Monday, 5 March 2012

Fit to print interview with Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ General Secretary

Taken from current edition of the Big Issue in the North magazine - buy the magazine, it's a good read and helps people improve their lives. 

Liverpool born Michelle Stanistreet has faced a baptism of fire since taking over as the General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists in July last year. The Leveson Inquiry, two 24-hour strikes at the BBC, the News of the World closure and numerous regional disputes over redundancies and wage cuts all demonstrate a serious crisis in the press industry, heightened by the contempt many of the public feel towards those who work in it.

None of which appears to have dampened the enthusiasm of the 37-year-old mother of one young boy, who is the first woman to head up the NUJ in its 105-year-old existence. Having cut her teeth fighting her own employer, Richard Desmond at the Express Newspapers group, over what she describes as “inaccurate and racially inflammatory coverage of immigration issues” she now wants a conscience clause for all journalists, a code of conduct for the industry, tougher regulations and a change in media ownership. She’s convinced that these will help create a future for the press and papers in this country.

One paper that only has a past is the News of the World. Stanistreet had just finished her first week at the NUJ when James Murdoch announced its closure after 168-years in existence. Despite father Rupert having long ago locked out, de-recognised and refused to talk to the print unions and the NUJ, Stanistreet was “deeply unhappy as it was a cynical act of self-preservation that meant closing a paper that was not in any financial difficulties. It’s always a sad day when any national, regional or local paper shuts up shop. We had individual members at the paper, and like hundreds of others they’ve lost their livelihoods in order for Murdoch to try and protect his top group of executives”.

Not that Stanistreet, the daughter of a policeman, supports the methods, including phone-tapping, that were employed by some journalists to gather stories for what was Britain’s biggest selling Sunday at 2.7 million copies an issue

She has said so at the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, ethics and practices of the British media. Initially the NUJ were refused core participant status.
“We feared the voice of journalists was to be drowned out by the views of the big media bosses and their expensive legal teams. Fortunately, common sense prevailed and we raised our campaigning issues such as ownership, an industry wide code of conduct and a conscience clause for journalists,” says Stanistreet.

All of which would have been helpful when she worked from 1999 onwards at the Express Newspapers group, where she started on the business section of the Daily Express before working her way up to become books editor.

Under new owner, porn king Richard Desmond, the Daily Star and Sunday and Daily Express all regularly ran articles on immigration that had the journalists who had written them complaining of being so heavily edited that “they were wildly inaccurate, unethical and poisonous” says Stanistreet, who by 2001 had become the elected senior union rep at the papers. 

She had hoped that two complaints to the Press Complaints Commission [PCC] would see improvements. However when the regulatory body - on grounds that complaints had to come from those specifically lambasted in the pieces - refused to even investigate, the decision added to the NUJ’s concerns and which now has the organisation calling for the PCC to be disbanded.

Says Stanistreet “It is an old boys club which is too heavily influenced by the views of the media owners and newspaper editors. We need a fresh organisation that includes other interested bodies, including consumers – the public - and those who provide the content – the journalists. ”.

There are a lot less of the latter than a few years back. New technology, and the rise of citizen journalism, combined with widespread public cynicism have sent sales of newspapers rocketing downwards. Across the UK, newspaper circulation fell by over a quarter between 2007 and 2011. The current economic crisis means further falls are inevitable.

Regional newspapers have taken big hits. The 157-year-old Liverpool Daily Post lost 28% of its sales in 2010 and when it fell below 9,000 a day its owners Trinity Mirror began by scrapping the Saturday edition and then in January this year the paper became a weekly.

The Yorkshire Evening Post has also suffered, sales dropping 10% in 2010 and according to Ashley Highfield, new chief executive at its parent company Johnston Press the future of regional publishing lies ‘beyond print… a disseminator of information whether that means print, online, iPads, phones and possibly even local television”.

Stanistreet believes the crisis is largely due to “the bankrupt business model  controlling the industry. Big media groups have had handsome profits for many years. Rather than taking smaller profits, they have cynically cut costs by making workers redundant and reducing pay. This cuts quality, makes things less local and relevant to readers, thus reducing sales even further. Media ownership needs changing, especially as it’s too valuable for democracy to rest under the control of so few people”.

One media outlet that isn’t privately owned is the BBC.  A 20% cut from its budget is set to see 2,000 staff made redundant or not replaced by 2017. Just over a year ago the NUJ supported two one-day strikes by workers there, and Stanistreet says “they would do so again as the cuts are politically motivated because the Tories pre-election policy involved backing Murdoch. Hence they supported the BSkyB takeover by News Corporation last year and which was only abandoned after the full extent of the phone hacking scandal became known. The BBC deal was done behind closed doors in record time, just 2-3 days. The losers are viewers and ordinary journalists. Not those at the top of the corporation”.

The NUJ has many members at the BBC, which isn’t so in other parts of the press. Stanistreet believes the Leveson Inquiry will help in getting some journalists to join as “they can see how we are sticking up for quality journalism by exposing the climate in which many are working. In lots of newsrooms there is bullying and improving an article by challenging an editor’s view can threaten someone’s livelihood. Without a union there is no structure to improve things and ensure we have a media that properly informs the public of what’s going on in society”.

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