How the NUJ sailed into stormy waters over stance on press regulation

A difficult year for the National Union of Journalists took another twist this week when it found itself under attack over its divisive stance on press regulation.

The decision to side with the Hacked Off campaign group and back calls for statutory underpinning triggered a backlash among journalists on Twitter and saw two national newspapers publish scathing editorials condemning the union.

The response appears to have taken the NUJ by surprise, given it first outlined its support for the statute-backed model on 10 July, during general secretary Michelle Stanistreet’s appearance at the Leveson Inquiry.

Stanistreet used her second outing at the inquiry to outline her vision of a new press council and ombudsman “that would have to be in statute”, along similar lines to the Irish Press Council.

It would not, she added, be a voluntary system: “We believe that they [publishers] would have to be part of that organisation and that would be the only way of achieving real change.”

Even Lord Justice Leveson appeared to be taken aback. “That’s a big step,” he told Stanistreet, before asking: “But what’s the view of your members?”

“The industry would have to live with it,” she replied. “That would be the reality. The view of our members – as you can imagine, there will be mixed views.”

This week the NUJ found out just how mixed.

A handful of news outlets – including Press Gazette – reported Stanistreet’s comments at the time, but coming as it did at the tail end of the inquiry her comments garnered few column inches.

Last week the Bristol branch of the NUJ sent out a release promoting an upcoming debate called “Where now for the Press after Leveson?”

In it, Stanistreet said the union believed that “if we are to achieve independent, accountable regulation it needs to be underpinned by statute”.

What Press Gazette did not know at the time was that Stanistreet had used the very same words in a “Leveson Inquiry Special” distributed inside the union’s official magazine, The Journalist, in August.

It now appears we were not the only one who missed it (on page five of a seven-page report), which explains why the story was quickly picked up by others news organisations including The Guardian.

It also explains the heated response that erupted on Twitter – including numerous threats to quit the union.

NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet. Pic: Reuters

“Extraordinary that the NUJ’s wretched leaders are supporting statutory regulation of press, we have been fighting that since the 1640s,” said The Observer’s Nick Cohen.

“Stunned by NUJ backing for state regulation of press without consulting its members,” wrote Sunday Express political editor Kirsty Buchanan.

Heather Brooke, the US author and journalist who helped expose the scandal of MPs’ expenses, tweeted: “NUJ took this controversial stance w/out polling members. They’ll be wanting a ministry of truth next.”

The story was then seized upon in editorials by the UK’s biggest newspaper, The Sun, and bestselling broadsheet, The Daily Telegraph.

The Sun said it was “dumbfounded by the chilling decision of a union in our own trade to back Stalinist-style state regulation of newspapers”, while The Telegraph accused the union of “training its guns on its own side”.

Some affiliated with the union questioned the timing of this week’s story, hinting at dark forces at work ahead of Leveson’s report.

The reality is probably more prosaic: For many journalists this appears to be the first they knew of the union’s stance on regulation.

And what appeared to anger them most was the apparent lack of consultation with members – a claim the union was quick to defend.

Leading the fight for the union leadership, on Twitter at least, was former NUJ president Donnacha Delong.

He told critics the union had sent out a number of ‘NUJ Active’ emails to members between November 2011 and January 2012 asking for their thoughts on regulation.

But Press Gazette has obtained the five emails in question and found that none of them make reference to the union’s position on statutory underpinning.

The first was sent on 14 November 2011, two weeks after the NUJ was granted core participant status at the Leveson Inquiry, headed “Leveson Inquiry – How you can help”.

Stanistreet said the union was “asking for members who would like to come forward and share their experiences – whether it’s on journalistic practices, your experience of how matters ethical are handled in your current or previous workplace, about how your working culture could be improved or problems you’ve had to deal with that you feel the Leveson Inquiry should consider”.

Subsequent NUJ Active emails said: “We are asking members to contact NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet with views and experiences that can inform our response to Leveson.”

The union this week faced calls to ballot members on the decision, which was rubber-stamped at the union’s Delegate Meeting held in Newcastle last month.

The wording of the motion, contained in “Composition G”, said that the DM instructs the National Executive Council to campaign for “robust regulation of the press by an independent, accountable body including trade union representatives that maximises freedom of the press” and for “limits on media ownership to prevent future Murdocracies”.

Senior activist Chris Wheal, who chairs the NUJ’s professional training committee, said this week that the union must “announce that referendum now to stop members resigning”.

When Press Gazette ran a poll on Monday several people associated with the NUJ were quick to dismiss it (it found 66 per cent were against the union’s stance) on technical grounds. A second online vote appears to show majority support for statutory underpinning

Yesterday afternoon the union confirmed there will be no ballot.

UPDATE: The NUJ has asked us to point out that according to the union's rule book, a ballot of members can only be called at the request of the Delegate Meeting.

MORE ON THIS STORY : 

Sign up for our free weekly digital magazine, Press Gazette Journalism Weekly, and daily newsletter
To contact Press Gazette with a story call 0207 936 6433
or email pged@pressgazette.co.uk
To advertise, please call 0207 936 6764.