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NUJ attempts to bring closure to Drogheda controversy

28 September 2007 - EPUK

NUJ General Secretary Jeremy Dear has attempted to bring the Drogheda Independent house agreement debate to a diplomatic end, following two months of controversy which has severely damaged the union’s standing among photographers.

Last week’s meeting of the NUJ’s 30-member National Executive Committee (NEC) is being widely interpreted as being critical of the methods and decisions made by the smaller five-member Emergency Committee just three weeks ago.

The meeting came the day after an EPUK survey revealed that 84% of NUJ photographer members said their opinion of the union had been damaged by the controversy, with the NUJ rated less able to protect photographers’ interests than either the Association of Photographers and the British Press Photographers Association.

EPUK understands that the NEC received motions from around six branches and chapels expressing discontent at the Emergency Committee’s decision and the manner in which it was made.

The NEC could not specifically discuss the Emergency Committee’s decision to ratify the house agreement under its own rules which place a six month time bar on re-debating committee decisions, but it did vote unanimously that it had “complete confidence in all the full-time and chapel officials involved in negotiating the agreement”.

But while the motion did not directly criticise the Emergency Committee’s decision, it goes on to ensure that both the decision and the manner in which it was made would be extremely unlikely to reoccur.

Decision “the product of unique circumstances”

The motion passed at the full NEC meeting, which appears to be specifically worded to address the concerns of union photographers, states that “the Drogheda Independent agreement was the product of unique circumstances”

Concerning the controversial house agreement clause which allowed journalists to take photographs, the motion states: “It is not intended that Clause 6.1 in its entirety should be considered a model clause.”

Last week’s EPUK survey revealed that the clause was supported by only 1.4% of photographers, and was opposed by 80.3%.

The motion went on to ask that a model clause be drawn up for future eventuality. and a second motion was passed, stating : “The NEC notes that Clause 6.1 of the Drogheda Independent Agreement seeks to ensure that the NUJ will have a direct role in the implementation of new work practices governing the use of digital cameras by reporters.

NEC affirms that any model agreement must recognise the vulnerable position of professional photographers in the emerging media landscape.”

Carefully worded rebuke

Last weekend’s NEC meeting also delivered a carefully-worded rebuke to the conduct of the emergency NEC at the previous meeting, when the committee members instructed that their deliberations would be made in private, contrary to a long-standing rule that states that all NUJ officials could attend and address any union meeting.

While Irish Secretary Seamus Dooley was invited to remain in the room throughout the whole meeting, union president Michelle Stanistreet instructed that other officials including Freelance Organiser John Toner and assistant organiser Pamela Morton should leave the room while deliberations were made. Both Toner and Morton are seen by grassroots union members as strong and respected advocates of photographers’ interests within the union.

According to the Emergency Committee minutes, when challenged whether this was proper procedure, Stanistreet told the meeting that “while the rules gave the right of officials to attend and speak at meetings, this did not give the the right to stay through the entire meeting”. The minutes do not give the reason why the committee members chose to apply this interpretation to exclude Toner but not Dooley.

At the full NEC meeting, Emergency Committee members Anita Halpin, Michelle Stanistreet, James Doherty and John Barsby continued to argue that their earlier decision to exclude certain salaried NUJ officials from their deliberations was justified.

But by a majority of twelve to ten, the full committee reaffirmed the right of all officials to attend all meetings, with several of those present left with the impression that if General Secretary Jeremy Dear had been present, the meeting would have been handled very differently.

NUJPhoto controversy

The NEC meeting also resolved to prepare a clear set of rules concerning the running of union-sanctioned email lists, after an application by Irish Secretary Seamus Dooley to join the photographers’ NUJPhoto discussion list began a series of events which ultimately ended in the list’s sudden closure.

NUJPhoto was founded by NEC member Pete Jenkins two years ago and at his request was endorsed as an official list shortly afterwards. It was funded by the union, but run independently with rules that stated that membership was at the discretion of the list moderators, who subsequently turned down Dooley’s application.

Senior union officials, including Dooley, General Secretary Jeremy Dear, Freelance Industrial Council chair Tim Dawson and Freelance Organiser John Toner subsequently argued that Dooley should be allowed to join the list, creating a power struggle between the union and list owner as to who ultimately controlled the discussion list.

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Days before the Emergency Committee met to discuss NUJPhoto, list owner Jenkins closed down the list, only to open up NVJPhoto – an almost identical lookalike list, run independently of the union and without union endorsement.

“Crucial” role of email lists

General Secretary Jeremy Dear told the meeting that while he believed email discussion lists played a “crucial” role in communications within the union, officially sanctioned lists should operate within a clear set of rules and guidelines to avoid any such clash in the future.

Dooley had claimed that the confidential NUJPhoto list had included posts critical of his handling of the Drogheda house agreement, and he is understood to have indicated that he had leaked copies of the emails in his possession.

While the specific email comments were not revealed in the Emergency Committee minutes, and no representatives from NUJPhoto were invited to the meeting, the Emergency Committee passed a motion condemning “the abusive attacks and smears on the union and its officials in relation to this issue.”

But those familiar with the NUJPhoto discussions told EPUK that while the list discussion never rose to the level of personal abuse, and that list owner Pete Jenkins had personally reminded list members to be polite when addressing union officials in private correspondence.

For the second NEC meeting in succession, EPUK articles were read out to those present. The emergency committee meeting had earlier heard from Kyran Connelly who had said that he felt EPUK’s coverage of the Drogheda Independent controversy reflected an “anti-union” editorial stance, and that a Sqweegee opinion article had contained “unacceptable attacks on [NUJ] staff”. Jeremy Dear also used the same Sqweegee article at last weekend’s meeting as an example of the criticism the union was facing over its handling of the affair.

Other criticism not addressed

While the NEC meeting attempted to bring closure to the Drogheda Independent controversy, EPUK understands that did not address other aspects of the handling of the Drogheda Independent house agreement, such as allegations made by Irish members that the Drogheda Independent chapel had deliberately sought to not inform photographer members about aspects of the agreement until late in the negotiations.

There had also been criticism of the decision to allow the smaller Emergency Committee to handle the motion, instead of the full National Executive. It was argued that the use of the word ‘immediately’ in one of the two motions passed by the Irish Executive Council meant the matter needed to be addressed quickly by the smaller Emergency Committee. But the Emergency Committee chose only to discuss the motion which did not contain the word “immediately”, leaving the more pressing but less important issue for another three weeks to be discussed by the full NEC meeting.

The Emergency Committee minutes also make passing reference to unsubstantiated allegations made at a chapel meeting that union officials may have received bribes to ensure the house agreement passed in its current form.

The NEC meeting is also believed to have not discussed allegations made in the union’s own magazine that an official forum on the Stand Up for Journalism campaign website was deliberately closed down to stop a discussion on the Drogheda Independent deal.

Multi-skilling survey

The NEC also resolved to conduct a survey into how widespread the practice of reporters taking photographs as part of their job actually is. At the moment, only anecdotal evidence exists as to how widespread the practice actually is, and whether it occurs only at newspapers who would not be able to otherwise employ a full photographic staff.

While last week’s EPUK survey showed that only 9% of photographers agreed with the statement “reporters taking photographs is the inevitable consequence of technological change and the NUJ should support it”, Irish Executive Committee member Barry McCall told the Emergency Committee that he believed that there were ‘thousands’ of the NUJ’s 35,000 members who also took photographs as part of their jobs as reporters.

If the survey does indeed show that the practice is widespread, many of the union’s 2,300 photographer members could be forced to choose whether they persuade the union to fight to reverse the tide of multi-skilling, or whether the union should accept and therefore tacitly endorse the practice in future negotiations.

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Comments

I firmly believe that the NUJ has the capability of being a powerful force working on behalf of Photographers, freelances and all its members. The emphasis is on us as members to ensure that the Union is steered to putting its resources into the right areas, and defending all its members to their best advantage.

The root of a lot of the problems surrounding both this particular case and the union – member relationship in general (including but not exclusive to photographers) is the issue of communication. The union has got a lot better in the past year or so with the introduction of sector newsletters, the ‘Informed’ bulletin etc.

Despite the attempts to meet the criticism, the unions’ hierarchy still don’t seem to actually understand the problem. In Drogheda for instance, the Irish officials insist that they had full consultation with all members involved – yep all chapel members. Photographers were only consulted in a knee jerk reaction after it was perceived that photographers were criticising officials for excluding them. By the time a meeting actually took place at least one Irish Official had been explaining to all who would listen that it was a done deal and that even the Irish Executive Council – supposedly the ruling NUJ body in Ireland could do nothing about it. I am certain in my own mind that no individual actually meant any harm by what was done or said, but the union cannot escape the general perception of how its way of dealing with matters is perceived by those looking in, including thousands of photographer members.

There are a few people in the NUJ, who refer to freelances as ‘small businesses’ and treat them as second-class members, and of course this is reprehensible, but this is not a widespread viewpoint.

That the NEC made clear that as a body it endorsed the openness of NEC and the rights that members have, enshrined in the rules to attend meetings, is good, however it was disturbing to hear some of the poor arguments put by members of the Emergency committee themselves to justify the actions they took at the eNEC meeting. These are important members of the union and include the current President and the next President, the Hon Treasurer etc – the people who are the makers and shakers of the NUJ. The desire to put out an aura of ‘control freakery’ is unhelpful and totally counter productive. The union cannot applaud itself on being open and for the members (which it desperately wants to be) when senior members of its management put out exactly the opposite point of view – and I accept that they would probably be most upset and horrified to hear that their actions are perceived in this way, but continual denial will not invoke confidence. A complete openness and an ability to accept publicly that mistakes are (have been) made, would be an excellent way, (the only), forward, and go a long way forward to restoring confidence in what should be our flagship representative fighting organisation. To keep telling members that everything is fine, continually slapping each other on the back telling everyone how clever we are without addressing properly the issues that photographers (and other members) continually highlight, will not fool anyone, cynical photographers included, and I say this as an elected member of the NEC who really desperately wants the Union to work.

The NUJ is about much more than negotiating chapel agreements. If it were not so then hardliners such as myself would have left the union a long time ago. The NUJ has a long history of photographer activists, as Andrew Wiard will be able to confirm – and he has been working tirelessly on our behalf for thirty two years, the NUJ and photographer activists can point to many successes in the past including the 1988 copyright act and the current gatekeeper press card.

In the past three years we have seen the set up of the Photographers Sub-Committee reporting to the Freelance Industrial Council. Very welcome, if long overdue, and at last the union has elected Photographer expertise that can be used to fight photographer issues and provide a pool of resources that can easily be consulted by other union bodies. However since its formation there has been only one clear formal consultation of the PSC, yet the union has made policy on numerous issues – of direct consequence to photographers. Why is this, if the Union truly values its photographers and their judgement? The Ethics Council finally consulted the PSC on the changes it proposed in the rules only after heavy lobbying from the PSC itself and the extensive photographer lobby at both the Annual Delegate meeting and after. But currently the Ethics Council seems to be the only council and committee prepared to/willing to consult the Photographers Sub Committee on matters affecting photographers. Why is this? If the rest of the union takes us seriously why don’t they ask us for our opinion?

The Photographers sub committee has been very active and has achieved much. It has been involved in the Photographers exhibition at ADM and the Photographers Conference in February, both hailed as highly successful events. Clearly neither of these events would have happened had it not been for the huge support received from the Freelance office and the Organisers John Toner and Pamela Morton, both of whom have worked tirelessly on behalf of photographers.

Many in the NUJ see the roll of the union as providing support for members in chapel negotiations and personal cases. Of course for many chapel members this may indeed be the case, but for freelance members and photographers in particular the union means something different.

As individuals we mostly have little effect on the way things happen, but by using the NUJ, its resources and expertise we can have an affect on our industry. Recently over the past year members and the freelance office negotiated press guidelines with Nottingham Police and the Metropolitan Police (in conjunction with the British press Photographers Association, and the Chartered Institute of Journalists). Ok the police don’t seem to have fully taken them on board yet, but having the backing of the NUJ has helped bring them about, and indeed these same guidelines are now being rolled out throughout England and Wales. It would be great to see them discussed in Ireland and Scotland too.

The NUJ has been active in sorting out and dealing with many situations including

- 5.4% increase for photographers at the Irish Times

- NUJ Court challenge to NPower injunction lifts restrictions on photography at Radley Lakes

- Newsquest’s Herald titles hit by huge walkout in strike over redundancies

- A Must-Read: The ABCD of Photographic Copyright NUJ is a key member of the BPLC

- “NUJ Freelance Fees guide – the industry leader is compiled by the Freelance Office of the NUJ Check this site out, the resources here are simply huge

- NVJPhoto a resource run by NUJ members for NUJ photographer members may not be endorsed by the union like NUJPhoto, but just as effective.

- The NUJ Freelance Directory in the process of being redesigned and made better, bigger and free.

For all the fact that the NUJs NEC has put its foot in it several times recently, it does recant each time. True, it would be better if the huge amount of effort wasted in getting these about turns could be avoided, and the resources expended used more productively. I think the union will learn – it simply has to. Once the organisation returns to the track and follows its prime directives of working for and on behalf of all its members, it will be the best chance photographers have.

But it is not just down to the NUJ and its members. Our industry is changing. Ok, we are used to this, but the changes now are not specifically due to technology as we are used to (mono to colour, analogue to digital etc) although it is related, what is changing now is working practice. Our industry no longer values our work in the way it once did. Local papers are probably the worst culprits. Whereas many of us relied on local paper work fifteen years ago, the rates paid these days are now less than those paid ten years ago in many cases, yet our overheads, expenses, equipment needs and technical expertise has skyrocketed. We may not have to worry about all that messy wet processing malarkey any more, but instead we have to spend all the hours god sends digital processing, which no bugger wants to pay for, and most clients either don’t understand or totally blank.

If clients do not value our work we have two choices:

- We accept the devaluation and the low fees and stop supplying if we don’t like it.

- We educate these same clients as to why it makes sense to use our work and pay an acceptable fee.

Frankly I personally think that it is now too late and there is no going back with local paper work. If media organisations really do believe that giving a reporter a mobile phone produces adequate imagery then perhaps we have just gone a step too far. The only chance we have is if a really comprehensive education campaign is undertaken immediately. This has to be led by the NUJ and other organisations. And of course we have to educate our own members starting with NUJ Officials and the NEC. If the officials and National representatives do not believe in our cause, why would anyone else?

Digital does not mean easy or quality – unless used competently. There is absolutely no reason why reporters cannot take photographs as part of their regular work, providing they are given the training and equipment and remuneration to do this properly. If media organisations just assume that reporters can take pictures on top of what they already do as writers then this devalues the work of photographers and overburdens the poor reporter. In addition, although many Publishers seem unphased by the deterioration in quality, it produces in almost every case a poorer quality product.

As for video, it seems that this is the next step forward for those who insist in staying with editorial photojournalism. Here again we need some education. Video is a viewing medium not a written/verbal one. Who is more likely to produce better quality product, journalists who have been producing photographic images professionally, or reporters who are given a cheap video camera to use whilst they do their regular work? Education is required for everyone, and editorial photographers need to get trained to, in order to make him or her better able to use this new equipment. Now that is something constructive the NUJ could help with.

Comment 1: Pete Jenkins, 29 September 2007, 10:56 PM

What the NUJ say and what the NUJ do seem to contradict somewhat. I doubt I’m the only (former NUJ) freelance photographer left with that impression lately.

One word – Drogheda!

Shameful.

A.H.

Comment 2: Alan Hunter, 5 October 2007, 06:44 PM

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