Debate shows union split over political fund ballot

On the eve of an historic national ballot to decide whether the NUJ adopts a political fund the union appears deeply divided on the issue.

Prominent union activists from the “no” camp have accused the leadership of misrepresenting the facts and stifling debate on the issue.

But those in favour say the union runs the risk of a costly legal challenge if it does not start such a fund. They say it has nothing to do with party politics but is necessary if the union is to campaign on political issues which affect journalists.

At a meeting organised by the seven London NUJ branches, Chris Wheal, from the London Magazine branch, spoke against, along with former union president Chris Frost.

Wheal said: “We have suddenly been told, with no evidence, that some invisible threat that has not materialised for 20 years could launch an attack on our political campaigning in less than 45 minutes.

“Those of us who suggested that this claim by the NEC was sexing up the story have been hounded. And as for our supposedly independent editor of The Journalist, the coverage in The Journalist has been more biased and one sided than the Hutton Report.”

According to section 72 of the 1992 Trade Union and Labour Relations Act, unions need a political fund if they are to spend money on “political objects”.

In the act this is defined as spending money on political parties, elections to political office, the maintenance of a politician and the holding of conferences on behalf of a political party.

Wheal said: “Anyone who tells you that section 72 is not only about political parties is lying. They cannot be mistaken.

“Unless you want the NUJ to actively take party-political sides and support one party over another, vote against the political fund.”

Martin Cloake, chairman of London Central branch, speaking in favour of the fund, said: “If we were convinced there was no threat to our work we wouldn’t be having this ballot – but I think there is a threat. The courts will decide whether our campaigns contravene the law. We don’t want to see anyone spending time and money in the courts.”

He claimed that campaigns on employment rights, lobbying Ofcom, freedom of information and the retention of the BBC licence fee could all be deemed political.

He said: “It’s Parliament that makes the laws and we need to have some influence on that. Any meaningful campaign we want to run risks being called political.”

Of the 30 or so members attending last Thursday’s meeting, opinion seemed evenly divided on the issue and most held strong views.

High-profile union members such as Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow have previously said they would resign if the vote is carried because it would undermine their impartiality.

Responding to criticism that NUJ magazine The Journalist was biased, editor Tim Gopsill said the latest issue carried two letters for and two letters against the fund. He admitted that there had been more coverage in favour of the fund, but he pointed out that the union was running a campaign on the issue.

Ballot papers go out to NUJ members on 23 February and must be returned by 19 March.

If the vote is carried the fund will be set up on 1 October and will be paid for by a 50p a month levy on British members who have the right to opt out of paying.

In its campaign literature the NUJ leadership has given assurances that no money from the political fund will go to a political party.

By Dominic Ponsford

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