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NUJ disunity helps no-one except the publishers we should be fighting

2 October 2007 - EPUK

Union disunity over issues such as the Drogheda Independent controversy helps no-one except the very employers who are at the root of the problem, writes NUJ General Secretary Jeremy Dear.

Reading some recent articles on EPUK you’d be forgiven for thinking the NUJ never did anything for its members – especially photographers.

And yet in just the past couple of months the NUJ has:

  • Helped prevent compulsory redundancies amongst picture desk staff at the Herald/Evening Times through industrial action.
  • Been part of the coalition fighting the restrictive contracts issued by major sporting and entertainment companies around the Rugby World Cup and for rock concerts

In addition, during the past twelve months the NUJ has:

  • Provided advice on dozens of copyright legal cases
  • Helped secure tens of thousands of pounds in unpaid fees

Add to that the publication of the NUJ’s Freelance Fees guide, the NUJ Freelance Directory, the establishment of a Photographers Sub-Committee, the development of training courses in new skills and software packages used by photographers, our dogged year-long pursuit of Adobe to get our photographer members access to their directory. And this week our Freelance Organiser John Toner will meet the Met to take up our concerns over recent uses of the Terrorism Act (and batons) against photographers.

These are hardly the actions of an organisation “simply has no intention of serving freelancers especially photographers”, as one of the respondents to EPUK’s survey said.

Punching above their weight

Compared to their numbers photographers punch above their weight in the NUJ. There’s no problem with that – it just shows good organisation.

Indeed membership among photographers, thanks largely to the work of photographers themselves getting better organised has risen by more than 7% at a time when general union membership has remained static and issues relating to photography and photographers have never been higher on the union’s agenda.

And yet that there remains a perception that the NUJ doesn’t care about photography or photographers.

I don’t believe that’s true – but I accept it is a perception held by some, by too many from my point of view, and it is important the union tries to address it.

The Drogheda Independent agreement has undoubtedly played a large part in helping to create that impression (some of the inaccurate, slightly hysterical and at times simply untrue reporting of it hasn’t helped either) and the NEC at its recent meeting recognised that and is working with the union’s Commission on Multi-Media Working, which has consulted with photographers, to draw up model clauses for use in future negotiations.

Following on from Drogheda a draft agreement has been drawn up covering the Trinity Mirror titles in Merseyside and consultation with freelances and photographers has been a central part of that process.

Stand Up For Journalism

I spoke to members of the NUJ Photographers Sub-Committee in April about integrating a Stand up for Photography element in the Stand Up for Journalism (www.standupforjournalism.org.uk) campaign we launched at our conference. I met again with Committee members in the early summer to ask them to draw up plans to integrate such a campaign of educating editors, the industry and some in our own union about the importance of quality photography and skilled photographers.

To date there has been no response but if they come up with plans it can (and should) still form an integral part of the day of action on 5 November and the ongoing campaign.

None of these are the actions of a union which – as one survey respondent put it – “is happy to take subs from photographers but obviously doesn’t care about their concerns”.

But the reality is for many Drogheda has reinforced not created the impression. For some the advances mean nothing. Their enemy is not the employers who unilaterally tear up agreements or the agencies who undermine rates or the companies who steal copyright or the police who restrict the right to work or editors who undermine skills – it is the union.

Burn effigies

Those who would rather burn effigies of me on 5 November than picket a company currently involved in sacking staff or stealing copyright or refusing to increase rates or who are demanding more work for less money speak volumes about their priorities.

The reality we all have to face is that the only people who gain from such disunity are the very employers who are at the root of the problem.

We can argue over Drogheda (and the debate and discussion will continue I have no doubt and it is right we should all understand the concerns and learn the lessons) but what we can’t do is allow that to enable employers to divide us – especially at a time when the very future of skilled photography in some parts of the media is under serious threat.

In local newspapers and in many online operations – with or without agreements – reporters are carrying cameras and photographers are writing copy. The union has more ‘reporter-photographers’ as members now than it has ever had before. The relentless march of technology means the widespread use of stills from video cameras is not far away. In some cases we have been able to win concessions for agreeing to changes in working practices, in the majority they have been imposed against our will or in some cases they have even been readily accepted by staff against the advice of the union.

If we are to be able to tackle this deskilling of our industry it will not be by fighting each other – it will be by uniting and fighting the employers who, driven by a desire to increase their profits at our expense, seek to bring in new technology not to enhance journalism but for purely economic reasons.

Eye of the storm

Drogheda today is in the eye of the storm on this issue. The company has been forced to sign up to take account of NUJ policy in implementing new technology. If when they sit down with union reps to discuss it under the terms of the agreement they say they want to do away with their contract photographer or they are cutting back on using professional freelance photographers I for one will be arguing union members should be taking action to defend quality journalism.

I’ve no problem with reporters or photographers being trained and upskilled to be able to be flexible – I have a problem if such training is not given or is used to reduce jobs or freelance opportunities. Union policy does not, nor should it, prevent multiskilling but it does unequivocally oppose deskilling and job cuts.

These are the issues on which photographers and reporters, staff and freelances should be united. We have nothing to gain by stealing each other’s jobs (it just means everyone has to work harder for the benefit of the employer) or undermining each other’s skill base (it just means a general decline in journalistic standards).

November 5th presents us with an opportunity to all be saying that loud and clear. Among the dozens of activities organised in the UK, Ireland and Continental Europe in the biggest show of force of journalists across Europe we will be lobbying the Society of Editors conference in Manchester – come and join us and let us together tell editors that quality journalism matters, that quality photography is an integral part of that and that as a union we will stand up to them.

Or alternatively you could join those who are planning to burn an effigy of me.

Want to contact the EPUK Website editor? editor@epuk.org


The issue is not simply about Drogheda. It is about the tactics used (which could be called ‘strong arm’) to intimidate effective photographer debate and silence the voice of photographers.

We have hard working and respected activists who were put in an impossible position by those who perceived them to be troublemakers rather than committed unionists who recognised the myriad implications of Drogheda. They wanted space to discuss the issues without being bullied or steam rollered. They got bullied and steam rollered anyway.

This led to the end of an effective e-mail list that was peopled by people who had some committment to the role of the NUJ. It is sad that the union appeared to show its true colours.

Comment 1: A Gerbil, 2 October 2007, 05:48 pm

“As one of those involved at the highest levels of the NUJ as well as working actively for the cause of Photographers, whilst I welcome the General Secretarys’ affirmation that he has the needs of photographers firmly in his sights, I would like to point out that the only person who I have heard suggest that effigies of the Gen Sec of the NUJ should be burned on Nov 5th is the Gen Sec himself. I think his perception is wrong. If we wanted effigies to burn the Gen Sec is way down on the list.

I for one am not keen to burn images of those willing to help us. There are others in the union who are far more deserving of the General Secretary’s effigy burning campaign! :-)”

Comment 2: Pete Jenkins, 2 October 2007, 10:21 pm

I agree with Jeremy Dear NUJ General Secretary the best way for editorial photographers to ensure their future in quality journalism is to organise within the NUJ. As photographers we should promote high professional standards, ethical journalism, one person one job, the right of access to news scenes safely and without threat. “Stand up for Journalism” allows us to showcase our expertise. I believe the NUJ photographic exhibition put together for the NUJ’s Photographers’ Conference and ADM should be used on 5th November as part of the wider campaign. Photographers should organise their own petition as part of this campaign articulating the need to defend pay and conditions for both staff and freelance photographers. NUJ branches in Northern Ireland are organising a lobby of local politicians at Parliament Buildings at Stormont and photographers and freelance interests will be central to this lobby. We have also drawn up our own petition highlighting the interests of journalists in Northern Ireland to be sent out to all newsrooms in the North. I believe the Drogheda Independent agreement was a testing time for all NUJ photographers but the General Secretary and the NEC have shown their ability to listen to strong representation and act accordingly. We have been shown solidarity and now we must play our part.

Kevin Cooper
NUJ Photographer

Comment 3: Kevin Cooper, 2 October 2007, 11:18 pm

I read this article with great disappointment. In it the GS asks for unity yet on his own blog (and after this article had been written) he cannot resist continuing to take cheap shots at the Union members who set out arguments against the Drogheda Agreement – hardly actions becoming a GS and definitely designed to provoke. The arguments against the agreement were enough to persuade the IEC to put forward a motion rejecting the DI Agreement. But we know what happened then. This has been a shameful period for the NUJ – (if you haven’t seen it you can read an article I wrote about it on www.standupforjournalism.com) – and yet the GS still needs to get in these cheap jibes. If you really want unity please address the real issues raised by the Drogheda Agreement before taking anymore cheap shots or congratulating yourselves on how good a deal this is.

Comment 4: Alan Murphy, 3 October 2007, 10:48 am

Pete Jenkins wrote:

“I would like to point out that the only person who I have heard suggest that effigies of the Gen Sec of the NUJ should be burned on Nov 5th is the Gen Sec himself.”

Jeremy Dear’s reference is to an news snippet which appeared on the EPUK website on August 18th, but was removed afterwards when the editor became aware that the first and last paragraphs were not consistent with the news ‘house style’. (We are currently looking at ways so that when a news snippet is posted on the website by a freelance writer, the editor is automatically notified, unlike at present.)

In the interests of transparency, the piece can now be seen by clicking here (with an editor’s note) so readers can judge for themselves.

News snippets started as very light hearted and/or satirical pieces when they were first introduced onto the website (click here and here for early examples), but have since become more serious in tone and content (click here and here for the two most recent at the time of writing).

Comment 5: Nick McGowan-Lowe, EPUK Website Editor, 3 October 2007, 01:36 pm

I would also like to say that comments on JD’s blog about BJP are inaccurate. I have posted a comment, but as it is first moderated, it isn’t up yet. So, here it is below.

Dear Jeremy,

Seems rather silly to be posting a comment here about getting your facts right before you accuse someone else of getting their facts right.

We made a small error, and in fact published a retraction on 12 September, three weeks prior to your posting this comment here.

We have also repeatedly asked you (through your PA) for an interview to put your views over, and haven’t had any sort of reply.

There are very real concerns from your freelance photographer members about how the Drogheda agreement was put together, and the subsequent handling of disputes with NUJ Photo forum.

So. How about an interview?

Simon Bainbridge,
British Journal of Photography

Comment 6: Simon Bainbridge, 3 October 2007, 06:21 pm

Kevin Wrote:
“We have been shown solidarity and now we must play our part.”

Solidarity is exactly what we have not been shown. So why on earth would anyone think we have a part to play?…. Not the bosses (sopranos?). Now there is a big project in which it is useful for the bosses (Union bosses…not proffessional media types) to ask us to participate?

It all looks a bit empty on an awful lot of levels I have to say with regret.

Comment 7: A Gerbil, 3 October 2007, 10:19 pm

Three weeks later and Jeremy Dear still hasn’t had the decency to acknowledge – never mind publish – my comment on his blog, yet his accusation that BJP has ignored (not true) his request for a retraction remains…

Simon Bainbridge,
British Journal of Photography

Comment 8: Simon Bainbridge, 22 October 2007, 05:45 pm

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