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Jenkins: NUJ interference to blame for photographers' list closure

6 August 2007 - EPUK

The National Union of Journalists’ credibility among photographers appears to be at an all-time low after a week in which the union’s only photographers’ forum was shut down following direct intervention by General Secretary Jeremy Dear, and an emergency union meeting endorsed the controversial Drogheda Independent house agreement.

Subscribers to the private NUJPhoto email discussion list, which was established in April 2005 to allow NUJ photographers to discuss union and business matters, were emailed on Wednesday afternoon to say that the service had been shut down with immediate effect, and that there would be further updates on the list’s website ‘in due course’.

In a brief statement posted on the NUJPhoto website yesterday, NUJPhoto founder Pete Jenkins says the closure followed a heated dispute between the NUJ and list moderators.

“To avoid a union damaging clash which I felt was becoming inevitable, I took the unilateral decision to close the list”, he writes.

“Management of the National Union of Journalists thought that they had final control of this e-list, and that they wanted to dictate to the elected moderators and the ordinary lay members who could and could not be allowed onto a members discussion group”

“Unacceptable behavior”

An earlier 2,000 word statement from Jenkins was put on the NUJPhoto website at sometime after Friday evening, but was removed shortly after lunchtime on Saturday. The longer statement went into greater detail about the reasons why the resource had been shut down, and the background to the decision, which Jenkins admited he regretted.

Jenkins says that one of the reasons he decided to shut down the list was so that the Emergency Committee of the NEC “would “be able to concentrate making the correct decision with regard to the Drogheda Chapel agreement.”“

The closure came shortly after NUJ General Secretary Jeremy Dear, General Secretary wrote to the five members of the Emergency Committee in the most forceful terms, informing them that a decision by the NUJPhoto list moderators to turn down a membership application from a senior union official was “unacceptable”.

According to the first statement on the NUJPhoto website which has now been removed, the letter made other allegations, indirectly accusing the list owner of conducting censorship, allowing derogatory comments to be made, and pursuing personal agendas.

“It is simply unacceptable for a member to bar another member in good standing from being part of an official NUJ discussion group”, wrote Dear.

“It is also unacceptable for a member to prevent another member from being able to access and respond to derogatory comments being written about them [or] to censor the views of another member in good standing.”

“It is also unacceptable that someone given a position of responsibility by the union should seek to use a union-financed facility which is there for all members to pursue a personal agenda against another member in good standing.”

It is clear that Dear’s letter refers to Jenkins, although he did not
name him directly. Dear accuses the “current moderator” of an abuse of authority and of “union facilities”, questioning whether he is a “fit and proper person to serve in such an important role”.

The first NUJPhoto statement denied all these accusations, and several former NUJPhoto subscribers expressed surprise when told of the letter’s contents. While they stressed the list discussions were confidential, one NUJPhoto subscriber who has read the list posts said he did not believe the allegations to be based on fact.

NUJ management wanted to dictate”

On Wednesday, EPUK reported that the list had come under pressure from union officials following a decision to turn down a membership application from the Irish Secretary Seamus Dooley, the third most senior official in the journalists’ union.

The current statement on the NUJPhoto website describes the situation as “management of the National Union of Journalists…wanted to dictate to the elected moderators and the ordinary lay members who could and could not be allowed onto a members discussion group”.

Dooley, who was one of the main negotiators for the controversial Drogheda Independent House Agreement, applied to join the email discussion list on July 12th, days after it was revealed that the proposed agreement included a clause which could allow photographers at the title to be replaced by reporters using cameraphones.

Although the six month negotiations were near to an an end, he told EPUK he applied wanting to discuss the matter on the list, and to hear opinions. But several photographers who spoke to EPUK had privately voiced concerns that he was only seeking to consult photographers at the eleventh hour on a deal which significantly differed from the union’s official position from only a few months before.

“I really wondered why I was in this union”

Dooley had previously clashed with Pete Jenkins in their official union roles over the Drogheda agreement. In an email copied to several union officials, Jenkins accused the Irish Office of the NUJ of ignoring the concerns of Sinead Sarsfield, NUJ member and contract freelance at the Drogheda Independent, and said the debate was clouded by “misinformation”.

In his reply Dooley accused Jenkins of harassment and bullying, and said that he was “not prepared to engage in debate with someone who plays fast and lose with the truth”.

Sarsfield earlier told EPUK that despite earning 90% of her income from the titles she felt she was kept in the dark about the Drogheda Independent house agreement by the union, and only found out about the contentious clause by chance.

She said that when she had previously contacted the Irish Office of the NUJ when negotiating her contract, they had failed to offer any help: “To be totally honest I really wondered why I was in this union”

“Not a problem”

Dooley’s initial application is alleged to have shown only casual interest in joining the list admitting he did not meet the normal membership criteria, and concluding: “If [joining] is not possible that is not a problem.”

His application was turned down citing list rules, because he did not meet either of the membership criteria of being either a photographer, or a non-photographer who was offering a “specific skill” to the list.

But EPUK understands that when Dooley re-applied for membership on July 20th, he said was unhappy with the decision, citing that fellow union official Freelance Organiser John Toner was already on the list. He is also alleged to have said that the list was spreading ‘misinformation’ about the Drogheda agreement.

After his application was unsuccessful for a second time, at least one other union official attempted and failed to overturn the decision on Dooley’s behalf. At the same time, a poll among NUJPhoto subscribers revealed that for every member who thought Dooley should be allowed to join, there were ten who opposed it. Many of those who objected argued that photographers would be less willing to contribute openly to discussions if they felt union officials were ‘listening in’.

Emergency NEC meeting

Despite the list having being already been closed down the day before, Thursday’s Emergency meeting of the union’s National Executive Committee, which had been originally convened to discuss the Drogheda Independent House Agreement, also scheduled a discussion of NUJPhoto. Unusually, NUJPhoto was discussed first, suggesting the committee viewed the issue as more pressing that the highly controversial house agreement.

In the statement released on Friday morning, the NEC makes no specific reference to its decision on NUJPhoto, but condemned unspecified “abusive attacks and smears on the union and its officials”. NUJPhoto moderators have always denied that any such posts were made on NUJPhoto.

Neither the NUJPhoto list owner, nor any of the five moderators were invited to defend the email list’s actions at the emergency NEC meeting.

Official or unofficial list ?

In his statement, Jenkins describes NUJPhoto as “endorsed by the Unions Freelance Industrial Council” but says it was not under the FIC’s “final control”.

Since its inception, the list had operated without any official guidance or intervention from union officials. The list rules stated it operated under the control of the list owner and moderators, and that they were solely responsible for membership decisions.

But union documents appear to show it became an official union list at Jenkins’ request only weeks after being established.

The minutes of the union’s Freelance Industrial Council meeting on the 5th May 2005 state: “Mr Jenkins reported that he had recently set up the photographers’ email group and believed it should be an official Union group and was seeking the Council’s endorsement.”

According to a witness to the meeting, only one member of the council voted against the motion. The minutes record that they “oppose[d] NUJPhoto being made an official Union email group”.

The minutes then record that the motion was passed.

The minutes also add: “When an email group was within the Union fold, if there were problems, a group could be closed down straight away.”

New unofficial list planned

Jenkins, an experienced photographer who sits on the union’s Freelance Industrial Council, the National Executive Committee and vice-chair of the Photographers Sub-Committee, says intends to establish a new, independent email list “without endorsement from the NUJ” for union photographers in the near future.

Jenkins is registered as the owner of the nujphoto.co.uk domain name, and an unofficial list could well be set up on that domain.

It is not yet clear whether the emergency NEC made any other rulings on NUJPhoto at its meeting on Thursday, or as to what future action if any may be taken against Pete Jenkins or the elected list moderators.

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NUJ General Secretary Jeremy Dear added: “The way freelances are treated is despicable. These are highly skilled people that the media industry relies upon heavily and is hugely indebted to.

“The NUJ is putting freelances’ plight at the top of our agenda and we are going to work tirelessly to stop this cynical exploitation. There is no place for a two-tier workforce in our profession. We will not stand for freelances being paid a second-class rate for doing a top-class job.”

NUJ reveals freelance rates are stagnating or getting worse

Comment 1: Tony Sleep, 7 August 2007, 05:38 pm

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