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'Don’t rush to court, strengthen the unions': Response to Media Reform recommendations

Michelle Stanistreet
17 December 2011

The damning evidence presented by witnesses to the Leveson Inquiry may make the term ethical journalism seem an oxymoron.  Yet most journalists get most of it right, most of the time.  This is despite them writing stories to tight deadlines, often for the paper as well as online and penning a blog as well.  All of this is happening in newsrooms which are too sparsely staffed and where the sub editing – if it occurs – could be outsourced to Brisbane or Mumbai.

Our members strive on a daily basis to serve the public – balancing the need to inform, educate and entertain with the need to serve the competing and sometimes conflicting demands of publishers and commercial interests. 

The culture and ethos of a newspaper is very much driven by the editor. The NUJ has a very clear idea of how journalists should behave.  The NUJ Code of Conduct champions media freedom in return for journalists promising to strive for accuracy, without causing distress or grief “unless justified by the overriding consideration of the public interest”.   It states that a journalist should not produce material likely to lead to hatred or discrimination.  It says that material should be obtained by honest, straight forward means, but recognises that investigations may involve subterfuge, again in the public interest.

The NUJ has an ethics hotline for its members and publishes guidelines on a range of issues from reporting on race, disability, terrorism, HIV or age.  We have argued for the inclusion of a conscience clause in journalists’ contracts, giving them legal protection against being forced to act in ways that contravene the code.

However, fear has been a significant factor in inhibiting journalists from defending these principles of ethical journalism in the workplace – particularly in media organisations hostile to the concept of trade unions   It is no coincidence that the News of the World, the newspaper shut down after admitting to a range of unethical practices, was owned by News International which refuses to negotiate with the NUJ.   What is most galling for me is that it was the frontline journalists who paid with their livelihoods for the hubris of Rupert Murdoch.  Newspaper proprietors and editors became to believe that they could not be touched; and who can blame them when they had Prime Minister after Prime Minister kowtowing to them.

This arrogance has invaded newsrooms, which have become full of macho swagger and overt bullying; where celebrities and even the families of people whose children have been kidnapped or murdered are seen as fair game.  A well-organised union can provide a counterbalance to the power of the editors and proprietors, it can limit their excesses and gives journalists the confidence to raise their concerns. The collective can tackle stress and bullying and defend principles of journalistic ethics.

Who else is there to uphold journalistic ethics?    Not the Press Complaints Commission. In my evidence to the Leveson Inquiry, I said it was little more than a self-serving gentleman’s club, run by the media bosses.   That Richard Desmond’s Northern & Shell was able to walk out, is an indication of its influence. 

The CCMR proposes a News Commission Board “composed of members of the public, ordinary working journalists and editors, who must nominated by their trade body, union, or by relevant civil society organisations” and a News Ombudsman who would act as a first port of call for the public and would be responsible for enforcing a statutory right of reply.  The NUJ believes the PCC should be scrapped and replaced by a tripartite organisation, similar to the structure of the News Commission Board, but what levers will it have to ensure that all newspapers will abide by it?  How would an ombudsman be funded and what will be in his or her armoury to make newspapers – particularly those used to signing off cheques of £1 million to silence people they have wronged – pay for their bad behaviour?

The NUJ believes that there are plenty of laws to reign in the press and my gut instinct is not to rush to the statute book.  However if a News Commission Board is to have teeth sharp enough to pierce the shins of Paul Dacre and Richard Desmond and give members of the public and celebrities a full and fair redress when inaccuracies occur, then it may be time to explore what legal powers a new representative body will require to do its job. 

Michelle Stanistreet is general secretary of the National Union of Journalists. 

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