Reporting’s future

TESTIFYING to the May London Freelance Branch meeting was NUJ General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet, key witness at the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practice, and ethics of the press. We also heard from Sarah Kavanagh of the NUJ Campaigns department and the NUJ's Leveson Inquiry team.

Michelle has been in the General Secretary job for a week when the News of the World closed down, which was a "baptism of fire." The union gained Core Participant status at "Leveson", which means it gets sight of inquiry documents before they're placed in the public domain and the right to apply to cross-examine witnesses, although these applications are not always accepted by Leveson and his panel.

Michelle Stanistreet (left); © Mike Holderness

Michelle Stanistreet, at left, with Branch Chair Dave Rotchelle and Sarah Kavanagh

Michelle told how the inquiry team resisted the NUJ being a Core Participant, believing that individual journalists would provide the necessary testimony on the experience of working in the newsroom. But it soon became clear that "while there was no shortage of proprietors to talk to, actually getting working journalists to talk in the courtroom" was much harder.

Then News Corp, Associated Newspapers and - "weirdly" - the Met tried to block the NUJ from presenting testimony for journalists who wanted anonymity. Now the Met's Leveson Inquiry team sit next to the NUJ's on the benches reserved for Core Participants, and Michelle says the Met have become "good neighbours".

News Corp's submission dismissed the anonymous witnesses as "malcontents" or "just casuals". Despite these efforts, Michelle presented testimony gathered from a dozen journalists on "the almost endemic scale of bullying in some newsrooms" (PDF).

This, very different to testimony from newspaper owners, has, Michelle feels, been an "an eye opener" to Leveson and his counsel Robert Jay QC, alongside the "freak show" of Desmond, Northern Shell and "the characters who sit at the top of these organisations."

Michelle Stanistreet; © Mike Holderness

Michelle demands a conscience clause

Leveson has been for the NUJ "a very public opportunity - the best opportunity for a generation - to raise awareness of what life is like in... some workplaces."

The NUJ has long been campaigning for conscience clauses written in to every contract and collective agreement. Back in 2003, a Home Affairs Select Committee hearing recommended such a clause, but the Society of Editors refused to act on it.

Now proprietors in front of Leveson - Murdoch and Sly Bailey, then of Trinity Mirror, for example - have endorsed the concept of a conscience clause. The Freelance observes, though, that such a clause would be rather more useful in offices where the NUJ is recognised.

Michelle Stanistreet & BBC news; © Mike Holderness

The news carried on coming in while Michelle spoke

Leveson's "Module 4", on the future and press regulation, will be the big one for the union. The NUJ's Delegate Meeting three years ago decided that the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) was beyond reform and called for its abolition. Now the PCC is winding up. The Union's "briefish document on our policy and future model" to succeed the PCC was submitted to Leveson in April (PDF). It advocated "something more akin" to the successful Press Council in Ireland, on which journalists are well represented.

Michelle notes that some UK "employers who refuse to talk to us" will nonetheless send delegates to Ireland to "talk in a civilised way with the NUJ people on the Council."

Sarah Kavanagh; © Mike Holderness

Sarah Kavanagh

LFB's Tim Gopsill described the phone-hacking scandal and "Leveson" as a "collective wake-up call" about journalistic ethics, which the NUJ could use as a recruitment tool. Michelle says "so many students are doing essays on ethics - it's already in their minds that the Union stands for these things." Sarah Kavanagh reports the NUJ's "Leveson team" getting three or four quote requests a week from such students.

The NUJ's counsel will want to question David Cameron and George Osborne in the coming weeks. The inquiry is likely to go on until just before the Olympics. There may still time to email Michelle suggestions for questions - in confidence - to leveson@nuj.org.uk

Last modified: 06 Jun 2012 - © 2012 contributors
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