Could the NUJ have ensured phone hacking never happened?

Final News Of the World
Final News Of the World

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.


3 thoughts on “Could the NUJ have ensured phone hacking never happened?

  1. Interesting piece and, of course, my piece was unprovable speculation. But, it is important to note that the anti-union culture in NI isn’t just an academic. Worker’s rights are routinely violated, I do mention my complaint against the editor ofthe Times in the piece. Not being recognised means the only time the NUJ gets a look in is representing workers in individual cases, quite often redundancies or unfair dismissal. Thay’s shown us what can happen to people who stand up in the organisation. Having the right to organise the union would, in my view, have allowed concerned staff to stand up collectively and made it easier and more likely to have happened.

  2. HI David,

    I can see your points, particularly about being a “hostage to fortune”.

    It’s very true to say it is speculation for the NUJ to say we could have stopped phone hacking. The emphasis is clearly on the “could”. We are definitely not saying that every NUJ member ever will have been pure as the driven snow, and there will almost certainly be occasions where individual members have willingly or unwillingly broken the code.

    One reason I think we are making the argument about Wapping is to remind people about the lack of genuine independent trade unions on site. Too many people seem to think the NUJ is akin to the BMA – that all journalists have to be members and that we can simply “strike them off” if they behave badly. It is therefore important for us as an organisation to quash this myth by reminding people that Murdoch set out to destroy us 25 years ago.

    I also don’t think we are wrong to point to union organisation being a good watchdog for standards. My first real experience of doing this as a lay union rep in the 1990s was when my (Newsquest owned) local paper accepted a half page display ad from that wonderful organisation the BNP with the UK depicted as a rubbish bin into which people – presumably ethnic minorities – were being placed as waste. The MDs line was genuinely one of utter indifference when colleagues first raised the ethical considerations of putting the advert in – and it was only after a robust challenge from the union that they scrapped the advert.

    The NUJ is doing a very good job, I think, of treading the line between criticising the illegal methods the paper employed, but also defending the journalists and staff. See the video of our head of Publishing Barry Fitzpatrick on the Telegraph website for evidence of this. The number of membership enquiries we are getting has increased hugely since all this kicked off.

    We are also fighting as much as we can for local papers – and the dispute that appears likely to be kicking off in Doncaster where the exasperated staff have been tipped over the edge by lack of resources, will provide us a focal point for this.



    1. Thanks for the comment Lawrence. Much appreciated. I would like to see the NUJ working with the Newspaper Society and the Society of Editors, and the big companies to make the point that local journalism shouldn’t be tarnished as a result of this. Whether that’s possible, I’m not sure.

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