Taking on the media barons
WE MUST NOT "waste a crisis", NUJ General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet told a conference at the TUC on Taking on the Media Barons on 17 March. That would be the fallout from the News International phone-hacking scandal and the resulting discussion about what to do about press regulation.
Shadow Culture Secretary Harriet Harman opened the conference by challenging newspaper editors to come up with a system in which they would all be bound to join. Why should this be in the hands of the editors - why not include journalists? Is statutory regulation desirable?
Tony Lennon of broadcast union BECTU maintained that such regulation had not infringed freedom in the broadcasting sector. Why is it always assumed that it would do so elsewhere in the media?
Harman also looked at ways to test whether those taking over media corporations were "fit and proper persons". Such tests, she felt, should be made before any applications for takeovers were made. Professor James Curran of Goldsmith's University of London suggested limiting corporations' holdings to around 15 per cent, and demanding a public interest mandate.
Pete Lazenby, Father of Chapel at the Yorkshire Post (its NUJ workplace rep) described how profits once made in local papers had been squandered, and staff cuts and production changes had combined with falling sales, lower quality, reduced coverage - and the loss of titles.
Professor Natalie Fenton from Goldsmiths College emphasised how the decline in local news is dangerous to local democracy - as she had to London Freelance Branch (see www.londonfreelance.org/fl/1112lev.html). Several speakers called for new funding ideas, including subsidies.
Links were made between the declining media standards revealed by the hacking scandal and trade unions' lack of influence in the sector, stemming from Thatcher-era laws not put right under Labour.
While the conference heard of numerous failed attempts at statutory press regulation over the years, the NUJ's Irish organiser, Seamus Dooley, gave up his St Patrick's Day holiday to give a positive example: the still-imperfect but encouraging system in place in Ireland, where representatives from both the media industry and civil society serve on a more active Press Complaints Council, which heard more than 100 cases last year.