Journalists get bullied by union-bashing bosses …

Convicted phone hacker Andy Coulson walked free from court yesterday cleared of perjury.

The judge told the jury, “Not every lie amounts to perjury” and that the former News of the World boss’ alleged lies about phone hacking were not material to main case at the Tommy Sheridan trial and so the case was thrown out.

People inevitably took to Twitter commenting on the case – and saying again how little they trust journalists.

It’s four years since the News of the World closed but still people feel aggrieved by what they saw and still they feel little confidence in journalists to tell the truth or to be capable of integrity, loyalty and political principle.Lois Lane

Still few see or accept the reality of the pressures on journalists to do as they’re told. Too many think journalists live in some Daily Planet bubble where they can run into the offices of editors like Andy Coulson and demand to be heard, demand to tell their story, demand not to write something racist or sexist. We rarely can. Like most workers we simply don’t have that power.

When a housing worker in a Tory council evicts a tenant for not being able to afford their rent in times of austerity we can’t blame that individual worker. When a factory worker shoves horse meat into a packet and labels it beef we can’t blame that individual worker.

And – just like other workers – we get bullied if we do stand up for what we believe in.

Michell Stanistreet, the National Union of Journalists general secretary, told the Leveson Inquiry: “”The range of issues the journalists have raised with me include, but are not restricted to – endemic bullying, huge pressure to deliver stories, overwhelming commercial pressures which are allowed to dictate what is published and the overweening power and control of editors over their journalists and of employers over their editors.”

She added: “They feel too scared and frightened to give evidence in a wayLois Lane which would allow them to be identified by their current or prospective media employers. Those who have experienced or witnessed bullying of a vicious and engrained nature have largely been too fearful to speak out in case they lost their job or were forced out.

“Those who have witnessed first-hand unethical behaviour or been pressured into working in a way that is unethical are frankly terrified about being identified.”

Some have found the courage to be identified and to walk out …

Rich Peppiatt, writer and director of One Rogue Reporter, walked out of the Daily Star offices in protest at what he saw as anti-Muslim propaganda, stating: “I may have been just a lowly hack in your business empire, void of the power to make you change your ways, but there is still one thing that I can do; that I was trained to do; that I love to do: write about it.”

Peter Oborne resigned from the Telegraph over what he considered its fraudulent coverage allowing HSBC to influence content for fear of losing ad revenue, saying: “I expressed all of my concerns about the direction of the paper. […] I was resigning as a matter of conscience. Mr MacLennan (chief executive) agreed that advertising was allowed to affect editorial, but was unapologetic, saying that “it was not as bad as all that” and adding that there was a long history of this sort of thing at the Telegraph.”

But it’s not all about national journalists and indeed certainly not all about tabloid journalists. The industry – trade press, local newspapers, regional titles, magazines – is rife with bullying and workers too scared to stand up for themselves or for their work because they fear they will be sacked. Superman

Phil Turner has worked at the Rotherham Advertiser for 30 years. He is also the chapel’s FoC – that is he is the National Union of Journalists shop steward.

Phil has been singled out by bosses for compulsory redundancy. The NUJ is appealing the decision, seeing the targeting of Phil as a deliberate attack on the journalists’ union and on the wider trade union movement.

Phil’s colleagues are defending him. They intend to strike on June 11th and there is a protest this Saturday in Rotherham’s All Saints Square at 12 noon.

Chris Morley, the NUJ’s Northern and Midlands organiser, said: “The company has made a grave error in selecting Phil for dismissal in such a transparent attempt to reduce the effectiveness of the chapel at the Rotherham Advertiser. Even when required savings were found elsewhere, the new management of the company still insisted that a compulsory redundancy had to be made in editorial and that it just happened to be the FoC.”

It’s time to recognise journalists don’t have some innate power unavailable to other workers.  We’re not all Lois Lanes and Clark Kents (even Clark Kent left the Daily Planet tired of the drivel he had to produce). 

And we depend on union support and solidarity like other workers.

Also … we’re not all phone hackers. We don’t sit gleefully writing racist crap. We don’t shovel shit into the internet and think we’ve got it made. We do recognise the influence of advertising and of corrupt bosses. We get bullied and victimised.

We’re workers, just like you.

The union is urging NUJ members and supporters to contact the Rotherham Advertiser in protest. Please send respectful messages of protest to Rotherham Advertiser chief executive Nick Alexander and copy in the editor Andrew Mosley and HR officer Debbie Commander.
nick.alexander@garnett-dickinson.co.uk  
Andrew.Mosley@rotherhamadvertiser.co.uk
debbie.commander@garnett-dickinson.co.uk   

You can also send messages of support and solidarity to Phil Turner:

Email the chapel and copy in the NUJ campaigns and communications department:
syorksnuj@hotmail.co.uk
campaigns@nuj.org.uk  

HOW – AND WHY – TO JOIN THE NUJ

Superman

The Sun: Don’t take it personally …

Personal responsibility is apparently something we all have and we should think twice when making decisions – such as when we line up to buy food from supermarkets known to build on school playgrounds because they’re cheap; or when we give hard-earned money to utility companies who rip us off because we have to; and when we go to work for idiots because we’re not stinking rich.

I live in a world where I have to work to survive. I live in a country where newspapers are closing down almost weekly. I live in an economy that is failing and freelance contracts are as hard to find as Rupert Murdoch’s conscience. Somehow, though, I should take personal responsibility and refuse to work for a newspaper – any newspaper – with a right-wing agenda.

Personal responsibility, I’m told, means taking the moral high ground and turning down work for the greater good: being an NUJ activist wouldn’t be enough. Arguing with editors and coming up with creative alternatives to the knee-jerk right-wing news will not suffice. No, I have to go hungry, to refuse wages from a boss I don’t respect and a company I can’t stand.

Would you do the same? Do you work for a council making cuts? A company ripping off customers? A corporation taking advantage of others? A multi-billionaire who will survive no matter what you do?

Most of us do – and journalists are no different.

Calling for personal responsibility is in itself right wing: to blame workers – and demand a decision to starve rather than take a living wage – isn’t just romantic moralising, it isn’t just smug condemnation, it’s daft. It’s beyond ridiculous when journalists are compared to fascists.

Journalists are workers – some are also black, some gay, others are women, some are disabled, even those working on tabloids – and like all workers have to go where the work is and we too face discrimination when doing so.

This new rhetoric around personal responsibility simply shifts the blame from the powerful – from the owners of the work, the holders of the purse strings – to the workers.

We might be responsible for our own actions but we can only change things by taking responsibility as a whole – not by singling out individuals for condemnation: no matter how much better we feel about ourselves when doing so.

Perhaps individual workers could also be blamed for low pay; for accidents in the workplace; for not having a pension; for not having a job at all.

Maybe if we all take personal responsibility and stop being fat, curb our alcohol intake and don’t have chronic diseases we won’t need the NHS either.

I think I’d enjoy being able to choose not to buy in the cheapest supermarket, not to give my money to a corrupt energy company and not to work for a boss who is powerful enough to spread nasty opinions globally, but it’s not a choice I’ve ever had.

When right-wingers condemn those on benefits as scroungers they often do so claiming people should take personal responsibility and not rely on the state. The rhetoric of personal responsibility is not far removed from that of responsible capitalism – and neither looks to make life better for workers.

Those condemning News International journalists aren’t demanding personal responsibility – they’re just looking for individuals to be held responsible.

The Sun: Don’t blame the journalists, blame the bosses …

There is, no doubt, excitement at the thought of The Sun closing down. Once again, I won’t be joining in.

I doubt there will be equally loud calls for the army and police forces to be closed down because, essentially, people are siding with the powerful: journalists are just workers who are dispensable, their unemployment and resulting poverty isn’t a big deal, and they’re to blame for their own actions.

Well, I disagree.

Newspapers are closing down: many of them are free newspapers which not only affects journalists but the chance for those without money for the internet or to buy newspapers without easy access to in-depth news. As the Guardian reported in December, “There have been at least 31 closures of weekly newspapers in England, Wales and Scotland in the course of 2011. All but two were free titles. It is noticeable that the bulk have occurred in the last couple of months.”

Journalists – including those now in training – already have fewer and fewer job opportunities. I am, remember, Unemployedhack. Unemployment is not something we should take lightly when it faces anyone, never mind an entire industry.

Many journalists – perhaps some led by ambition – do things they later regret. I mean regret on a personal level, not following an arrest. They do so because bullying in journalism is rife, commonplace and happens to the best of us, because they are told to get the story at any cost or lose their jobs.

Journalists were so in fear of never working again the, according to NUJ General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet, “feel too scared and frightened to give evidence in a way which would allow them to be identified by their current or prospective media employers.

“Those who have experienced or witnessed bullying of a vicious and engrained nature have largely been too fearful to speak out in case they lost their job or were forced out. Those who have witnessed first-hand unethical behaviour or been pressured into working in a way that is unethical are frankly terrified about being identified”

Stanistreet continued, “The range of issues the journalists have raised […] include, but are not restricted to – endemic bullying, huge pressure to deliver stories, overwhelming commercial pressures which are allowed to dictate what is published and the overweening power and control of editors over their journalists and of employers over their editors.

“Many newspaper groups simply won’t let the NUJ through the door.”

News of the World former news editor Ian Edmondson talked of a culture of bullying, saying: “It’s a case of you will do as you are told and you live in that environment”.

I’ve been bullied, at some point, by every editor I’ve had. I’m not a shy person, I don’t suffer in silence … but I’ve been reduced to tears, sitting alone in a district office, or my car, or at home wondering why on earth I ever became a journalist.

I’ve been screamed at, threatened, manipulated, insulted, overworked, ridiculed, isolated, undermined …

I was once having a hard time, health-wise, and was taken for a coffee by my editor. I was building myself up as we walked to the café (not the staff canteen) ready to explain what I was going through and to seek support.

“You’re going under and you’re not dragging me down with you. I think you should leave,” I was told before I could even order my frothy coffee. My disability was not an issue, legal ramifications of no concern: I was to go and to do so quietly. The bullying continued in the editor’s office, in private, once we returned.

Another editor used to proof-read our pages with a red pen and get so angry doing so that the paper would be full of rips and tears by the time it was thrown across the office at us.

“This isn’t good enough. This is substandard. I can’t be doing your job and mine,” was a favourite call as the editor kicked the table. There was no recognition that we had no longer had proof-readers to do this expected role in a newsroom.

My first editor took great delight in rejecting front page stories minutes before deadline. These stories were good but still the phone would ring.

“Find me something else. I’m sick of this topic. I’m sick of you. Get another story or get on your merry way.”

The glee in the editor’s voice was never disguised and we were told of how excited he looked making the call afterwards when we met up with colleagues in the pub.

I confronted each one to some extent: the first editor was reported to the union and management and the bullying in isolation responded to in emails; the second I confronted then made a formal complaint when it continued; and my first editor, well, I always had two stories ready and would wait half an hour before sending him the second, better story (I  wouldn’t recommend this tiring option).

Recently, at Leveson Inquiry, Kelvin McKenzie said “if the atmosphere towards what you’re doing is different than before, then you need to change with it.”

Journalist Brendan Montague at the-sauce.org secured a world exclusive from a former mole at the News International about The Sun’s front page showing NUM leader Arthur Scargill apparently giving a Nazi salute under the headline “Mine Fuhrer”.

He wrote, “Union members at the printers refused to publish the filthy slur and instead humiliated bullying editor Kelvin McKenzie. They publicly shamed him by running across the splash: “Members of all The Sun production chapels refused to handle the Arthur Scargill picture and major headline on our lead story.”

This is where the strength lies – not in joining in the bullying of journalists enjoyed by money-grubbing newspaper owners or fame-seeking editors.

When my first editor finally lost his job – when he was bullied by new buyers and discarded like yesterday’s  newspaper – I danced around his desk: literally. This was a cause for celebration; his bullying resulted in his unemployment and was his own responsibility.

Don’t join the bullies: defend journalism and defend journalists.

Still no news on whether my benefits are still suspended or if I’m being paid by my employer

Chaplin wants his lunch so I’d better get it or he shouts

Stand up for journalism …

Still the anger towards journalists continues on Twitter. Some of it is threats of violence, some knee-jerk reactions to other Tweets and some just juvenile vitriol – but it is commonplace.

“”Having a baby will be a celebrities hottest accessory” Are you being serious?! Journalists are beyond the valley of stupid.”

“Hate the press. Hate journalists. I have no respect for them whatsoever.”

I hate journalists! Extremely HATE!”

i hate journalists!!!!!!!!

Most of journalists lie anyway”

At risk of repeating myself, not all journalists write for red top newspapers and those that do are not all excited by seasonal filler stories, fashion, celebrity gossip or any other nonsense they’re told to produce. Not all of them hack phones. *Sighs.*

We need a debate about journalism – not a witchhunt.

The most amusing among the comments are those weakly attempting to politicise their hatred: saying journalists are class traitors, establishment cronies, puppets of the state.

“Journalists are wage slaves telling it the way their neo-liberal masters want them to tell it. #classtraitors”

Then there’re those – sometimes in the same thread – saying bloggers are the future as if independent and political journalism is something new.

These arguments ignore that journalism began among workers writing about their plight, their politics, their fight against the bosses and that, in time, newspapers were bought, sold and created bigger profits for fewer powerful media owners. It ignores that independent journalism is thriving – but isn’t paying a living wage to journalists.

But even when being open and independent we can’t win with some Tweeters:

“I really hate journalists who cover stories and tweet their subjective nonsense. Tweet the story not yr political view!”

“Twitter proves that all you have to do make a lie the truth is repeat it often enough. Embarassing how journalists use it as a news wire.”

Only 45 people have joined the I Hate Journalists page on Facebook, described as: “I hate all journalists, from the funny body movement they make when reporting news, its like they r looking for a spot on the camera, to the psycho bullshit they write. U knw they suck, we dnt mean all just 102% ha! Ha! suck heavily!”

Here people write:

“they make up lies and have their own agenda and cant be trusted and should be murdered. i hate them.

“PLANT BOMBS IN ALL MEDIA HOUSES,,,AND KA BOOM..WE DISINFECT THE WORLD IN ONE GO!!!”

“I heard that over 600 journalists have been killed covering conflicts around the globe since 2001 . . . That’s a good start, but it still leaves too many in circulation.”

There are of course, those who aren’t carrying torches and waving pitchforks:

“When you see the situations journalists find themselves in, it’s amazing there aren’t more fatalities/serious injuries. Respect.”

It doesn’t matter that these groups and comments aren’t all UK-based because the work we do is threatening and threatened the world over.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists 85 journalists and media workers were killed in 2011. They’re our colleagues and they weren’t killed for going through Alan Partridge’s bins.

Few journalists would be intimidated by the moronic comments – and many would be itching to correct the spelling and grammar – but the Leveson Inquiry has sparked a discussion that has been lost in the outrage and moralising.

It strikes me as ridiculous to turn on an entire industry because of the actions of a few. Worse still to blame workers for the actions of their bosses and the owners of the media.

It also strikes me as worrying that the debate about subjectivity and non-partisan journalism is confused, lost amid the demand for the truth no matter what: forgetting that even truth is someone’s version of it.

Journalism and journalists are not being defended adequately enough during the Leveson Inquiry. As some people spot their favourite celebrity moaning about intrusions into their privacy they become emotionally involved and in the next breath they berate newspapers for being filled with celebrity codswallop.

There isn’t an open, honest, intelligent debate about what journalism means – perhaps because, to some MPs, journalism means uncovering the expenses scandal and the Leveson Inquiry means getting the chance to have a go back.

The Guardian now reports that “four groups – End Violence Against Women, Equality Now, Object and rape charity Eaves – are calling on the Leveson Inquiry to move away from addressing the concerns of celebrities and other victims of alleged phone hacking by News International and look at the daily treatment of women, which they say contributes to a society where rape can only be committed by evil strangers down darkened alleyways and where a woman is valued only because of her body.”

I agree that this is something to be tackled but hope the blame isn’t put at the feet of journalists reporting on rape using information from the police and courts. There seems to be a train of thought developing that journalists are responsible for what is printed – that shooting the messenger is acceptable.

When I was a trainee I described a burglar as “vicious” and my editor told me I had no right to write this: it was my opinion, he said, that the crime was vicious and, unless the police said it, I should not write it. He was absolutely right – one of the few times he was, as I recall – but while the police are emotive and subjective journalists will, and indeed in some cases must, report it – just look at the comments from GMP, for which they later apologised.

There are currently many journalists in the UK facing job cuts, newspapers facing closures, local news coverage threatened – and this is a threat to democracy. Worldwide reporters are detained –  and even murdered – for telling the truth, for reporting on more important activities than some pop singer’s wedding and because the work they did was a threat to the powerful.

If we lose journalism – good journalism – we lose the voice of communities, we lose our voice to tackle the powerful. If we stop trusting all journalists we give the powerful free reign to publish whatever they like.

Here in the UK we’ve allowed our newspapers to become trashy – journalists and readers alike. We need to reclaim our media from the few people who own it and to ensure journalism and journalists are not trashed in the process.

Don’t hate journalists or journalism. Instead, seek out the independent newspapers – published and online – where you live. Join the NUJ and fight to defend good journalism and talented journalists. Remember that journalism is not reporting who Alan Partridge has slept with – and that most journalists don’t care what he gets up to either.

When you grow to love journalists again you might want to consider this.

How much money I have: ten pounds until Tuesday, which isn’t bad at all

New Year plans: Cava (a gift), a recovered Chaplin for company, Jools Holland on the telly and a bag of Bombay Mix (I might even put it in a bowl). Jobseekers’ Allowance will not stretch to a double fare taxi home from a party

Don’t let Leveson take our colour …

Soap guru Sharon Marshall might not be a big celebrity Leveson Inquiry witness, like Piers Morgan, Mungo and Alan Partridge, but I found her more compelling than most.

I was also frustrated, on her behalf, with the reaction of Lord Leveson to her writing. Her statement that she “combined […] the dramatisation of my history in the business as a whole to build up a more compelling and entertaining book” was frowned upon.

The Inquiry heard extracts of Marshall’s book, Tabloid Girl, which tells of her career as a tabloid hack. Lord Justice Leveson asked if the book was ”a true story”, which is what is stated on the cover. Marshall said the book was was filled with ”heightened reality” and ”a bit of topspin”.

“I was writing something somebody told me in the pub,” she told the Inquiry, adding that there was no “hard evidence”  and this was not her “writing a witness statement.”

“I intended it to be a good yarn,” she said but Leveson questioned if “topspin” meant “lying”. Marshall – quite rightly – said that she would call it ”colour”.

I’ve shared previously some of the things I got up to when chasing tabloid stories and would now like to defend the need for “colour”.

I’d like to start by reminding people that journalists are writers: yes, they research, they use facts, they should not be making things up but they do have to write entertainingly or no one will read their news and features. The best journalists write descriptively, the worst to a repetitive, pedestrian formula.

Features especially demand what Marshall describes as “colour”. While writing what are known as real-life stories I’ve conducted interviews that could last up to two hours asking about every minute detail of someone’s wedding, break-up, adoption or cat’s death. Every story – however bizarre, trivial or emotive – would mean a lengthy talk with the person involved, sometimes face-to-face, sometimes over the phone.

The reality is, though, you don’t know who it is you’re going to be talking to – how good their memory is, how articulate they are, if they will understand the process of providing as much information as possible for a feature of between 800 and 1000 words.

You need “colour”.

You can ask if the engagement ring came in a wooden box or a velvet box but they might not remember. You can ask them to describe the expression on their partner’s face at the later but they might not be able to. You can ask them to describe the feelings they had in the moment they wed but they might not be able to articulate it.

You need up to 1000 words of good, solid entertaining – gripping – copy with quotes and description. Like all good writers this description is needed as part of the development of the narrative, to put flesh on the characters’ bones and to make sure the piece is interesting to read: it’s journalism but it’s entertainment not investigation.

I once wrote about a gay man who had agreed to have his friend’s child and I conducted the interview with him. He was a nice man, articulate, open, willing to share the sad tale of how the baby he loved turned out not to be his after all. In the first person article I wrote:

“… one night she yelled from the bedroom, “come here. Come here! I ran in, panic-stricken, terrified something was wrong but she was lying on the bed smiling. “Put your hand on my stomach. Can you feel the baby kicking? she asked. I did and it was amazing.”

This is not an entirely true scenario. The moment of panic happened. The feeling the baby kick happened. They did not happen within minutes of each other. I added “colour” to stir emotion in the reader.

I once wrote about a woman whose daughter went missing when she was in the middle of her exams. I wrote:

“I crept along the hallway and saw light beneath my daughter’s bedroom door. I opened it and inside I saw her still hunched over her school books, studying hard.”

The woman did not describe this in a single sentence, she simply told me the latest her daughter had stayed up to study and the rest is “colour”.

I once opened a feature with:

“A cold chill blew in from under the door of the caravan. My wife snuggled up closer. I lay beside her gazing at a spot on the ceiling. I was trying to stay positive but since my business had gone bust it seemed our luck was on a downward spiral.”

The man I interviewed did not say this verbatim: he described his stress, the cold caravan, his money worries and how he lay awake fretting: the rest is “colour”.

No one was harmed in the adding of colour to these features.

Many journalists, once written the feature, will read them to contributing interviewees before publication, getting their approval and making changes. I’ve often been thanked for what I’ve written – I’ve even heard, “that is exactly how I told it” from people I’ve interviewed and known it really, really isn’t.

In many ways what we write is creative non-fiction. It’s what journalists have been doing for centuries to encourage readers to stay with their writing to the end, to feel something for the people described in the story – maybe even to react to the story by giving to charity; perhaps Leveson could be introduced to some of Dickens’ journalism.

Entertaining writing is important – not just to real-life journalism and to features –  and shouldn’t be frowned upon.

A byline on a first person real-life feature often reads “true story as told to …” perhaps it should say “with added colour”.