Dear: 'I'm a socialist but my job is to lead the union'

This interview with Jeremy Dear originally appeared in the April 2010 edition of Press Gazette magazine..

With the media recession now apparently near its end – or at least bottoming out – National Union of Journalists general secretary Jeremy Dear accepts that huge damage has been done to the jobs and conditions he is paid to protect.

A definitive total of the number of UK journalism jobs which have disappeared in the past 18 months will probably never by agreed, but Dear estimates that about one in five staff positions have gone in the commercial sector.

Meanwhile the NUJ has, he says, seen a reduction in membership of between two and three per cent to the current total of 28,000 paying members, and 38,000 if you include life members, retired and those on reduced contributions.

So haven’t the past couple of years been a period of retreat for the union, after advances in pay and conditions made from the late Nineties onwards when new laws eased union workplace recognition?

And what good can a £13 to £22-a-month union membership do to protect individuals against the overwhelming pressures of economic and structural decline?

‘I’m not sure I’d describe it as retreat,’says Dear. ‘There’s clearly been a massive haemorrhaging of jobs, closure of titles, problems faced by all kinds of media and inevitably lots of people have faced the prospect of redundancy and pay freezes.

‘But last year, through the various campaigns we ran, hundreds of jobs that were originally threatened were saved, hundreds of people who faced compulsory redundancy were saved.

‘Last year we won about £3.5m for members who were treated unfairly at work and despite pay freezes in a number of places, we secured new pay deals for people. in dozens of places.

“It is a bleak picture in the industry but what we’ve been able to demonstrate is that where the union has active membership and union recognition we can still make a difference to people.”

The NUJ has felt the effects of the downturn itself. Through non-replacement six staff positions have been cut. Earlier this year it faced criticism in the pages of this magazine from former Birmingham Post editor Marc Reeves, who accused it of responding to the problems of the past two years by being ‘anti any change whatsoever”.

Does he have a point? In such tough times doesn’t the NUJ need to look beyond blanket opposition to cutbacks which are being made to safeguard the long-term future of businesses?

Dear says: ‘We defend the jobs, yes, because our job as a trade union is to defend people’s jobs, but also because we fundamentally believe that good journalism requires well-trained, well-resourced journalists. There’s no resistance from our point of view to developing new models of journalism. What we won’t do is roll over and allow those who have had a role in decimating parts of our industry to continue to do so.”

Which brings us neatly to Johnston Press, the UK’s second biggest regional newspaper publisher which this month finds itself at war with the union, and not for the first time.

As Press Gazette went to press NUJ members at Johnston’s 18 daily and 300 weekly newspapers were set to ballot on group-wide industrial action. Dear says it is the first time such a group-wide move has been taken in at least 20 years.

The catalyst has been the introduction of a new Atex content management system which will see reporters putting stories straight on to the printed page and subs being made redundant and in some cases moving to new, remote, subbing hubs, hours of travel away.

Dear insists the Johnston Press dispute is not a Luddite revolt against new technology: ‘Johnston Press has been incredibly badly managed and has created for itself a mountain of debt by buying papers at a high cost… and in order to repay the loans, are having to cut their editorial resources to the bone.

‘It’s not a choice they are making because they believe it will enhance the quality of their newspapers; it’s a choice they are making because their banks demand they pay for their past mistakes.

‘The people who are suffering are the communities whose newspapers are increasingly being produced on a smaller and smaller budget and the people who are losing their jobs.

‘The issue for us will be about forced job losses and quality. We believe there needs to be minimum staffing levels in order to ensure the papers can maintain a level of quality.

‘We’re saying the cuts in staffing have gone too far and are now threatening the quality of papers because the workloads people have are unsustainable.”

Dear says that the NUJ has strong membership across Johnston’s main centres in places such as Leeds, Sheffield, The Scotsman titles in Glasgow and Portsmouth. And because the union’s membership decline has been slower than the pace of overall job losses, he says that membership density at Johnston Press is higher than before the downturn.

Dear insists that the NUJ has no beef with multiskilling: ‘It is absolutely central to every journalist’s ability to protect their job and further their career that they are as multiskilled as they can be.’But he adds: ‘Our members are extremely concerned that they are being asked to do too much with too little and are being compromised on the quality.”

Dear says that issues surrounding multiskilling were brought into focus following a meeting last month of union reps across the Trinity Mirror and Newsquest regional newspaper titles. They said that the drive of two years ago towards increasing the use of video online had been largely abandoned with expensive equipment lying unused drawers.

‘They said that now no-one did video because managers realise that creating a three-minute video for the website was taking someone the whole day when they could be writing five stories.”

Dear notes the irony of regional press owners successfully blocking the BBC’s plans to employ 300 new local video news journalists in 2008 because they said it would smother their own moves into online video.

The issue of further state-funded intervention in local news is a key one for the NUJ with an election coming up. Dear declines to be drawn on how he would advise journalists to vote for, but he says the NUJ has been ‘hugely disappointed with the performance of the Government”, and has ‘real concerns about the way it has cosied up to many of the media owners”.

The union is also concerned, he says, that the Conservatives ‘would allow regional news on ITV to whither away without intervention”, adding that ‘we don’t believe their plans for ultra-local TV are properly thought-out or costed”.

He says: ‘Whatever party comes to power there has to be an understanding that good journalism does serve the public interest and is a public good, and that public goods, where the market can’t provide them, need public subsidy.

‘We believe there has never been a better case for public subsidy of public-service journalism. It would not only protect jobs and enhance the local economy, it would enhance local democracy.”

Dear describes himself as a socialist and has drawn flak over the years from those who complain that the union is too left wing, or that it has been taken over by the NUJ Left faction of which Dear is a member. This was the charge made by Mark Watts in his campaign to be elected editor of NUJ magazine The Journalist last year.

This sort of criticism has been fuelled by politically motivated motions at the union’s annual delegate meeting such as the call for a boycott of Israeli goods in 2007.

Dear says: ‘I am a socialist but my job is to lead the union. The union’s conference and the union’s executive decide what our policies are, not me as an individual.”

He adds: ‘Whenever anyone disagrees with something the union does there is something they can do about it: we are an incredibly democratic organisation You can go along to a meeting, you can propose or oppose anything you like.”

Now 43, Dear has been general secretary of the NUJ for eight years and comes to the end of his second term in two years. What next? Leading a bigger union? Politics?

‘I’ll never be an MP,’he says, ‘because I’m too independently minded. And it’s not about a career in unions for me; this is my union. It’s a privilege to do this job.’

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