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About Wheal

12 April 2006 - EPUK

Senior officers of the National Union of Journalists, including General Secretary Jeremy Dear, have moved to distance the union from wayward activist Chris Wheal in the wake of the storm created by the latter’s comments to the British Journal of Photography last week.

In the article, a report on the future of UK copyright by BJP staff writer Katie Scott, Wheal complained of photographers who “think” they own copyright of their work, calling them “greedy and morally bankrupt”, and asserted that copyright of an image should belong to the person who had commissioned it. This position is of course contrary both to current UK legislation and the stated policy of the NUJ.

Dear condemned Wheal’s views as “his own, not those of the NUJ” in a reply to photographers demanding clarification of the NUJ’s position on Wheal and his statements. “I too object to Chris’ views on this topic, ” he continued, “but how do you stop someone having wrong ideas?” Tim Gopsill, editor of union magazine The Journalist, went further, describing Wheal’s comments as “an incitement to theft”. NUJ Freelance Organiser John Toner has subsequently written to the BJP, acidly describing Wheal as sounding more like a News International spokesman than a freelance journalist.”

Whealing Backwards

After last week’s BJP furore broke Wheal disappeared on a cycling holiday, back-pedalling all the way: before leaving he took time to reply to photographers who’d mailed him demanding he justify his statements in both the BJP and an earlier article in The Journalist.

It wasn’t much of a defence though, resting as it did on two claims. Firstly, that he hadn’t really meant what he wrote in his notorious Journalist article. “It never occurred to me anyone seriously involved would be foolish enough to think I really meant what I wrote” was his response to one photographer. “I write controversial stuff in The Journalist all the time to wind people up.” And secondly that the BJP has misrepresented his views: “I gave a long interview to the BJP and because I didn’t say what she wanted to hear she quoted the article in The Journalist instead.” [Memo to photographers: don’t you just love it when a blunt complains about getting stitched up in the meejah?]

But wait a minute. Wheal’s words in the BJP didn’t appear in The Journalist. In fact if it was up to The Journalist editor Tim Gopsill they never could: “Let me assure you that nothing like this appeared in The Journalist and I wouldn’t have run such a statement if he had written it” was his reply to one enquiry. So how could Katie Scott have been quoting Wheal from The Journalist? Answer, she wasn’t: Wheal is being economical with his memory. Having publicly placed his foot in his mouth yet again his solution was to smear the BJP’s correspondent. [Memo to blunts: do try to pay attention not only to what you’ve said, but whom you said it to.]

Whealpolitik

Some NUJ photographers have laid the broad charge at Wheal’s door that he speaks not as a journalist, but as an employer. However this is not strictly accurate: a better assessment would be that Wheal speaks both as a journalist AND as an employer.

The words Wheal used in his Journalist article and in his BJP interview were not just slightly different. They read as if two entirely different people had uttered them – something that incidentally renders his allegation that the BJP had lifted The Journalist quotes all the more ridiculous.

There’s a good reason for the difference: Wheal the employer can’t speak in the Journalist – as Tim Gopsill noted, such opinions wouldn’t be published. So instead we get revolutionary Wheal, with his cry of “free the databases for the masses”. By the same token, revolutionary Wheal would be laughed out of the pages of the BJP, so instead he dons a shiny suit and delivers corporate Wheal, the voice of oppressed and exploited bean counters everywhere.

But although content and style of delivery are tailored to the audience, the eventual aim remains the same: the removal of copyright protection from the authors of original work.


Chris Wheal speaks at the NUJ ADM. Photograph © Paul Herrmann

Whealed Off?

In the aftermath of Wheal’s article in The Journalist and BJP comments there have been demands from photographers for his expulsion from the NUJ. But do those demands have any justification? Most organisations have rules that dictate members’ behaviour and the NUJ is no exception. So how do those rules affect Wheal, and has he fallen foul of them?

The NUJ’s Rule 24 allows fines, suspension or expulsion where a member has been guilty of conduct which is detrimental to the interests of the union or of the profession of journalism, or is in breach of the union’s code of conduct or working practices. Although Wheal does not appear to have breached any of the union’s rules proper, the principles on working practices may be another matter. There are fifteen of these: those that most closely address Wheal’s behaviour are principles 2, 11 and 12.

The Wheal Within

Principle 2. “A member shall not act, by commission or omission, against the interests of the union or of the trade union movement.”
There have been claims that Wheal’s comments have already led to a number of photographers leaving the NUJ, and persuaded other non-union photographers against joining. Any trade union would regard the loss of members as against its interests, so if the claims are true Wheal is guilty as charged.

But the potential loss of members every time Wheal opens his mouth, while distressing for the union, is a short-term issue. What’s more interesting to consider are the possible effects of Wheal’s views in the longer term.

The NUJ, like most trade unions, is built on a structure of branches, usually called chapels in the NUJ. The vast majority of these chapels consist of staff journalists at a single place of work: to take a random example, the Independent chapel. The key difference between staff and freelance contributors to the Independent is that the copyright of the former belongs to the company, whereas the copyright of the latter, under current legislation, does not. The price the Independent pays for this acquisition of copyright can be measured in equipment, job protection, sick pay, holidays, insurance, pensions and the like.

But suppose the difference in copyright ownership between staff employees and freelances is abolished as Wheal has proposed? A key benefit to the Independent of maintaining staff journalists, at considerable cost, would instantly disappear. Why pay the higher costs of employing staff when you can simply casualise the same individuals and use them on a freelance basis as and when required and still acquire the same rights to their work?

Even the dimmest of corporate bean counters would immediately perceive the benefits of Wheal’s proposals. And without staff there are no chapels. And without chapels there is no NUJ. In the longer term the views Wheal espouses threaten the very existence of the NUJ, and although most NUJ members haven’t realised it yet, for them Wheal may yet prove to be the enemy within.

Whealy Bad Deal

Principle 11. “No member with authority to commission work shall attempt to induce any freelance or casual to perform work for a lower rate of pay or under less favourable conditions than those laid down by any union agreement covering the work in question.”

One would expect a union activist to be both familiar with this and to support it. Which makes all the more extraordinary the tangle which Wheal got himself in last month when trying to commission a photographer at – of all places – an NUJ conference.

On March 18, Wheal asked an NUJ photographer to shoot material of a students’ conference that was associated with the NUJ’s Annual Delegate Meeting in Harrogate [let no-one say the business of journalism lacks glamour]. Negotiations however rapidly ground to a halt. Space and attention span preclude going into all the details, but the crux of the dispute was of course money.

While the wily Wheal claimed that he was not attempting to negotiate down from the NUJ rate, he described the payment on offer as “beer money”, a term which we seem unable to find in our latest copy of the NUJ Freelance Fees Guide.

However there’s no getting away from the bottom line, both literally and figuratively. Wheal, an NUJ activist, expected an NUJ photographer to produce photographs for the NUJ at an NUJ conference at what the photographer perceived to be less than NUJ rates, and which were certainly “at a lower rate of pay or under less favourable conditions” than another NUJ photographer working at the same conference.

Spoken Wheal

Principle 12. “A member shall treat other journalists with consideration.”
Easy. Wheal can hardly claim to be doing this while going out of his way to publicly deride his fellows in as insulting a fashion as he can dream up. And now of course there is the matter of his allegations against Katie Scott and the BJP. Guilty.

The question then remains, in Jeremy Dear’s words: “how do you stop someone having wrong ideas?” Or more pertinently for the NUJ, “how do you stop someone from using your organisation to propagate those wrong ideas?”

The answer appears obvious: a quick dose of Rule 24 and an escort to the NUJ door for Mr Wheal. To the outside eye the NUJ’s rules can appear rather arcane, but that’s irrelevant: as a member Wheal signed up to them. You buy the ticket, you take the ride.

Wheal Meet Again

But nothing’s that simple in the Wheal world. For one thing he is not without influence in the NUJ. As Jeremy Dear noted, he’s prominent because NUJ members elect him to various positions. Freelances within the NUJ treat Wheal with derision – when not driven apoplectic by his ramblings – but within the NUJ freelances are a minority: most of those voting for Wheal are staff journalists who surrendered their copyright long ago.

So the Wheal soap opera is bound to run for quite a while: and like all the best bad soap operas the plot will contain the most surprising twists. In between freeing the databases in January, and leaping to the rescue of oppressed accounts departments last week, Wheal was of course at the NUJ’s Annual Delegate Meeting in March. At that conference a delegate made a speech calling on the union to instruct freelance members never to hand over copyright to employers, and threatening action against those who do.

And who was the speaker? One Chris Wheal. So within a three month period he’s managed to call for the abolition of copyright entirely, threaten dire consequences to freelances who hand over copyright to employers, and demand that the law be changed to, er, force freelances to hand over copyright to employers.

Clearly a most eccentric Wheal.

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