An enduring union forged in a fleapit
DISTILLING THE BENEFITS of my NUJ membership to dramatic bullet points is easy. Vital advice when my work was the subject of legal action; obtaining sizeable payments from recalcitrant publishers; and a friendly steer that got me a foreign reporting job - these are obvious highlights.
The availability of such help justifies the subscriptions even if never called upon. Union membership is always a wise hedge against circumstances beyond expectations and your usual means to cope.
Critical as all of that has been, however, it omits the most profound benefit of my NUJ membership. To explain this, come with me to the lounge bar of a washed-up social club in Edinburgh one mid-week afternoon in the mid-1990s. Brown flock wall paper frames the scene, beer-soaked carpet adheres my shoes to the floor and a handful of all-day drinkers prop up the bar.
To gain entry I had knocked on an unmarked locked door, only to find myself stumbling through smoky gloom. In one corner, on the worn-out banquettes, was the NUJ's Edinburgh Freelance Branch, or at least those dozen or so of its members who turned up to their meeting.
It was, I think, the fourth NUJ branch of which I had been a member and, beyond initial curiosity, I had not been tempted by many previous meetings. Here, though, in a bar lifted straight from Trainspotting, were a handful of noted theatre critics, a couple of sports writers, someone who would go on to be an aide to the Scottish First Minister and one of Scotland's best-known political commentators. They were joined by an equal number whose careers were less starry and a wine critic who appeared permanently drunk.
What distinguished the gathering, however, was its debate.
We talked about the threats and challenges of journalism. We shared intelligence about publishers. We came to a view on moral issues of the day. We talked about our experience as workers and the commonality with other members of the workforce.
Critically, we discussed as equals. The scratching-a-living photographer was given as much heed as the op-ed-page celebrity. Our political views were diverse, there were among us supporters of all four of Scotland's main parties and some whose affiliations were far to the leftward fringe. Curiously, though, our commitment to journalism as a vocation bound us together far more than, say, nationalism or unionism pulled us asunder.
I was fortunate to find myself in that branch - they eventually elected me their vice chair and sent me off to represent them on other union bodies. More vital by far, though, was the spark it flashed within me - the realisation that union members are bound together by our commitment to journalism's ideals: recording events, unearthing truths and providing illumination.
That tatty bar might have been an unhealthy environment for a wholesome gathering, to be sure. It was nothing, however, to Kinning Park and Wapping, News International's plants in Glasgow and London where I spent much of the ensuing two decades. They are positively hostile environment in which be an NUJ activist. Somehow, however, the magic glue that I discovered in Edinburgh, was there to be seen, if you knew where to look.
We referred to it as the "secret club" - under which guise colleagues would periodically seek my advice or opinion on issues that were troubling them and trade useful information. Knowing that we were all committed to a union for journalists and the adherence to high ideals in our work was the assurance that facilitated a frankness in our exchange that would otherwise have been unlikely.
Of course, the kinship and common purpose of union can be transformative for all workers. The relevance to journalists, however, is particularly profound.
Despite the importance of our work, we undertake it without professional privileges. Graft and guile are all that really distinguish us from the herd. And sometimes the best interests of journalism and society require us to act in defiance of our bosses.
These unique challenges make the strength we gain from our community of equals a critical factor enabling journalism to be as good as society needs. Indeed, considering the myriad threats that honest reporting faces today, the bulwark against unethical practice, understaffing and low pay that the NUJ provides are more necessary than ever.
That our union's membership is now growing, against a backdrop of budget cuts and redundancy, is welcome evidence that I am not alone in this view.