Over the weekend, I’ve been hearing suggestions that had the News of the World been a unionised newsroom, then it could have been saved. In other words, had the National Union of Journalists been allowed to represent members in the newsrooms of News International, then it’s highly likely phone hacking would never have happened.
The argument seems to originate in this piece on the Guardian’s Comment Is Free section by the NUJ’s Donnacha DeLong. His argument begins with the Wapping dispute which led to the NUJ being banned from Wapping, in his words.
He argues that sensationalism kicked in almost immediately, along with an obsession with celebrity rather than ‘real news.’ (The Mail On Sunday has an alternative take from an ‘insider’ on when the celebrity news took over). From there, he argues, the slide into the ‘dark arts’ was inevitable and annexes the Merseyside boycott of The Sun in the wake of the revolting Hillsborough allegations as proof of people who suffered at the hands of this early on.
The reason the NUJ could have changed history, DeLong argues, is because members of the NUJ have a code of conduct which they must agree with prior to becoming a member. The union also has procedures to punish those who break the code, and has the ability to organise collective action if it feels that a newspaper is breaching ethical standards.
Examples of this can be found at the Daily Star and the Daily Express, DeLong says, where articles have been pulled in the face of collective action from journalists.
There are several concerns I have with the idea that the NUJ could have stopped phone hacking.
First off is the idea that NUJ members operate on a moral highground above journalists who aren’t members. There is nothing surprising in the NUJ Code of Conduct, and it is a template for the way all journalists should operate in my opinion. You don’t have to be a member of the NUJ to instinctively know when you’re crossing a line. Facing the sanction of being kicked out of the NUJ is probably neither here nor there to those who don’t know the difference between investigative journalism and breaking the law.
Secondly, even if the News of the World newsroom was unionised, there’s no guarantee that the darkest of ‘dark arts’ being used by the NOTW would be widely known about. DeLong says use of the dark arts was ‘widespread’ but that’s an allegation still to be proven, and which the vast many at the NOTW say simply isn’t true.
For that collective action to brought against management, the use of phone hacking needs to be widely known about. Although the NUJ isn’t recognised by News International, the union still has members within the organisation. If knowledge of the dark arts was widespread as the NUJ suggests, then surely it’s likely an NUJ member would have quietly spoken to the NUJ on the understanding on anonymity? That’s speculation on my part, but I find it hard to imagine that if phone hacking was widely known about, someone wouldn’t have raised it somewhere.
Finally, I can’t but think that the NUJ will find itself a hostage to fortune if it insists on saying that phone hacking, or other unethical or illegal activities, won’t go on on its watch. It’s effectively saying ‘nothing ethically dodgy happens in our newsrooms’. The Press Complaints Commission, for example, ruled against the Daily Telegraph for sending reporters under cover as constituents of Lib Dem minister MPs to find our their secret thoughts. Many journalists felt the reporters were justified in doing what they do. In other words – one person’s ‘unethical’ can be another journalist’s justified means. But as I said earlier, there are lines all journalists know they shouldn’t cross.
That’s not to say the NUJ doesn’t have a vital role to play in the fall-out of the phone hacking scandal. It does. If ever there was a time that journalism needed an organisation to stand up and shout about the fact that the vast majority of journalists simply wouldn’t do what a handful at the News of the World did, it’s now.
The union would be much better off fighting to help restore the good reputation of journalists – especially at a local level where there have been reports of journalists being tarred by the same brush simply because they are journalists – than trying to make claims it could have stopped it happening in the first place. Much as I wish that was true, it simply can’t be proven.