NUJ leader defends stance on press regulation

National Union of Journalists general secretary Michelle Stanistreet is a member of the branch of which I am chairman. I may not know Michelle well, but I regard her as a friend. This makes it all the more difficult for me to be so sharply and openly critical of her stance on press regulation, which by virtue of its approval by the National Executive Council bears the NUJ imprimatur. The NUJ supports for the UK a system of press regulation underpinned in statute, but nominally independent of the state.

NUJ members have today been sent a message from the general secretary defending the union leadership’s position on press regulation, and large sections of Michelle’s statement have been quoted in the Press Gazette. My fear is that these latest words will only exacerbate the internal row within the NUJ, in which many active members have voiced strong opposition to what they regard as an arbitrary overturning of longstanding union policy on press freedom.

Considering some of Michelle’s points in turn…

  • It will take a lot more than a regulatory council to protect free expression and a free press.
  • A press council cannot ensure high standards of journalism; it can only act against contraventions of its code. There is a world of difference.
  • All commercially-driven press? I thought we were talking of commercial publications of a certain size and above. If the press council covers everything that isn’t given away gratis, it will be another nail in the coffin of the British newspaper industry.
  • Having the NUJ represented on any regulatory body, whether statutory or voluntary, would be nice, but there is a danger of us at the same time acting as poacher and gamekeeper.
  • Protection of sources is unlikely to be a matter covered by any quasi-independent regulator. There are too many state security and sensitive industrial interests involved for the government to allow an arms-length press council to have any statutory influence regarding the protection of journalistic sources. It is our job as a union, and that of human rights lawyers, to protect the interests of journalists and their sources.
  • Enshrine a conscience clause for journalists into the constitution of a press council, and we will have to give that council statutory powers regarding the employment conditions of commercial concerns. Do this, and we will have a very nasty fight on our hands that could lead to regulation that is considerably greater than “statutory underpinning”. It is our job as a union to negotiate conscience clauses in employment contracts, with the aim of shifting media employment culture such that conscience clauses become the norm.
  • Bullying is a criminal law and trade union matter. There is so much bullying in our industry that there is no way a press council could deal with it without neglecting other matters.
  • Right of reply? Of what kind and degree of prominence? Would it include clarification as well as the correction of falsehoods? A right of reply could if badly drafted provide certain interests with a powerful PR weapon with which to control image and message.
  • The NUJ leadership says that it backs an “…independent system of regulation – independent from the industry and, crucially, from government.” A press council of the type backed by the NUJ leadership and its friends in Hacked Off and the Media Reform Coalition would certainly deal with the objections from those, myself included, who regard the Press Complaints Commission as a worse than useless newspaper owners’ luncheon club. But it would not be truly independent of government, even if for the most part the state kept a respectful distance.
  • This is Britain, so kindly spare us all the talk of the Irish model. Ireland is another country. They do things differently there, or not at all. Any system of quasi-independent regulation translated to the UK will be riddled with holes, and the temptation would be to move to something like Denmark’s Pressenævn: a system of “co-regulation” so successful that politicians across the North Sea are clamouring for more and tighter control of the press.

We are like turkeys voting for Christmas!