NUJ bans 'libellous' freelance newsletter

The NUJ has suspended funding of a newsletter produced by the West of Scotland freelance branch and banned further issues.

The union, which claims the May issue was libellous, has also set up a panel of its executive members to investigate the newsletter and has called an extraordinary meeting of the branch for next week.

The branch has responded by ignoring the call to stop publishing (it has produced two further newsletters) and accused the NUJ of “an unprecedented attempt to muzzle free speech and overturn democratically elected officials”.

Branch secretary Bill McLean told Press Gazette he feared this was an attempt by the executive council to shut down the branch.

The row broke out after the branch launched a “yellow ribbon” campaign in the May issue to persuade the NUJ to make an annual payment to struggling freelances and to set up a pension fund for them.

“Freelances are being downtrodden. They are being ignored by the NUJ hierarchy, some of whom pay themselves very good salaries,” said the newsletter, which is edited by James Cruickshank.

It went on to allege freelances were being “screwed out of a living wage” by editors and journalists working on newspapers, magazines and in television “who are probably members of the NUJ”.

It also launched a personal attack on Scottish organiser Paul Holleran, detailing his salary and expenses and those of his staff.

NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear, who has written to the branch, told Press Gazette the newsletter “was libellous, breached the union’s own Code of Conduct and was factually incorrect”.

All union officials’ salaries are published in the annual report and any annual conference delegate is able to get up and ask questions about them, Dear pointed out.

While Cruickshank was one of the delegates, he had asked no questions. Dear denied Holleran had received a “secret” pay rise, another of the branch’s accusations.

“It was agreed by our executives, it’s in the minutes and was announced at annual conference,” he added. “You can’t get much less secret than that.”

He also disputed that freelances were not getting a good deal from the union. “Fifty-seven per cent of our legal expenditure goes on freelance cases and they only represent around 23 per cent of the union’s membership,” he said, adding that the NUJ has one full agreement and one partial one covering freelances with The Guardian and with Express News-papers. It is currently in negotiation for one with SMG. It also runs a stakeholder pension scheme which any freelance can join.

Dear accused Cruickshank of not following the basic principles of journalism by not checking the facts of his polemic with union officials or staff or the people written about.

He denied that the union wanted to shut the branch down. “If we wanted to do that we would not have this extraordinary general meeting. The panel might look into the way the branch is run in future.”

By Jean Morgan

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