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Many tricky issues about the state of journalism in Britain today need to be addressed by the national union of journalists. But before the NUJ can tackle these urgent problems with credibility, its general secretary, Jeremy Dear, has to deal with the far-left faction seeking to take over the union.
As a candidate in the election for the editor of the NUJ’s Journalist magazine, I discovered and revealed how a political faction inspired by the socialist workers party (SWP) is close to hijacking our union, and, as part of its plan, wanted to usher in Richard Simcox – who was elected onto its steering committee last May – to the job of Journalist editor.
Most journalists have shared my astonishment at the threat to the union posed by this faction, “NUJ Left”.
However, the “NUJ Left” gang deployed a version of the scientologists’ “fair-game” strategy in which anyone who dares to criticise them are treated with an array of hysterical smears.
After the election result, which saw the “NUJ Left” candidate come seventh in a field of eight and former Times journalist Christine Buckley top the poll, Dear posted a blog in which he congratulated her on winning. Quite right, too.
He continued: “I've kept as quiet as possible during the campaign about the relative merits of candidates, but I am angry at the way Richard Simcox was attacked and the union's reputation rubbished by Mark Watts. Richard didn't deserve that.”
Dear ought to turn his anger where it is needed. And as the NUJ’s leader, he ought at least to have his facts right: he is simply wrong to say that I attacked Simcox and rubbished the union’s reputation.
I did attack “NUJ Left” for fielding candidates in this and other NUJ elections without their declaring political affiliations. I also attacked “NUJ Left” for its aim of seeking to promote their members for elected positions in the union and stipulate that they are accountable to the political group rather than the NUJ membership.
Dear said nothing about the outrageous smear campaigns mounted against me by several “NUJ Left” members and cheerleaders.
One person chimed in agreement with his post, while journalists who supported my election campaign questioned Dear on his blog and on a separate report.
Bill Goodwin, the journalist at the centre of the
ground-breaking ‘sources’ case, said: “It’s not true to suggest that Mark Watts rubbished the union. That sounds to me like a case of shooting the messenger.
“The issue Mark highlighted – that a political group within the NUJ is, behind the scenes, trying to place its own candidates in elected positions – is something that NUJ members clearly need to know about.
“Mark came in for a lot of very personal flack from members of the ‘NUJ Left’, including some very bizarre allegations from its members, for raising this issue.
“The focus of Mark’s criticism was always the lack of transparency in the behaviour of the ‘NUJ Left’. He certainly hasn’t attacked Richard Simcox, or any other individual, on a personal level.”
In my e-mail circular to NUJ members, I wrote: “I know Jeremy Dear, our general secretary, and Michelle Stanistreet, our deputy general secretary, quite well.”
“I’m happy to be open about the fact that I like Jeremy and Michelle, that I have a high regard for them, and believe that they’ve done fantastic work for NUJ members in their current, and previous, roles. They have the potential to lead our union to a better future.
“I call on our general secretary and deputy general secretary to condemn publicly the stated aims of ‘NUJ Left’. I call on them to condemn publicly the fielding of a candidate by ‘NUJ Left’ in this election in such a way as to limit the realistic likelihood of the electorate finding out about his political allegiance. And I call on them to state publicly that they will initiate and lead the process of establishing procedures to ensure that candidates in all future NUJ elections declare any political allegiances.”
So far, Dear has only said that he is angry with me.
Besides providing a proper response to that call, he has two other urgent matters relating to “NUJ Left”.
First, the NUJ’s campaigns and communications officer, Miles Barter, who, as I revealed, campaigned for the “NUJ Left” candidate in the Journalist election. Barter, along with Simcox, was elected onto the “steering committee” of “NUJ Left” last May.
I revealed an e-mail dated Friday October 2 in which Barter told “NUJ Left” colleagues: “I’m off today and working on Richard’s campaign.”
Barter told me that he had taken leave from his NUJ job for time owing.
Two journalists later dismissed my revelation as a sham. Roy Greenslade, media commentator of The Guardian, did so while failing to disclose that he was a supporter on Simcox’s Facebook campaign page. Greenslade’s explanation was that he might have joined “inadvertently”. He was forced to publish an apology for an outrageous comment about me.
And Chris Wheal, in common with his hysterical friends in “NUJ Left”, failed to see why it was wrong for the NUJ’s campaigns officer, who happens to be a prominent member of a political faction, to be campaigning for that group’s candidate in a union election.
He said: “All NUJ officials are full members of the NUJ and are as entitled to vote for, endorse or campaign for, any candidate in any election just as much as every other member of the NUJ.”
Wheal also attempted to mount a smear cam-paign, as I set out on an online forum, by trying to say that I was somehow linked to the BNP. And it was Wheal who spearheaded the NUJ’s online coverage of its conference this month.
Barter was also outed as having involved himself in a complaint to the NUJ by one of my campaign supporters, Kevin Cahill, that his comment to the union’s website was adulterated. I believe that Barter’s involvement in that complaint was an abuse by him of his NUJ position. I wrote about the episode on an online forum.
Moreover, the three candidates who ended up polling at the top of the election, as well as Simcox, attended the count on the afternoon of Monday Nov-ember 16 each accompanied by a friend. Simcox took along Barter, who presumably had quite a lot of time owing and who presumably, like Greenslade and Wheal, simply fails to see the conflict between his NUJ job and his “NUJ Left” position. His attend-ance at the count is not a revelation for Dear because the general secretary went as the formal NUJ representative.
One might question the efficacy of the NUJ’s campaigns officer if he could only help his candidate poll second to last in an eight-strong field. I draw no conclusions from that.
However, despite the protestations of Greenslade, Wheal and their hysterical friends in “NUJ Left”, Barter’s position as the NUJ’s campaigns and communications officer is utterly untenable.
The second urgent issue in Dear’s in-tray is to stem the attempted hijack by “NUJ Left” of the new London photographers’ branch (LPB), which has the potential to attract much-needed new members to the union. As I have already argued, the NUJ leadership needs to contact every photographer in the union who might want to transfer to LPB to set out how it will ensure that the branch will be governed – and its officials elected – democratic-ally, and not stitched up in secret, unofficial meetings by “NUJ Left” or anyone else.
I understand that Dear is in a tricky spot. He needs to make clear his own position on “NUJ Left”. And then perhaps he will be able to focus on leading the NUJ to tackle the serious issues that arise from the parlous state of journalism in Britain today.
Mark Watts – freelance journalist, broadcaster and FOIA Centre co-ordinator – stood in the election for editor of the Journalist, polling third. He is not a member of any political party or group.
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