NUJ members speak out against pressures of the newsroom at the Leveson Inquiry


Journalists are being bullied by newspaper managements and put under huge pressure to deliver the story at all costs, the NUJ told the Leveson Inquiry.

General secretary Michelle Stanistreet gave evidence from testimony compiled from personal interviews with journalists that reveals a shocking catalogue of bullying and abuse in the newspaper industry.

Those who came forward were guaranteed anonymity, after Associated Newspapers, publishers of the Daily Mail, failed in a court bid to prevent the evidence being brought to the Inquiry. News International was trying until the last moment to prevent the anonymous testimony from being used, with the NUJ only getting the green light to use the interviews late yesterday.

Michelle Stanistreet said: “These are not isolated examples of unethical workplace practices. They reflect the wider picture that are prevalent in the industry today. Officials working for the union deal daily with cases of sexual harassment, sexism and intolerable pressure by bosses who are bullying them routinely.”

The court heard:

  • the “dark arts” of journalism are not restricted to tabloids – they are common to all newspapers
  • no journalist was prepared to give evidence in public because they “petrified” they would never again work in the industry
  • one former News of the World reporter said staff were worked “like dogs” and given impossible tasks to complete. “There is no mercy,” they said
  • freelance journalists working casual shifts have no job security, which makes it impossible to speak out without losing their job
  • journalists feel betrayed by employers who tried to scapegoat them by saying they (the employers) knew nothing about editorial malpractice “To any working journalist, that’s fanciful and not true,” said Michelle Stanistreet, herself a former national newspaper journalist. “Editors on national newspapers are as hands-on as you can get.”
  • The News International Staff Association (NISA), a body set up to deny the NUJ recognition rights, was an inappropriate place to raise concerns about ethics because it was there to serve the company, not journalists’ interests. Michelle Stansistreet said: “A staff association set up and financed by a company can never provide a genuine independent voice for its staff. You can;t turn to them and ask them to protect you on bullying or ethical issues.”
  • young journalists who practised the ‘dark arts’ in the 1980s have been promoted and are now running newspapers
  • a reporter who refused to write an anti-Muslim story was referred to as the “token Leftie” and made to write even more
  • a reporter who refused to make up quotes to substantiate stories found they would “magically appear” when the paper was printed

Asked whether she supported Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre’s proposal for a ‘kite mark’ for journalists, Michelle Stanistreet replied: “It’s a ridiculous idea and would never work in practice.

“This is yet another example of an influential media figure trying to pin the blame on journalists.    It will do nothing to tackle the culture of the newsroom because that culture is imposed upon journalists from above, yet under his model he would have all the power and none of the responsibility.”

The NUJ will submit its proposals for regulation to the inquiry at a later date.

Speaking to UnionNews after the hearing, Michelle Stanistreet said: “What we haven’t had at the moment in the inquiry is balance.  We’ve had a succession of editors and bosses trouping up and telling us that pretty much everything’s okay in the industry, so it was really important that we heard what it’s really like for working journalists on the ground.”

* Earlier in the day, Michelle Stanistreet told the Inquiry a conscience clause would offer protection to journalists at work, as well as improving ethics within the industry.

In an earlier submission, she had called for a conscience clause to be introduced to journalist’s contracts, and was this morning asked whether anything she’d seen or heard during the course of the inquiry had changed her mind.

A hint of a smile playing across her lips, she replied: “Everything we have heard shows why it is so vital journalists have protection, so when they face pressure to do something unethical, a directive from their editor to carry out a piece of work that contravenes their Code of Conduct, they can stand up and say ‘No – I’m invoking my conscience clause”, allowing them to stand up for journalistic ethics knowing they can’t be sacked. As things stand, they don’t have that protection.”

When they join the NUJ, all journalists sign up to the union’s code of conduct – a guide for ethical journalism. In 2006, the union introduced a conscience clause to the code, allowing journalists to refuse an assignment if it leads to them breaking the code.

Lord Justice Leveson asked whether there was any difference between the NUJ’s code of conduct and those introduced by other media organisations and employers.

Michelle Stanistreet replied: “No-one else has a conscience clause, so journalists don’t have that protection. Also, if they don’t have collective organisation at work, they don’t have a trade union voice, they don’t have anyone to turn to and raise their concerns or highlight the pressure they come under that is contravening their ethics.”

In response to a further question from Lord Justice Leveson about whether non-NUJ members would benefit from a conscience clause, Michelle Stanistreet replied: “We’d love it if the industry adopted our code as standard. There are even some people within the Press Complaints Commission who accept that. Journalists should be protected wherever they work, and employers shouldn’t be able to opt out.

“As well as highlighting the principles by which journalists work ethically, the code also stresses the accountability and responsibility journalists have to the public when they carry out their work.

“It’s vital journalists have the protection of an independent trade union in their workplace because not only do journalists have to work for employers who are hostile to the NUJ, but when they have difficulty, they have nowhere to turn.

“We don’t just deal with the bread and butter issues of pay and conditions – we’re there to protect the industry’s ethics and standards too.”

The NUJ invited its members to contact the union if they wanted to give evidence about newspaper practices to the Inquiry. The union submitted evidence anonymously from 12 journalists, all of whom were interviewed by Michelle Stanistreet.

The Inquiry was keen to learn how the interviews were carried out, whether they were fair, whether any positive comments about employers was taken out and, most importantly, whether they were genuine.

Michelle Stanistreet explained contemporaneous notes were taken, typed up and verified by the interviewees, with only information that might lead to their identification removed.

You can see an exclusive UnionNews film about the day’s proceedings here

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