If the National Union of Journalists won't defend journalism, what's the point of it?

Chilling: Chris Frost

I’ve been a member of the NUJ for about ten years. To be honest, there was never all that much point. But I support the principle of trade unionism, I was grateful for the NUJ’s backing during the Hutton inquiry, and I valued the work it did for people who couldn’t stick up for themselves, particularly on local newspapers.

I’m now resigning from the NUJ in protest at what may be its existential mistake in failing to stick up for its entire membership. The union has decided to back a statutorily-underpinned regulator of journalists – a move taken without the slightest consultation with members, no doubt because they knew we would be against it.

The clincher for me was this chilling piece in the Press Gazette from the head of the NUJ’s “ethics council,” Chris Frost (pictured above), defending the union’s position. Mr Frost, an academic at Liverpool John Moores University, writes:

“The right to free expression…cannot be absolute…the key is to allow as much freedom as is concomitant with the rights of others balanced by the public interest…

“If I buy [a newspaper], I expect the news to be reasonably accurate, gathered ethically and a fair selection of the day’s important events…Those who say free expression is more important than those standards…make it clear they don’t understand free expression.”

Yes, you read that right: the union representing journalists wants a regulator to impose its idea of what constitutes a “fair selection of the day’s important events” on the press. No doubt by this Mr Frost means that the Daily Mail should be forced to run fewer pieces about housing benefit claimants and more about children suffering under evil Tory cuts. But it could just as easily be used by some government to demand that the press reports more on its successes and less on its failures.

The issue of “ethically gathered” news is a minefield, too. Had my newspaper not paid for a disc containing MPs’ expenses, the most you’d have known about that scandal would have been ten thousand sheets of blacked-out paper. We had the freedom to publish, and to be damned if we’d got it wrong. If some regulator had had to rule on whether we were being “ethical” or not, it would have held up the story, and given MPs another avenue to block us. (It’s generally forgotten now that they had a serious go at the paper at the beginning of the saga, before the sheer weight of revelation about their greed overwhelmed them.)

Even the requirement for accuracy, which seems uncontroversial enough to outsiders, is quite complicated. Newspapers should (and usually do) make strenuous efforts to be accurate – but we won’t always succeed. We are often shining a feeble torch in a large, dark cupboard. People try to mislead us or give us partial information. Many of the issues we report on are the subjects of bitter dispute, with no one “accurate” version. That’s often precisely why they are newsworthy.

The prospect of some regulator adjudicating when all this can override freedom of expression is terrifying.

On the subject of that all-important virtue, accuracy, I was interested to note that Mr Frost also claims:

“Concerns that stronger regulation would bring more interference are simply not supported by evidence. In 20 years of the Press Complaints Commission and more than 30 years of the Press Council before it not one complaint was made about any newspaper or magazine exposing malpractice by those in power.”

Is he serious? I alone have had at least a dozen PCC complaints from people in power whose malpractice I’ve exposed – like Lutfur Rahman, the extremist-linked mayor of Tower Hamlets (he lost on all the substantive points – but is no doubt looking forward to the rematch if some new regulator comes along.) I don’t know too many reporters in my line of work who haven’t had complaints about them to the PCC from those in power!

Mr Frost also repeats the canard that the PCC has been “brutally proved” by the hacking scandal to be “unfit for purpose.” But what happened at the News of the World, hideous as it was, was not a failure of the PCC or of regulation. There was already a rather strong regulation against hacking people’s telephones – the law. The problem was the failure of the police – many of whom were clearly in News International’s pocket or even on its payroll – to enforce the law.

No press regulator, however strongly constituted, could possibly have had the power to kick down doors at newspapers, seize emails and interrogate journalists under caution. Those are police powers; powers which the police had, but refused to exercise. The PCC’s only failing in the whole saga was to get involved at all. It should have said that the investigation of criminality was outside its power, and called in the cops.

Mr Frost’s claim that “almost everyone believ[es] there needs to be an improvement in the regulatory system” sadly flunks the truth test, too. Seventy-one per cent of the public, according to a recent poll, say that the priority should be better enforcement of the existing law. Perhaps what we really need is a regulator to enforce greater accuracy on third-rate media academics.

Now the NUJ is not a very important institution – but propaganda value of its stance to our enemies is considerable. If even the body supposed to represent journalists won’t defend journalism, what’s the point of it?

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