Railroading Julian

On September 7 a court sitting in the Old Bailey in London resumed the task of extraditing Julian Assange to the US. Reports of earlier proceedings by Craig Murray, Your man in the public gallery, have been vital in exposing the judiciary’s capricious and partisan conduct of the process and its utter disregard for Assange’s right to a fair trial.

Here’s Murray writing before heading back to court.

This is supposed to be a public hearing, to which in normal times anybody should be able to walk in off the street into the large public gallery, and anyone with a press card into the press gallery. What is the justification for the political selection of those permitted to watch? An extraordinary online system has been set up, with the state favoured observers given online “rooms” in which only the identified individual will be allowed… There are just four seats for the general public…I went this morning at 6am to the Old Bailey to check out the queue and work out the system. The first six people in the queue were all people who, entirely off their own bat, without my knowledge and with no coordination between them, had arrived while London slept just to reserve a place for me…It is constantly asked by Julian’s supporters why the media do not see the assault on a publisher and journalist as a threat to themselves. The answer is that the state and corporate media are confident in their firm alliance with the powers that be. They have no intention of challenging the status quo; their protection from those kicking Assange lies in joining in with the kicking.

The National Union of Journalists is unashamedly putting the boot in by preventing Murray from attending as an accredited journalist.

By 7 September it will be six months since I applied to resume my membership of the National Union of Journalists. I STILL have not the slightest idea who objected, or what the grounds were for objection. I have not heard from the NUJ for months. A senior official of an international journalists’ organisation has told us that he inquired, and learnt that the NUJ national executive has considered my application and set up a sub-committee to report. But if so, why is this secret, why have I not been informed, and why am I not allowed to know what the objection is? I find this all very sinister. At this stage it is not paranoid to wonder whose hand is behind this. The practical effect of this is that without NUJ membership I cannot access a Press card, and avail myself of whatever media arrangements are in place for the Assange hearing… I have now reached the stage where I would like to take legal action against the NUJ, but the finances are beyond me.

As Murray notes the NUJ’s reactionary intervention begs the question of whether the union has been compromised. Experience suggests he is right to “find this all very sinister.” At the very least it is easily shown that the NUJ plays a crucial  role in enabling the BBC to weed out critical journalists.

In 1984 I arrived at the NUJ’s Headland House headquarters to collect a £30 000 cheque, money raised to support a fledgling union of black journalists in South Africa. It was an immense gesture of solidarity. In October 2009, some 25 years later I met NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear in the same office. This time I was on the wrong side.

The meeting was preceded by an email sent to Jeremy six months earlier in the midst of capability proceedings brought by the BBC to justify my dismissal. I wrote.

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 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?

Jeremy’s view, face to face, was that it was impossible to tell if the agreement was being broken. I suggested he talk to the people involved in negotiating the agreement. He conceded the union would not have negotiated a meaningless agreement.

Six weeks later Keith Murray, seconded from the BBC to act as my union rep, wrote to remind Jeremy I was still waiting for an answer.

Hiya Jeremy,
Devan Maistry has asked me to forward his query onto you. I appreciate that we’re in the middle of the NUJ’s annual conference so it may be a while before you get a chance to address it. To summarise, Devan’s query is:- “I have told Jeremy the union agreement is being flouted – and blatantly at that. I suggested it would help to discuss the issue with a union official who had negotiated the agreement. I have not heard from Jeremy since our meeting more than a month ago. We also told Jeremy that management changed the reason it gave for bringing these latest proceedings when challenged – and that after six months. This sort of opportunistic behavior has persisted throughout these proceedings. I have for almost two years argued that the union agreement is being flouted in the hope that the NUJ will eventually recognise this and act to protect our collective interest. Management claims that it can interpret the agreement more or less as it pleases. I believe this is nonsense and Jeremy agreed that we would not have negotiated an agreement which was meaningless.”
Thanx Keith

There was no reply from Jeremy. However his opinion was confirmed six months later by Sue Harris the NUJ’s  National Broadcasting Organiser. She wrote.

The application of any procedure is always a matter of interpretation and it is not uncommon for individuals to take different views.  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, while you and we (on your behalf) may seek to influence how the BBC applies and operates the process, it will be BBC management who ultimately decide how it is run.

Its easy to explain the BBC’s strategy. The agreement states that when performance issues have been identified outside the yearly appraisal process efforts should be made to resolve these issues informally.  Only when these efforts fail should there be recourse to a formal process which might include  a programme to achieve improvement.

The BBC’s problem was that it could not identify any plausible performance issues. Those it came up with belatedly  -like the failure to attend a training session after being dismissed and forwarding press releases to colleagues – were simply risible. Moving directly to a formal process with an improvement programme covering the job specification effectively allows senior journalists to be re-interviewed and dismissed at the whim of management.

In a final act of desperation the BBC claimed – quite impossibly given the dates cited- to have conducted an improvement plan with an unsatisfactory outcome. The NUJ rep – along for the ride -finally jumped ship to support the BBC openly.

The NUJ felt the the odds of winning favoured the BBC and therefore could not offer legal support. It did not send a representative to the preliminary hearing in 2011 which focused on the purpose of public broadcasting in a democratic society or to the four week trial (Maistry v BBC) held in Birmingham in 2012. In the absence of the NUJ the tribunal found the interpretation of union agreements should be guided by absurdity.

Despite the NUJ’s campaign for the introduction of a conscience clause to safeguard journalist ethics NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet showed no interest in a trial in which this was the central issue. The NUJ remained aloof from the argument that the BBC could not dismiss a member of staff for defending journalistic values the corporation itself proclaims as sacrosanct and insists its employees follow. It made no comment when the BBC in a remarkable breach of public trust claimed its values are really a mission statement and not a serious belief.

In May 2013, in response to the Jimmy Saville scandal, the BBC published its ‘Respect at Work Review promising 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 why Maistry v BBC, now approaching an Appeal Court, helped illustrate her concerns about the BBC’s sincerity. Once again there was no response.

Craig Murray made it to court without the NUJ’s help and filed a seriously informative report.   

If you asked me to sum up today in a word, that word would undoubtedly be “railroaded”. it was all about pushing through the hearing as quickly as possible and with as little public exposure as possible to what is happening. Access denied, adjournment denied, exposition of defence evidence denied, removal of superseding indictment charges denied. The prosecution was plainly failing in that week back in Woolwich in February, which seems like an age ago. It has now been given a new boost.

I hope that Murray will be able to continue to report from the Old Bailey. In this witch-hunt masquerading as a fair trial it is even more important to see the injustice that is done.

There are two earlier posts at this blog about the persecution of Julian Assange, The Case of the Broken Condom and Bile from the Bench.

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