Standing up for journalism

There is a  mailing list for left-leaning journalists at Britain’s prestigious National Union of Journalists. Not so long ago the conversation was about whether this ‘left list’ was moribund. Now there’s a lively debate about sending a letter to the ‘The Journalist’ (the in-house rag) to voice dismay “that the leadership of our union has seen fit to ‘celebrate’ the satire of Charlie Hebdo.”

Which only led to more soul searching. Are the Prophet Mohammed cartoons racist, Islamaphobic or both? Author and historian William Blum asks – and answers – the far more interesting question.

“Where has all this Islamic fundamentalism come from in this modern age? Most of it comes – trained, armed, financed, indoctrinated – from Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria.  During various periods from the 1970s to the present, these four countries had been the most secular, modern, educated, welfare states in the Middle East region.”

Blum points out that the first three were overthrown by the United States and Syria faces the same fate. Instead of progressive governments we now have the Taliban, failed states and swarms of Western armed jihadists.

He quotes a friend who knew Charlie Hebdo and its staff well.“On international politics Charlie Hebdo was neoconservative. It supported every single NATO intervention from Yugoslavia to the present. They were anti-Muslim, anti-Hamas (or any Palestinian organization), anti-Russian, anti-Cuban (with the exception of one cartoonist), anti-Hugo Chávez, anti-Iran, anti-Syria, pro-Pussy Riot, pro-Kiev … Do I need to continue?”

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ General Secretary, marched up front – just behind the families of the victims – at the Charlie Hebdo protest in Paris. She said, “We’re proud to have taken part on behalf of the NUJ in what will be remembered as a momentous day in history… the demonstration of a lifetime…We marched today for global rights of freedom of expression…”

In its evidence to the Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking by newspapers, the  NUJ argued strongly for a “conscience clause” to be inserted into journalists’ contracts. This would protect them from being sacked if they refused to do unethical work which breached the union’s Code of Conduct. The Union said the hacking scandal was a result of a bullying culture at News International where the NUJ has not been recognised since 1986. (The irony will become obvious.)

I wrote to Michelle Stanistreet in July 2012 . By way of introduction I said: “A former BBC journalist, Devan Maistry, is being sued by the BBC for costs in excess of £ 200,000 for ‘vexatiously and unreasonably’ claiming he was dismissed because he believed the public broadcaster served a higher purpose. The matter will be heard in Birmingham on 21 August. The TUC annual conference in London has backed the NUJ’s call for a “conscience clause” that would stop journalists being sacked if they refused to do journalism that was unethical and in breach of the Code of Conduct.”

There was no reply from Ms Stanistreet.

In December 2013 I wrote to her again providing an update. I ended saying: “The case has come this far not least because fees for bringing claims have not been required in the past. That has changed. An appeal must be lodged in the Court of Appeal by 30 December 2013. Perhaps the NUJ will stand up.”

There was no reply from Ms Stanistreet.

Meanwhile in May 2013 the BBC published its “Respect at Work Review’ (also known as the Rose Review). The Review promised a renaissance of the BBC Values to purge a culture of bullying and harassment at the Corporation. Ms Stanistreet welcomed the report initially but in January 2014, frustrated at the lack of progress, appealed to the BBC’s Director General Tony Hall.

“This needs direct intervention from the top by the director general, and further work needs to be done to tackle the institutionalised problem that exists at the BBC despite the Rose review and its recommendations.”

I wrote to Ms Stanistreet explaining that Maistry v BBC  provided important insights into the BBC’s culture of abuse. The very fact that the BBC had told a Tribunal that it regarded the BBC Values as`no more than a mission statement’ raised questions about the sincerity of the Review  – and supported her call for the Director General to take action.

There was no reply from Ms Stanistreet. However she is not the only  NUJ General secretary to prove unhelpful. In April 2008 I was compelled by the BBC to attend a formal hearing at which an improvement plan would be instituted. This is a strategy for re-interviewing and sacking dissident journalists. It also provides ample opportunity for institutionalised bullying. I informed the NUJ head office that this was  clearly a breach of the NUJ agreement which requires that informal efforts first be made to resolve performance issues.

A year later my grievance and appeal against the institution of capability proceedings was dismissed by the BBC. I wrote to Jeremy Dear, then General Secretary, on 21 April 2009.

“The facts show that the BBC has flouted its agreement with the NUJ flagrantly. I’ve been told by our legal department however that even if the BBC was in complete breach of the agreement, there is nothing we can do about it as the legal options are extremely limited. I thought I’d ask whether the breach of a union agreement is a serious issue for the NUJ. Perhaps the Agreed Statement E1a2 Issues of Capability is not actually an agreement in the usual sense but some sort of gentleman’s agreement.  Would it not be better in that case to drop the pretence rather than provide a forum that the BBC can exploit for cosmetic purposes? …Please let me know whether from a wider union perspective this is a matter you might take up.”

On October 6, 2009 I went to see Jeremy Dear in London. His view was that it was not possible to tell whether an agreement was being breached as this was a matter of interpretation. I suggested we put the question to those who had negotiated the agreement.

In November Keith Murray, my NUJ representative  wrote to say I was awaiting an answer. Mr Dear provided no clarification. This was problematic as Mr Murray  believed I was in breach of the agreement. He would only change tack if head office advised differently. As he was a BBC employee seconded to the NUJ this was unsurprising.

Five months later as this conflict of interest peaked I sought the advice of national organiser Sue Harris. Her response was profoundly disturbing. “Even if we were to be able to assemble and consult with the original negotiators of the joint unions’ (aka NUJ, BECTU and Unite) capability agreement with the BBC there would probably be many different views on precisely how the process should be applied and run…  However, as long as your capability process remains an internal matter… it will be BBC management who ultimately decide how it is run.  As you know this has already been demonstrated in the BBC’s rejection of your grievance appeal.”

Her second point was that I should seek to prove my competence to the BBC as Mr Murray had advised. This of course was impossible. The BBC was quite determined to sack me for the programs I had produced and for defending the BBC Values. It was not prepared to investigate or discuss the performance allegations made by its managers. As a prelude to dismissal the BBC claimed I had failed to meet the mark in a four week formal process. Both Mr Murray and Ms Harris knew the claim was false. The process had never been conducted. I noted some of these concerns in my response. Unfortunately it seems the net effect of NUJ representation is to sanitise managerial abuse.

The NUJ agreement says at paragraph 2 that an effort must be made to resolve performance issues informally. Paragraph 3 says that only when such informal efforts have failed should consideration be given to  implementing a plan of improvement. The BBC admitted that the use of such a plan was indicative of a formal process. Nevertheless it insisted that its plan for evaluating my performance against the job specification was part of an informal process.

Incredibly the Tribunal agreed with the BBC. “The policy suggested that informal discussions about the employee’s performance should be held first of all. The process did not specifically say that improvement plans could be used as part of the informal process, but neither did it prohibit it.”

Agreements get trashed if they are not defended and it will now be easier for the BBC to crack-down on critical journalists. Clearly the NUJ must take some of the blame for the persecution of our members at the BBC. After all we actively encourage it.

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