[Freelance]

'Please, eliminate the poison'

This is the statement that Phil Sutcliffe, chair of the NUJ's Freelance Industrial Council, read out at the National Executive meeting on 24 October 1997, shortly before the executive passed a vote of no confidence in Jake Ecclestone and sacked him. It was read by Sutcliffe on behalf of 14 out of the 18 members of the FIC.

Thank you for giving us a hearing. We would like to speak in favour of the complaints against Jake Ecclestone from John Foster -- and from any other quarter -- being resolved by mediation.

If apologies by any protagonist would be helpful they should be made. If wrists need slapping they should be slapped. If any of the protagonists' conduct and personal style could stand re-examination, and revision in the future, that should be done. What should not happen is the sacking of Jake Ecclestone as a result of a disciplinary procedure -- an irrevocable action which will do nothing but harm to the interests of the members of the union.

As far as we understand the problems involved, they have nothing to do with the way Jake or anyone else has dealt with matters which affect the general membership's interests. They are matters relating only to the way the union's professional officers and volunteer activists on the NEC work with and get on with one another. They are problems which can and should be solved between the people who have offended and upset one another.

This is the only adult approach. This is the only approach which would reflect the fundamental sense of fraternity, solidarity and commitment to the members which we all share, whatever fierce differences may arise when we get down to the details of the union's strategy and courses of action. If, between us all, we fail to do this -- in particular if we fail to help John Foster through his present difficulties and Jake Ecclestone through his present difficulties -- then we will impose huge and utterly unnecessary difficulties on the membership.

The 14 FIC members who asked for a hearing at the NEC believe that this union desperately needs the abilities of both John Foster and Jake Ecclestone. The reasons are obvious but worth restating.

John has withstood the harrowing burden of leading the union through an era of hostile Tory legislation, and a militant campaign of derecognition by the employers -- while at the same time finding that the union had dug itself into an all but ruinous financial hole. It's appreciated in this room, by the FIC, and amongst the membership that he has done a wonderful job.

He has played a huge part in shepherding the union's finances back into their present modest and promising health. He has worked tirelessly against derecognition -- broadly through the Press for Union Rights campaign, and specifically in work places such as the Mirror Group. He has also worked devotedly on many other fronts. All this took enormous dedication and courage. He has proved himself to be exactly the general secretary we needed in a crisis.

Jake, of course, has been DGS through the same period and played his supportive role in dealing with these problems. But, as you know, for the last several years he has doubled as freelance organiser. Although technically part-time in this role, he has been this union's best freelance organiser -- in the FIC's living memory, and also in the stated opinion of John Foster.

The freelance sector is particularly difficult to cover because of the diversity of its membership and the problems of communicating with about 6000 scattered individuals. The sector has been growing quickly because of casualisation and other Thatcher-generated phenomena aimed at making the workforce insecure and vulnerable.

Jake set about this task with tremendous energy, learning about the freelance world from the ground up. In particular, he correctly identified copyright as the key post-derecognition issue for freelances and led the defence of the freelance membership imaginatively.

On behalf of the NUJ, he pulled together 15 unions and associations in what became known as the Creators' Copyright Coalition, which enabled media companies' attacks on freelance copyright to be monitored across all the industries in which journalists are involved.

He forged active connections with the collecting societies ALCS and DACS, who are developing the technology which will quite soon allow us to police digital usage, including thefts, of our words and pictures and secure payment from database and website operators. In addition he has done effective work in very tricky conditions to organise the defence of freelances whose copyright is under attack by specific companies -- most recently at the Guardian, where he has led a campaign against the most bare-faced copyright theft strategy to date in British newspapers. The Guardian story is particularly instructive. It has unfolded while John Foster and Jake Ecclestone have been at loggerheads. Nonetheless, they have communicated and co-operated about it in a professional and effective manner.

Demonstrably, much as John and Jake in some ways have been behaving like two bull buffaloes in the rutting season, they still can co-operate in the interests of the membership. With the help of the NEC, the FIC, anyone else who cares about the union, and the proposed objective mediation, we are sure that fully professional co-operation could be restored.

If Jake were sacked the freelance sector, including crucial current campaigns, would be left in disarray. But all the membership would be appalled, initially by the public display of ineptitude in solving problems and later by the cost of compensation and so on.

They would also remember it was only last year that they, the members, re-elected Jake to his post. They would be disgusted and rightfully so. The membership needs the strong character, the passion and the diligence of both of these men. The membership must not be made the victim of a rift between them or of any other feuding internal to the upper hierarchy of the union.

So we call upon the NEC and, of course, Jake and John to take the route of moderation and mediation.

Place the good of the union, the good of the membership, above all other considerations. The union's future is looking brighter now that it has for years, in considerable measure because of John and Jake's work.

Please, accentuate the positive and eliminate the poison of negativity. Please, after that huge effort, don't ruin it all.


Nov/Dec 1997

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