Photographers demand a workable Code of Conduct

THE CODE OF Conduct for journalists is up for debate at the NUJ's ADM (annual conference) in April, and was the subject of vigorous debate at the London Freelance Branch March meeting. Andrew Bibby, a freelance representative on the NUJ's Ethics Council, was the guest speaker.

The Code dates back to 1934, when NUJ General Secretary Harry Richardson described a prevailing climate of "'get news at any price' business... the sanctities of the home invaded, personal grief disrespected".

In its early days, when the NUJ had closed shops - newspapers would not take copy from non-members - the Code of Practice had teeth. The Ethics Council was empowered to enforce it because expulsion was a powerful sanction.

Andrew Bibby said "we're in a very different situation today: the post-Thatcherite period". We know of only one member expelled since the 1950s, and they were re-instated after an Industrial Tribunal. There is now a general feeling that if we try to make the code a disciplinary "stick", it won't be taken seriously.

Last year's ADM asked for a review of the Code, and there has been a consultation among members, but this received few replies. The existing code (here) has two chunks, the 14-point Code of Practice - and the rule book's Appendix B Working Practices, 15 rules dealing with moonlighting, staff journalists and freelances, and multi-skilling, especially writers taking photos.

The proposed new code (NUJ link disappeared) is shorter. Andrew Bibby says this is in the hope that "people will remember it much more readily... to promote it much more strongly".

The new draft Appendix B looks at what it means to be in a democratic union "in a modern, 21st-century context", with many members in a union for the first time, and the need to think about the collective side. Andrew Bibby says that the new draft calls on members to "defend members of their union in the same way they defend their own interests".

The annual conference won't be able to debate the actual words of the new draft Code, only the principles behind it.

"I am aware quite a lot of issues have been raised" in the new Code of Conduct, Andrew Bibby admitted.

The clause on photographing children, stating "a journalist seeks the permission of an appropriate adult when interviewing or photographing children", came in for particular criticism from LFB photographers. Andrew Bibby felt that the new clauses "haven't brought in new policy or changed the substance".

Photographers felt that omitting the qualification in the original Code about "stories concerning their welfare" amounted to a considerable change.

Andrew Wiard said the NUJ has "2200 photographers, how many know about this clause about children? Photographers would be aghast". He added that, while the consultation procedure had no doubt been "proper" and complied with the rules, it was in fact completely inadequate.

Why had no one bothered to ask a photographer? He concluded that this clause "makes us a laughing stock".

Guy Smallman, a photographer on the LFB Committee, described the clause as "unworkable".

Larry Hermann declared that whether or not you can take a picture of a child on its parent's shoulders on a demo "has nothing to do with the rights of the child".

The new Code, unlike the old one, has no specific mention of digital manipulation. Andrew Bibby says this is "to make code shorter and more succinct", and argued that Clause 2's insistence that information is "honestly conveyed, accurate and fair" covers digital manipulation.

Andrew Wiard pointed out that photographers' careers had been ruined through digital manipulation, and that other organisations are compiling much more clear guidelines on digital manipulation. Andrew Bibby says there will be background documents on digital manipulation which are more specific.

The new clause on moonlighting is based on the principle that freelances benefit if staff are strong, and staff benefit if freelances are strong. The current policy is that moonlighting is not forbidden, but that we shouldn't take work from freelance or unemployed journalists. Members should check with their chapel (work-based union organisation) first.

Last year's annual conference saw a proposal to review the clause on multi-skilling - specifically writers taking pictures - but this was rejected. Some felt that we endanger our credibility with a ban on photos by writers, as it is " holding back a move which is unstoppable".

But the decision has been made to leave the issue of multi-skilling to the floor to debate at the next conference, as the issue is so important. The proposed new Code gives freelances more flexibility: "freelances shall not take photos if by so doing they deprive another of income", while staffers "shall not normally take photos".

LFB Committee Member Simon Pirani said of any possible flaws in the new Code, "I have enough confidence in the good ole ADM that they won't let this pass".

He added that "we should highlight the occasions when people are able to use the Code". Daily Express journalists pointed to the Code of Conduct a few years ago when there was a racist campaign against gypsies. And Ukraine's small journalist union, with only 1400 members, has adopted the NUJ's code and uses it.

"Ethics should be higher-profile", says Andrew Bibby: "we should dig in on ethics".

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