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EXCLUSIVE by Fiona O'Cleirigh
Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow came out in support of FOIA specialist Mark Watts to be elected editor of the Journalist magazine.
He decided to endorse Watts because of his anger over what he sees as the politicisation of the national union of journalists (NUJ), which publishes the Journalist for its members.
Watts is standing on the basis of ensuring that the Journalist is independent – of the NUJ leadership or any other entity – and becomes an agenda-setting magazine aimed at serving only the union’s members.
In a message sent via the FOIA Centre website, Snow said: “I support the Watts campaign. It is time members voted for a truly independent journalists’ union.”
The sensational intervention by the Channel 4 News newscaster, who has been the face of the programme since 1989, puts him in a growing group of eminent journalists from the UK and Ireland who are backing a campaign to elect Mark Watts – freelance reporter, broadcaster as well as the FOIA Centre co-ordinator – as editor of the Journalist.
They have come forward since Watts declared a fortnight ago that he was standing as a candidate to take the helm of the magazine and ensure its independence. This contrasts with other candidates who lined up endorsement quotes before knowing who was running in the election.
In two separate articles on Monday, we named, and published comments from, several top journal-ists from across the media industry and throughout the UK and Ireland who have decided to endorse the bid by Watts in the editorship election. They include journalists from national and provincial newspapers, magazines, and television news, current affairs and documentaries.
Since then, further leading journalists have also come out to endorse the Watts campaign this week, including another of Snow’s previous reporter colleagues on Channel 4 News, Mark Lloyd, and a former BBC political correspondent.
Watts is campaigning for the new editor of the Journalist to be a journalist at heart – not an “activist”. He is a former co-father-of-chapel, adding: “But, fundamentally, I am about journalism rather than trade unionism.”
He is running in the election for the post, to be decided in a postal ballot of NUJ members, because he thinks that only he out of eight shortlisted candidates can offer the clear vision of an independent, agenda-setting magazine that focuses on key industry issues.
But it has proved a controversial stance at the NUJ’s head office in Headland House, and it is the big debating point in the election.
Many key figures in the union’s leadership assoc-iated with the “NUJ Left” “coalition” argue that the
Journalist should drive a political “activist” agenda.
Snow made clear that he supports the stance on this issue taken by Watts.
The Channel 4 news anchor also urged NUJ members to vote in the editorship election to help ensure that the outcome reflects the true wishes of the membership.
Leading figures in the NUJ who are not part of the “NUJ Left” network estimated that it can deliver up to 400 votes, and only 1,000 members are expected to post their ballots in the election, less than 4% of the NUJ membership.
Meanwhile, Snow also revealed in a telephone conversation with our reporter that he quit the NUJ last year because of what he regards as the politic-isation of the union. He said: “I was peeved over the boycott of Israel despite my strong Palestinian sympathies. I did not like being told what to think by my union.”
Snow was one of several high-profile journalists who condemned the NUJ over a resolution passed at the annual delegate meeting (ADM) in 2007 concerning a call to boycott Israeli goods and services.
At the time of the controversy, Snow said: “I am completely outraged that the union that I joined, and remain a member of to protect and work for the interest of journalists, should take such a high-horse position on a private issue for countries and individuals themselves.”
But the “stop the NUJ boycott” campaign was then successful later that year after the NUJ’s national executive council decided to take “no further action” on implementing the resolution because the trades union congress had rejected the call for action.
In 2004, Snow also condemned the NUJ leader-ship for trying to set up a political fund, a move that was rejected in a ballot of all members despite complaints about wildly unbalanced coverage in the Journalist.
Snow told us that he had been an NUJ member for 33 years, but had become disillusioned with the union, saying: “I left the NUJ over the absurd Israel boycott concocted by another union clique.”
Watts said: “I think that Jon has shown courage by making these comments given the bruising experience he has had previously when trying to talk some sense into the NUJ hierarchy.
“I am certain that NUJ members would be interest-ed to hear the views of Jon and other senior journalists who have backed my campaign. Jon's insight would certainly make one feature worth read-ing in a future edition of the Journalist.
“However, at the end of the day, only the NUJ members matter, and they have to decide for themselves how to vote. Before doing so, they really should look through the material from all the candidates enclosed with the ballot papers.
“They should not assume that the intervention of such high-profile figures as Jon Snow on behalf of my campaign will mean that the result is guaranteed. This is absolutely an open race. There is clear choice. And its outcome will depend, above all, on turnout.
“I hope that every NUJ member heeds the clear call of Jon – and other journalists cited on the FOIA Centre’s website – to vote in this editorship elect-ion. Please do not leave it to a few hundred mem-bers of a political faction who have pulled far away from where the vast majority of members are.”
Many journalists have also shown their support for the Watts campaign by commenting on the Press Gazette website, on www.holdthefrontpage.co.uk, www.journalism.co.uk, on one of two blog postings by Jon Slattery, the former deputy editor of Press Gazette, as well as on the NUJ site.
Ballot papers in the election for the Journalist editorship have been arriving with NUJ members since the beginning of October, with the closing date for receipt of votes on November 6. The result is due to be announced later that day.
The NUJ Manchester branch is holding hustings for union members on Thursday October 22.
Fiona O’Cleirigh is a researcher, journalist and television producer. She has declared her supp-ort for the Watts campaign. She is also a member of the NUJ’s London freelance branch.
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