A manifesto for journalism
ON 13 SEPTEMBER 2016 Mark Menzies, the Conservative MP for Fylde in Lancashire, made an excellent contribution during a Parliamentary debate on the Digital Economy Bill. "I urge the government...to ensure that at no future point could the BBC's editorial independence be infringed", he said.
"Are explicit safeguards in place against a watering down of BBC public service commitments," he asked: "In the past, Ofcom has allowed other UK broadcasters to water down their public service remits, so will the Minister assure me that the clause will guard against the BBC doing this in future?"
Taking his speech in full, one could not have hoped for a more robust defence of the BBC, in Parliament or elsewhere. Should every member of Parliament adopt a similar stance, the Corporation's future would be assured.
Menzies has long taken an interest in broadcasting and has previously served as vice chair of the all-party BBC Parliamentary group. Nonetheless, he revealed the prompt for his intervention a little later on. He was lobbied by a constituent.
Whether of not one approves of the UK's first-past-the-post electoral system, its defining benefit is that each of us is represented by a single member of Parliament who is beholden to consider representations from all constituents. If government policy impacts on your life, then it is worth making your case to your MP or those seeking to fill that position in the election that will take place on 8 June 2017.
For obvious reasons, the NUJ has never supported a political party. That been no bar, however, to robust campaigning on the statutory environment within which journalists operate. At the dawn of our union, NUJ members drafted and agitated for what became the Local Authorities (Admission Of Press To Meetings) Act 1908 - guaranteeing for the first time that local government could be freely reported. It was harbinger for more than a century working to shape laws that enhance press freedom.
So, based on positions adopted by our Delegate Meetings and democratically-endorsed campaigning positions, here is my stab at an NUJ manifesto for the coming General Election.
1 A questioning interest in the veracity of information should be woven into the national curriculum just as are teaching numeracy and literacy. The information explosion of recent decades means that even the sceptical occasionally struggle to differentiate fact from fiction. The ability to recognise the truth should be at every child's fingertips by the time they reach secondary school as should a clear understanding of the dangers of copying and pasting information. Today's buzz around fake news could be short-lived, but the deep-seated need to be able to recognise advertising from editorial, and news from opinion will become ever more pressing.
2 The NUJ lobbied hard during the Parliamentary passage of the Investigatory Powers Act arguing that journalistic material requires additional protections. Public judicial oversight of applications to see journalists' phone data is vital if we are to protect our sources - but the government turned down this plea. The NUJ has continued to apply pressure during the subsequent consultation on the detail of how the Act will be applied. An amendment to the IPA is what is really needed, however. Prior experience shows that the authorities cheerfully snoop on journalists' phone records on the flimsiest of pretexts, so it is highly likely that this will happen again. Raising this issue with candidates now and extracting commitments to act will prepare the ground for when this issue raises its head.
3 A review of the Official Secrets Act by the Law Commission is ongoing. Among the ideas under consideration are dramatic increases in the length of prison sentences for offenders. If implemented, it could mean whistleblowers, and the journalists to whom the speak, facing up to 14 years in jail. It is only a proposal at the moment, but it would be useful to seek clear commitments from potential MPs that they would oppose such draconian measures.
4 That local media face desperate travails is obvious. Titles continue to close and job losses mount up. Campaigning during the NUJ's Local News Matters week, however, was brilliantly supported and really hit a nerve. A short, sharp Parliamentary enquiry into the future of local news would do much to focus the minds of the conglomerates that play fast and lose with long-established titles, as well as providing the opportunity to consider more radical options such as introducing a local-news surcharge on internet giants, treating titles as community assets, and requiring public institutions to fund coverage of their own work.
5 The NUJ has long called for the repeal of all restrictive trades union legislation. There are aspects of the 2015 Trades Union Act that are particularly pernicious, however. The requirement to appoint "picket marshals" who are notified to the police seems almost designed to help employers blacklist activists. Voting quotas to authorise strike action require trades unions to obtain far higher levels of ascent than most MPs will ever receive from their electorates. And, inviting members of the public to complain about unions to the Certification Officer is a crude exercise in binding union's hands with needless red tape. If you have direct experience of any of these, then let candidates know. Support can sometimes be found in surprising places. During the passage of this Act, Conservative cabinet member David Davis MP described the requirement to appoint picket marshals as a "Franco-style policy".
6 A change in attitudes to freelances and the self-employed is underway. The "Taylor Review" inaugurated by the last government will be published soon after the election and could for the basis for a new deal for Britain's burgeoning ranks of independent workers. The Labour party launched its own consultation just before the election was called. Deep misunderstanding about the nature of self-employment still exist across the political spectrum, however. Some imagine that all freelances are entrepreneurs busy establishing business. Others believe that employment contracts for all is the solution to Uberisation and the gig economy. Simple commitments such as allowing freelances to fund their own training instead of paying tax or giving freelances the same union rights as other workers get lost in this misunderstanding. If you are a freelance who is feeling the squeeze or who misses out on the pay rises afforded to staff colleagues, then let the candidates know.
7 Guaranteeing a secure, editorially independent future for the BBC is a cornerstone of support for the UK's position among the world's media leaders. Even if you don't share its news values, or you find aspects of its coverage irksome, its position as standard-bearer, training academy and commissioning hub is beyond question. The secretive, behind-closed-doors stitch-up over the license fee was a terrible mistake, as was saddling the Corporation with the responsibility for over-75s' licence fees. A government of any stripe should recognise the vital role of the BBC and guarantee its funding accordingly.
8 Rupert Murdoch's grab for total control of Sky television might falter all by itself, but that is no reason for complacency. If his stewardship of newspapers gives you cause for concern then seek assurances that he won't be allowed to swallow any more of our media. Better still if a government of any stripe pursued the policy recommended in 2014 by the House of Lords Communications Committee. It called for Ofcom to undertake periodic "plurality reviews" of the entire media, with the powers to intervene where concentrations of ownership caused concern.
Despite the NUJ's party-political neutrality, the union does work closely with an all-party group of MPs who aid our campaigns in Westminster. Until the election, that group was chaired by Helen Goodman, who is currently seeking re-election as the Labour member for Bishop Auckland, in Country Durham.
She concurs that there is always value in seeking out those wishing to represent you. "Politicians need to understand the day-to-day concerns faced by their constituents if they are to effectively represent them", she says. "Individual cases influence the way MPs vote and the policies we adopt more often than you might think, so its always worth seeking out your MP (or those who aspire to fill that role) to explain your case."
Whoever forms the next government, or attracts the majority of votes in the country in which they are campaigning, if enough NUJ members play the role of active citizens, our working lives and journalism will surely be the beneficiaries.