Chris Wheal is a freelance journalist and NUJ activist. He is chairman of the union's training committee and of its charity, NUJ Extra.
The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) must ballot its members over whether or not to support statutory regulation (or regulation underpinned by statute).
It must announce that referendum now to stop members resigning. It must ask those who have resigned to rescind their resignations while the ballot goes on. And it must ensure the ballot is free and fair with both sides given equal space and resources to campaign among the membership for yes and no votes.
The issue is fundamental to a union of journalists. It involves a reversal of 100 years of NUJ policy. Having any form of statute-based regulation flies in the face of the NUJ’s code of conduct: A journalist at all times upholds and defends the principle of media freedom, the right of freedom of expression and the right of the public to be informed.
Working with a statutory system because politicians have imposed it – as in Ireland – is different to calling for one where none exists. It is a major constitutional upheaval for the NUJ and, as such, should only be entered into after the whole membership has been given chance to endorse or reject it.
Whatever the outcome of the ballot, the NUJ will have a clearer mandate.
It might be that the leadership can convince members to support the idea. But a no vote would not be the first time members have rejected decisions made by the union’s Delegate Meeting. Nobody should hide behind arguments that the union’s democratic structure does not allow for ballots.
In 2004 NUJ delegates voted to ballot to establish a political fund and to campaign for a yes vote. The might of the NUJ’s propaganda machine was rolled out, denying opponents space to present the other side of the story.
Despite that, a poorly funded, volunteer-run campaign against the political fund managed to defeat the NUJ leadership, keeping the union politically neutral.
That was an inspiration. In 2007, NUJ delegates voted to call for a trade union boycott of Israel. The BBC’s technology guru Rory Cellan-Jones led a campaign for a ballot of all members
The NUJ hastily agreed a fudge with the TUC, asking formally for a boycott, receiving a “no” in reply and ending the matter.
The NUJ faces another call for a ballot today. In many ways the circumstances are similar to past ballot calls. Good NUJ members have quit the union or are on the verge of quitting, some of them my opponents in these past battles, all of them my friends.
I too have thought about quitting. But yesterday (Tuesday) I was at the NUJ head office as a trustee of the NUJ’s charity, NUJ Extra. There I worked with the general secretary, Michelle Stanistreet, on providing financial support to members in circumstances soap opera scriptwriters could not have dreamt up. We approved thousands of pounds of grants and we resolved to contact the hardest hit and offer them extra help.
That is why the NUJ is needed. That is why the NUJ is worth fighting for. That is why I urge members not to resign but to fight for a ballot of all members so that we can be united again.
Members need to get their chapels and branches to call for a ballot. They should also write to their National Executive Council members asking them to call for a ballot at the next NEC. Write to the general secretary requesting a ballot.
In the meantime, the NUJ general secretary, president and NEC could decide to call a ballot anyway – to put their case and allow dissenters a voice. Trust the members to make the right decision.
What have you got to lose?