Online only

It’s hard for government to ignore trade unions now

AN ONLINE "town hall meeting" in June featured NUJ General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet with Jo Stevens MP - Labour's shadow Secretary for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport - and Chris Mathieson MP, her shadow junior minister. It was an opportunity for NUJ members to "meet"the Labour shadow cabinet's relatively new team in opposition to the government's DCMS. There were over 80 attendees, observers from the Federation of African Unions were present.

Jo Stevens MP

Jo Stevens MP, via Zoom

Michelle described how the covid-19 crisis had let to a "new level of engagement" with government, with the sort of access the NUJ and its sister unions have not had for decades. The NUJ is not affiliated to the Labour Party - nor to any other political party - on the principle of not compromising members' journalistic independence. The Labour Party is, though, the political party that was founded by trades unions.

It's "hard for the government to ignore trade unions now". There are currently fortnightly conference calls between the NUJ, editors and the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Secretary John Whittingdale or his junior minister Oliver Dowden. A House of Lords committee had just asked Michelle for more evidence on gaps in coronavirus support for the self-employed.

Jo Stevens described her long involvement in the trade union movement, including working as a solicitor with the NUJ's lawyers Thompsons. She stressed the importance of journalism during the coronavirus pandemic. The "whole country is relying on you... to scrutinise government. You were the people who were making sure government was held to account every single day." She believes there is an opportunity to "capitalise on this period... to reassert the value... of independent media." Praising the NUJ's News Recovery Plan, Jo said it is "something we want to have an intense dialogue with you about."

A campaign will be starting soon to resist proposed cuts to the BBC's local news and investigative output. Its Inside Out regional journalism operation is under threat as production is being centralised. Chris said that some local BBC management has been giving "mixed reasons" for cuts, including some telling staff that they "didn't have space in the galleries" of the newsroom because of social distancing.

Chris Mathieson told the gathering of many BBC workers now finding themselves falling through the gaps in covid-19 support schemes because they had been "obliged to go into personal service companies... we have to call it out." He was of the view that the BBC had discretionary funds available to support these workers.

Chris Mathieson MP

Chris Mathieson MP, via Zoom

The furlough scheme is in danger of becoming "for many, a waiting room for redundancy" Michelle said. She quoted recent figures showing a drop of between 80 and 90 per cent in advertising revenue across the print media industry.

Michelle drew attention to the Labour Party's review, to be led by Baroness Doreen Lawrence, of the impact of coronavirus on Black and minority ethnic (BAME) communities. Local and national media will need to promote it. Submissions to this inquiry are open until the end of June, via covidreview@labour.org.uk. NUJ London Freelance Branch expects to contribute. Jo warned that we need to avoid the usual "cycle of government commission reports" on racism and inequality that end up "kicked into the long grass." She invited NUJ members to contribute.

Michelle described "unacceptable, abusive behaviour by police" towards journalists reporting on observance of the lockdown (or the lack of observance), which she had raised with the National Council for Police Chiefs in the days before this meeting: they had produced a helpful response. There were already reports of "online threats to journalists from the far right". (This preceded the physical attacks on journalists by the far right during protests around Whitehall on Sunday 14 June.)

The government has already pledged to set up a National Committee for the Safety of Journalists, while the draft United Nations International Convention on the Safety and Independence of Journalists is currently doing the rounds.

As Michelle described, "we lobbied hard for exemption for quarantine for journalists" travelling abroad for work and returning from working abroad. The DCMS "lobbied quite hard" as well. But ultimately we had "no joy from the Cabinet Office". Journalists going overseas for work now face two weeks' quarantine on arrival in many places, and again on their return to the UK.