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The NUJ’s War On Photographers

We’re kept so busy at EPUK Towers following the antics of big time scam artists that it’s easy to overlook the little guy. At first glance they don’t come much smaller than the Drogheda Independent, a weekly published in a small town on an island off the west coast of Britain. And it’s true that the paper is resolutely parochial: recent front page stories included ‘Woman uses child to steal teddy bears’; ‘Local men face trip to Dublin for semen tests’; and ‘Father Crilly fraud trial resumes’.

We’re kept so busy at EPUK Towers following the antics of big time scam artists that it’s easy to overlook the little guy. At first glance they don’t come much smaller than the Drogheda Independent, a weekly published in a small town on an island off the west coast of Britain. And it’s true that the paper is resolutely parochial: recent front page stories included ‘Woman uses child to steal teddy bears’; ‘Local men face trip to Dublin for semen tests’; and ‘ Father Crilly fraud trial resumes ‘.

But ignore news from elsewhere at your peril, for nowadays all news is local. And the news from Drogheda this week holds plenty of lessons for photographers in the rest of the British Isles, especially those unfortunate enough to find themselves represented by the National Union of Journalists.

The bare bones of the story are simple. As part of a new agreement between the NUJ and the Drogheda Independent that paper’s reporters are now to be trained and encouraged to provide pictures for publication using – and let’s hear it for quality journalism – cameraphones. Needless to say Irish photographers, in particular those who pay the NUJ to defend their interests, are less than impressed. ‘Do the NUJ still really want to represent freelance photographers? I don’t think they do’, commented one Dublin freelance.

Of course this was the conclusion drawn long ago by most photographers throughout the UK, for the NUJ have plenty of previous. There was the notorious attack on photographers in the union’s journal by NUJ activist and house copyright opponent Chris Wheal last year. And there’s been the repeated refusal to countenance a Photographers’ Organiser, even though the union has no problem finding money for full time officials for other industry sectors.

Nor have the comrades been resting on their laurels. At their recent Annual Delegate Meeting they decided to remove the long-standing NUJ rule forbidding staff writers from doubling up as photographers. This was an especially slippery piece of work, since it paved the way for the Drogheda deal, under which staff writers – gosh! – double up as photographers.

The NUJ’s justification for this particular piece of treachery is as slimy as can be. They describe it as a ‘quid pro quo for major benefits’. The question is: what are the benefits and to whom do they accrue?

The answer is two-fold. Firstly, the staff writers get a raise of up to 6,000 Euros to encourage them to double up as photographers. Secondly, the Drogheda Independent becomes a closed shop: if a journalist wants to work there, he or she must sign up with the union. To facilitate the deal freelance photographers, NUJ members or not, get told to shove off.

Now consider, for a moment, this from the NUJ’s Membership Responsibilities:

STRENGTH THROUGH UNITY: The NUJ is a trade union founded on the principle that the pay and conditions of individuals at work are best improved by, collectively, improving the conditions of all. Because of this, members are expected: (i) to treat other members of the union with consideration and respect and not to take actions which threaten their livelihood or working conditions (ii) to defend the interests of other members of the union in the same way as they would defend their own interests.

And now this, from Webster’s dictionary:

bribe –noun 1. Money or any other valuable consideration given or promised with a view to corrupting the behavior of a person. 2. Anything given or serving to persuade or induce.

Now ask yourself which description most accurately characterises the behaviour of the NUJ, its officials, and its staff journalists at the Drogheda Independent.

Put plainly, the NUJ has revealed itself as happy to shaft freelance photographers – indeed, logically, any freelance journalist – in exchange for the inducement of a closed shop and a payoff to the staff of that closed shop.

But it takes two to tango: so what of the NUJ’s dance partner? The paper isn’t quite as independent as its name implies: it’s a member of Independent News & Media, Ireland’s largest newspaper group, who also happen to be the owners of the UK’s Independent and Independent on Sunday.

It’s been quite some time since anyone has had kind words for the quality of photography in the UK Independent titles, and they haven’t yet stooped to equipping their few remaining staff with cameraphones. Yet one would have to be extraordinarily naive to believe that what is being proposed this week in Drogheda will not arrive soon in Canary Wharf. It is simply inevitable that INM will want to extend the deal they’ve struck in Drogheda throughout their 165 titles.

It’s equally inevitable that the NUJ will seek to obtain the same benefits in their future INM negotiations that they trumpet from the Drogheda deal, namely a closed shop. And as we’ve seen, they will quite happily sacrifice their freelance members in pursuit of that aim. Needless to say it won’t stop at the Independent titles: why should it? Other publishers will seek the same working arrangements, and the NUJ will be happy to help them dispense with photographers’ services. Like it or not, if you’re a freelance photographer working in the UK and Irish editorial markets the NUJ is busy drafting your retirement plan. Don’t be surprised you haven’t been told – the union conveniently forgot to tell its Drogheda members.

So what’s happening in Drogheda isn’t simply a little local difficulty. And if anyone is deluding themselves that this is just a case of a few local journalists screwing up, then they should take a closer look at the two NUJ officials who put the deal together: Irish Secretary Seamus Dooley and Irish Organiser Des Fagan.

Neither are actual working journalists of course: they’re both comfortably salaried full time union officials, their salaries paid by, among others, freelance photographers. Dooley at least has some journalistic experience: Fagan, however, appears to have never been a working journalist. His background is in the print unions: remember them?

And these are the two people the NUJ has chosen to dismantle an entire industry sector.

Nevertheless Dooley has managed to scramble up to number three in the union hierarchy. So this isn’t some deal patched together by a harried local organiser over a few pints of Guinness – it’s a strategy that emanates from the highest echelons in the NUJ.

And at times Dooley seems to speak a language we can understand. Take this for example: ‘One of the criticisms that I would make of the Irish Independent is that the advent of new technology is seen as an opportunity to shed jobs, not to develop the resources of the paper’. But that is clearly an entirely different situation than the Drogheda case, where the advent of new technology is being used as an opportunity to shed jobs. ‘Digital cameras on mobile phones [are] comparable to professional equipment only a few short years ago’, chips in Declan Carlyle, the newspaper’s hitherto unrecognised resident expert on camera technology.

Given the status of Dooley and Fagan it’s also worth gauging what their attitude to freelances is. The news is not good. Fagan recently told the NUJ’s Irish Executive Committee that his first duty is to chapel members and not to freelances. But such is his distaste for journalists and photographers who are not staff he could not bring himself to use the word ‘freelance’, instead preferring to describe freelance photographers as ‘small businesses’.

This reported insistence on referring to freelance photographers as businesses, rather than journalists or union members, of course carries distinct echoes of Chris Wheal’s description of freelance photographers as ‘mini-capitalists and junior globalisation greed merchants’. Small wonder then that Irish photographers greeted the news from Drogheda with such disgust: Dooley and Fagan had already done plenty to alienate them.

Faced with an Irish rebellion among its freelance members the NUJ hierarchy immediately displayed a keen sense of solidarity and rediscovered their principles of ‘defending members of the union’– by rallying to support Dooley and Fagan. Still, that’s what a union’s for, after all: everyone should hang together. And so far as the NUJ is concerned, that’s exactly what most photographers would now like to see.

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