Jim Higgins

Are Journalists Often Red?

(May 1976)

From the Spectator, 8 May 1976, p.12.
Published here with kind permission of the Spectator.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Buxton is a rather sad little town. It retains features of its former glory, but greyer and slightly frayed around the edges – a place where the pension queue is longer than the one for child allowances.

It was to Buxton that the National Union of Journalists came for their Annual Delegate Meeting. A few years ago that might well have been appropriate – the “never was” visiting the “never will be again”. But time, and the NUJ have changed. With what some consider unseemly haste the NUJ is showing signs of becoming a trade union in the accepted sense of the word.

The usual reason given for the transformation is that there has been an incursion of Trotskyists. The reds, it is suggested, have come out from under the beds, are ejecting the moderate occupants and playing havoc with the bedclothes in the process. It may come as a disappointment to some that it is not like that at all.

There are, of course, some Trotskyists in NUJ, as there are in a number of white collar unions. In the post-1968 student vanguard there were some who, having graduated, turned to journalism in the same way as all manner of moderate and non-political graduates did. Journalism, along with teaching, the civil service and other liberal professions, took its due proportion. But, to get the thing into perspective, the NUJ proportion, if vocal, is very small. Out of 300 delegates assembled at Buxton, I should be very surprised if snore than twenty-five were Trotskyists of any recognisable affiliation. The mistake that many of our distinguished commentators make is assume that any increase in trade union militancy is a result of left-wing activity and victory for their side. Such a view does them altogether too much honour and leaves out of account the simple fact that the finest agitator in the world is completely impotent if there is no clear and present grievance to agitate around. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the anguished theme of press freedom.

The story, designed like the fat boy in Dickens “to make yer flesh creep”, goes something like this: Mr Foot introduced the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act; by accident this raised the question of the closed shop in journalism. Coincidentally the left were in process of taking over the NUJ. In the final scene the reds would be censoring the news and filling the space left with class war propaganda. Now while I do know one or two reds who view such a situation with considerable relish, I know none who see it as any kind of possibility. For journalists, as for boilermakers, printers and a host of others, the closed shop is a tactic useful only in so far as it maximises their bargaining strength.

As to the left taking over the union, a brief glance at the election results for the NUJ Industrial Councils will indicate that the left did badly. They did even worse in the recent elections to the National Executive. At Buxton a left-wing attempt to suspend any further implementation of new printing technology was soundly rejected. What did happen at the meeting was that the campaign for the closed shop received an added impetus. But that has very little to do with revolutionary influence.

In Fleet Street there is a degree of over-manning, although this is rather overplayed, and rewards are comparatively high. In provincial newspaper, magazine and book publishing, staffing levels are low and the salaries are somewhat less than average industrial earnings. It is, perhaps, partly for these reasons that magazines and provincial newspapers are in general a great deal more profitable than national dailies.

Of late this situation has given rise to a number of wage disputes, sometimes breaking out into full-scale strikes. Unfortunately for the NUJ members involved, even if a majority join the strike, a few strike-breakers, the editor and a director or so can usually bring out some kind of newspaper. It was this realisation, rather than the machinations of sinister agitators, that built up pressure for a drive to the closed slop. It is this sort of spirit that now informs the deliberations of NUJ meetings.

In the great, and largely manufactured, panic at the threat to editorial freedom there have been a few notable misunderstandings. A prime example of this is the notorious “Barnsley case”. What was in fact a ludicrously small storm in a minuscule teacup has become a symbol to both sides in the controversy. The facts are that Barnsley NUJ has no reputation for militancy at all. In the past it was seldom active enough even to send a delegate to NUJ conferences. Until last December all the journalists in the town were members of the union, largely, one supposes, because the press card was a useful thing to have. Late in 1975 a check of the membership roll, not a long job as there were only thirty-five members, indicated that two of the number were over £25 in arrears. When this was called to their attention, the offending members noisily resigned and joined the Institute of Journalists. Somewhat incensed, the Barnsley NUJ wrote to local trade unions suggesting that only their members should be afforded press facilities by the local Labour movement. That letter is what caused all the furore, a quite unmerited response to a rather sordid little episode.

For all this though, the Buxton ADM, despite tendentious reports of “Russian style ovations”, looked to me rather more like a normal trade union conference than any other such NUJ gatherings I have attended. Part of the credit for this must go to the extreme competence of the president, the formidable Miss Rosaline Kelly, but mostly it was because the issues raised were straight trade union questions. As at almost every other union conference, the left generally lost the vote, there were some silly decisions and some sensible ones, and the junketing was suitably lavish.

It may be that there are those who view the idea of an effective NUJ with horror, but they are, no doubt, the same people who object to any effective trade unionism anywhere. What cannot be said, on the evidence of Buxton, is that the NUJ represents any threat to press freedom.


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