I was sceptical that a gathering over video could replicate an actual trades union conference. How happy I was then, to find my fears misplaced. A version of what follows appeared in the June 2021 edition of NUJ Informed.
The portents were ominous. It was Thursday afternoon and a score of delegates logged on for a ‘technology familiarisation session’. Could video conferencing possibly deliver a rumbustious delegate meeting of over 200 journalists?
From the apparently swirling darkness of Walthamstow, the top of the head of London Freelance veteran Jenny Vaughan loomed on screen. “This is worse than my wildest nightmares” she cried, in a wail that might have been the disapproving ghost of Delegate Meetings past. With scarcely ten per cent of the anticipated participants online, and Zoom sceptics ascendant, our conference seemed fatally glitched.
As the handful of staff and SOC members departed Headland House that evening, a menacing black cloud hung over Kings Cross. NUJ democracy had survived Hitler, the High Courts and Rupert Murdoch, but now, it seemed, insufficient bandwidth would lay us low.
The following morning, general secretary Michelle Stanistreet opened our gathering. Her’s was an upbeat account of our union’s recent work and coming prospects delivered with the poker-face composure of a seasoned negotiator. Could the optimism she willed into life overcome the crushing pessimism of the previous evening? We were about to find out.
Without the mental parentheses of long rail journeys or flights, joining a delegate meeting from newsroom, kitchen or bedroom was an unfamiliar jolt. But as Friday morning wore on, and attention fixed on the issues at hand, an unanticipated miracle seemingly overcame us. For all the frustrations of down-the-line democracy, it felt less and less like a technological aberration and increasingly like an NUJ delegate meeting.
But could a Zoom gathering ever match the emotional intensity of a seaside hall brimful with disputatious trades unionists on the cusp a big vote? Amazingly, as delegates found their feet, and the order papers lumbered towards the vote on subscriptions, it began to seem as though it might.
The Executive previewed the big vote all day, weaving into every contribution the need to raise revenues. When finally the debate came, it was impossible not to feel awe that all over Britain and Ireland, not to mention many European capitals, we were connected with each other in the serious-minded consideration of our union’s future.
The scale of the affirmative vote – 82 per cent in favour – was as large as has ever been achieved for such a motion. Who knows whether we will ever again want or need another online DM? The conduct of that debate, however, and the scale of approval, was definitive proof that NUJ democracy thrives, whether delivered at a seaside gathering or over fibre-optic cable.
Like any large meeting, our get-together was rich in unintended revelation. We met the industrial firebrands who surround themselves with floral chintz. There were kitchens that looked more like Police safe houses than homesteads. And our assistant general secretary demonstrated how combining bald head, green screen and headphones creates the illusion of a halo. Doubtless he would claim this as confirmation that trades unionists are always on the side of the angels.
Like any slick broadcast operation, on-screen effortlessness was the product of frenetic industry beyond the camera’s gaze. Creating this required a select handful to work from well-spaced desks around our Headland House headquarters. The NUJ’s training suite served as the operation’s heart.
A glance round the door with DM in full flow provides little sense of what those assembled are enacting – but the scene is not without occasional drama.
For most of Friday and Saturday just six people occupy this large, airy office that accommodates 30 in normal use. All are so focussed on their computer’s cameras that interlopers pass among them without eye contact or acknowledgement.
President Sian Jones occupies the middle seat, projecting the sunny, unflappable charm of a children’s tv host. As a raft of worthy motions are dispatched en bloc, however, a tremor disturbs this apparently well-oiled machine.
Standing Order Committee’s Debbie Cavaldoro sits in one corner, hard-wired to the Zoom Q&A feed, through which over 200 participants interact with conference’s top table. She looks up from her monitor, face whitening slightly. Two hundred miles away, a delegate combing the rules claims to have spotted a procedural irregularity.
Cavaldoro signals to Donnacha DeLong, whose workstation is opposite the President. Without disturbing his tumbling locks he lifts both hands above his head, as though in prayer, and then draws them slowly apart.
It is unlikely that delegates notice, but Jones, sitting opposite, shifts slightly on her seat and delivers some well-practiced reminders about how democracy works in this unfamiliar medium.
Assistant General Secretary Séamus Dooley breaks from a delicate composite negotiation to thumb through the rule book. Moments pass and higher counsel is required. He departs at pace to general secretary Michelle Stanistreet’s office across the corridor. DeLong continues his slow, clapping-in-reverse action.
Steering committee’s John Lister is now invited to share a word from his desk to one side of Jones. His focus locks on the tiny camera before him, and he conducts delegates though the coming order paper. With silvery curls and steel-rimmed spectacles, he exudes the authority of a weekend news anchor. Had Dooley not returned at a trot, it would be easy to imagine Lister moving on to the day’s football results.
Jones returns to screen to let delegates know that a serious point of order had been raised and that the best person to provide an answer would be co-host Lister – at that moment engaged in urgent conflab with Dooley.
He has been off screen for scarcely ten seconds, but when Lister returns, it is to refer to a standing order so dusty that it may not have been cited before in our union’s 114-year history. Obscure it might be, but our forbears saw fit to set it in stone, and Lister has the numbered clause seemingly committed to memory. Was it for this feat alone that he was awarded his PhD, delegates might well have wondered?
Now DeLong’s hands returns to pounding his keyboard. Cavaldoro sits back, and Jones invites a delegate to unmute themselves and propose the next motion. The training suite regains its efficient hum and encouraging smiles – for a few moments, at least.
And so it continued for two days, mediating discord between the Black Members’ Council and the Socialist Workers’ Party, recommitting us to fighting for higher wages for media workers, and finding common ground in our attitude to the heart-breaking developments in Palestine.
At the meetings’ close, the Q&A system was nearly overwhelmed with congratulatory messages. The President deservedly won particularly fulsome praise, but there was a tide of satisfaction with the entire meeting.
Who knows what the future holds? My take away from two days wired to my screen was this. When the NUJ comes together with good spirit and determination, there is no limit to what we can achieve, however novel are the challenges or daunting the prospects.
Friday night social – review
Should anything be off-limits for a confessional stand up? Listening to Mark Thomas, deliver a DM-social-via-Zoom gig, it was hard not to wonder. So luridly did he paint his mother that a call fo social services would be in order, were he not a middle-aged man who voluntarily spent lock down at the maternal hearth.
She farts in his face, banters about oedipal sex, and likens Thomas’ culinary efforts to liquid faeces. One might feel sympathy for the south Londoner did he not earn his crust by the public laundering of his mother’s soiled laundry. On this evening’s evidence, they deserve one another.
Jonny and the Baptists were a joyful antidote to the gags wrought from trauma. The singing, joshing, goofing duo harmonised their way through plans to make black pudding from the Queen’s blood, mocking the Abrahamic myth, and commissioning the murder of huntsmen. But theirs was a gleeful confection of nonsense, enlivened through palpable delight in each other’s company. Broadcasting from an Airbnb in Folkestone, they had me pining for a seaside evening enjoying their entire set.
The real novelty of this charity fundraiser, however, was a bold attempt at participatory television – the ‘NUJ Does Gogglebox’. The audience of activists appeared periodically on a gallery screen beamed from viewers’ living rooms. It was an experiment that advertised the idiosyncrasy of our union’s membership, if nothing else.
A pair of Easter Island statues stood sentinel, craggy features unmoved by the mirth. One suit-and-tied gay blade took in proceedings before a roaring fire, while an emigre activist clearly keeps on his trilby, even while at home. This was an audience enjoying a downtime drink and putting up its feet; one or two even appeared to be enthusiasts for ‘rolling their own’. Most remarked upon was the wizened member who wore just a vest and seemed unable to settle in his seat.
All provided an insight into the rich human tapestry that makes up our union. On the evidence of this outing, however, it would be unwise to rely on a commission from Chanel Four to save the union’s finances.