Monday, April 30, 2007

British Journalists' Union Should Focus on "Issues That Matter"

The writer is correct that by focusing on issues that matter to only a few people, the union marginalizes many people who feel differently, and damage the union as a whole. I hope her voice is heard, and the action overturned as quickly as possible.
--Wendy Leibowitz

The NUJ should focus on the issues that matter
The union's call for a boycott of Israeli goods, and for sanctions to be imposed by the UK and UN, is not just divisive, it could seriously damage its reputation

Francis Beckett
Monday April 30, 2007


I am a freelance journalist. Not long ago, a contract publishing firm decided it could get away without paying what it owed me. They were wrong. The National Union of Journalists squeezed £5,000 out of them. I could not have done it by myself.

That is an intro I never thought I would get into a newspaper. I can only do it because the NUJ's annual conference has narrowly voted to call for a boycott of Israeli goods, and to "demand sanctions be imposed on Israel by the British government and the United Nations".

This decision - unlike the NUJ's firm intervention on my behalf - won't have the smallest effect on what happens in the world. Anyone who wanted to boycott Israeli goods will do so without the NUJ's encouragement, and no one who was not going to boycott them will feel inclined to do so because it is NUJ policy. Neither the government nor the UN will be stirred into action.

But there is an iron rule in NUJ politics. The amount of time and energy given to an issue is in inverse relation to its effectiveness. I think this is partly because one-issue campaigns tend to target trade unions (though not as much as they used to when the unions were powerful). And it is partly because NUJ members are journalists, a trade in which "interesting" often counts for more than "important".

When I was NUJ president, we voted to support abortion on demand. Pro- and anti-abortion campaigners, most of whom were never heard from on union issues, lined up at annual conferences to fight the battle over and over again. The pros, mostly young and intense, considered anyone who voted against to be advocating Victorian enslavement of women, and any young man wanting a sexual adventure at the conference was careful how he voted. The antis, mostly caricatures of Christian evangelists, considered their opponents to be murderers, and one of them held aloft an aborted foetus she happened to have about her person.

I am sure that not a single mind was changed by our decision. It damaged the union, though, just as the Israel decision will damage it. There will be a few resignations over Israel - not many, but the few who resign will go as noisily as they can, doing as much damage as possible on the way out.

Folk who loathe trade unions are always looking for a chance to say the NUJ attacks free speech and fair reporting, and though this motion does nothing of the kind, it will be presented as though it does.


But the serious damage will not be among the hysterics who foam and froth whenever anyone questions the wisdom and decency of the Israeli government. The real damage will be among thoughtful members who take a different view, and feel strongly about it.

As president, I had to try to defuse the harm that our abortion stand did us among religious folk, despite my support for abortion and my vigorous atheism. It was easy simply to be angry with the parade of priestly self-righteousness I had to listen to, but then a Catholic union activist said to me quietly: "It makes us feel unwelcome and unwanted in our own union."

The NUJ must understand that about Israel too - that there are good union members who feel passionately that Israel is the wronged party in the Middle East. And - to paraphrase John Stuart Mill - those of us who feel differently have no more right to capture our union for our view than they would have the right, if they had the votes, to capture it for theirs.

It is going to require something the NUJ is not famous for: a sense of proportion on both sides.

The motion, apparently, went through with hardly any opposition. The leadership seems to have been asleep; it said nothing, when it should have told delegates that they were about to do something that would harm the union without even helping their cause. If they had done this, the narrow majority in favour would probably have been a majority against. So why not do what members do with other, far more important decisions: go to next year's conference and get the stupid thing reversed.


· Francis Beckett was NUJ president from 1980 to 1981
Read the whole thing at:,,2068243,00.html

Campaign trail

· The NUJ urged members last year to boycott Peugeot Citroën products in an attempt to stop the French car manufacturer from closing its Ryton plant near Coventry. It didn't help and the factory was shut six months early in December with the loss of more than 2,300 jobs.

· The NUJ advises members to avoid Yahoo! in protest at the US internet search company's "repeated collusion" with the Chinese authorities. Yahoo! provided information that helped identify and prosecute several journalists, including Shi Tao, who received a 10-year prison sentence in 2005.

· At its annual delegate meeting, held earlier this month, the NUJ condemned the government's decision to press ahead with a replacement for Trident and instructed its national executive to campaign against any proposals to build nuclear power stations in Britain.

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