely upon us?
Two at once - no good
As well as the communications review, our last Delegate Meeting also instructed the NEC to carry out a root-and-branch structure review. We have failed to do this. The reasons are various. Development Committee has not functioned well over the past two years and significant managerial attention has been devoted to the communications review mentioned above. If there is a lesson in this for the Delegate Meeting it is possibly that ordering more than one significant review in a two year term is asking for more than can be delivered.
If, however, there is still a will for a structure review, and if the incoming NEC is willing, then I commit to running just such an enquiry over the next two years.
Can’t get enough?
As well as trying to meet as many NUJ members as possible, I have also shared my concerns, thoughts and experiences through more than 40 articles about NUJ affairs - you can read them at www.nujpresident.org.uk. I am grateful to London Freelance Branch, and Mike Holderness in particular, for hosting these. The LFB site is not only the oldest trades union website in the UK, it is also one of the busiest; that my contributions have proved popular is a satisfying vindication of my decision to record events in this way. I hope that some of my successors will be inspired to do likewise.
Back to square one
I felt fortunate the first time I undertook the role of workplace rep, and even more so when I was suggested for a junior role on a branch committee. The fleeting experience of presidency has been an honour and a privilege from beginning to end. As my moments at the lay apex close, however, I am no less excited at the prospect of returning to less exalted roles of representation within our union in the years to come. To all of you who placed your faith in me, thank you: I hope that I have delivered on at least some of your aspirations.