Mr Rights: honouring Mike Holderness, copyright warrior

Mike Holderness, NUJ member of honour Picture: Mark Dimmock

Based on the citation I delivered, conferring on Mike Holderness NUJ membership of honour.

Mike Holderness might look like a mild-mannered, middle-aged anarchist – but the man we have before us is a warrior.  For the past quarter century, he has taken on the high command of global capitalism – determined to ensure that journalists obtained the full fruits of their industry – and more often than not, he has emerged victorious.

Beneath his cargo pants, labourer’s boots and spiky black hair, is possibly most determined, committed and imaginative campaigner I have ever had the privilege to call a colleague. I know that for some people here copyright is not their first industrial concern – but remember the words of Mark Getty: “intellectual property is the oil of the 21st century” he said, before he invested $80m on photographs – a large part of the fortune that his father has made in oil.

Mike Holderness’ life work has been to ensure that the copyright robber barons don’t have it all their own way.

Mike Holderness being presented with his NUJ member of honour certificate by Tim Dawson Picture: Mark Dimmock

Mike Holderness being presented with his NUJ member of honour certificate by Tim Dawson Picture: Mark Dimmock

I won’t list the international organisations that Mike has set up, contributed to or chaired – we don’t have time.  What I will say, is that when he speaks, the World International Property Organisation listens.  And let me share with you just one of his remarkable achievements.   We know that the new Copyright Small Claims Court is already ensuring that more writers and photographers get a fair deal.  The idea for that court was cooked up by Mike and John Toner one afternoon in the NUJ’s Freelance Office.  That it is now part of our justice system is evidence, if it were needed, that Mike is about far more than ‘blue skies’ thinking.  He has the contacts, the campaigning methods and the tenacity to push an idea from hair-brained scheme to a new wing of our justice system.

At times, his immersion in world copyright law can seem so complete that he appears to be speaking in a private language, it is true.  However the copyright guide book for journalists that he produced for the International Federation Of Journalists (The Right Thing)  is poetic in its clarity, simplicity and economy of language.

Mike was a very early adopter of computers.  Legion are the organisations in which he is active, and known as ‘lap-top Mike’.  Several fellow activists told me of occasions when Mike appeared to have give up on the proceedings around him, so immersed was he with his laptop.  A debate would rage for some minutes about a leaflet, or even a pamphlet that was needed.  Then, just as the discussion started to run out of steam, Mike would hold up his computer and say ‘is it something like this that is needed’ and show everyone the print-ready document that he had crafted while hot air was exchanged.

For the NUJ, of course, Mike’s technical contribution has been more significant than the production of leaflets.  More than 20 years ago – he created a website for London Freelance Branch.  It was – so far as we know – the first trades union website in Britain – quite possibly the world. He also wrote the software for, and maintains Rate For the Job on the LFB site, he wrote the technical specification for the NUJ’s freelance directory, and continues to produce the online Freelance Fees Directory.

I felt that I ought to be able to provide some account of the events that delivered Mike to the NUJ – and to say a bit about his background.  I am afraid, however, that a couple of weeks on the phone talking to his old contacts have not turned up anything salacious. Friends from other organisaions in which he is active have universally praised his contributions. Once they realised that this presentation was to be in public, however, they clammed up.  “By all means tell people what a great help Mike has been to us” they have said.  “But keep the actual name of our organisation under your hat, if you don’t mind – walls have ears, you never know who is listening in”.

I have unearthed a few facts however. The earliest trace of Mike’s activism that I can find is from the late 1970s and The Scottish Campaign to Resist the Atomic Menace – which opposed the building of Torness power station near Edinburgh.  Mike had studied protests in the US – and introduced to that campaign novel techniques such as using affinity groups.

Mike Holderness, NUJ member of honour Picture: Mark Dimmock

Mike Holderness, NUJ member of honour Picture: Mark Dimmock

He later worked for Peace News, then based in Nottingham.  Colleagues remember his as ‘the only one who knew anything about how to actually do journalism’.  He was famous for staying up all night, pounding out words for the next issue, only to have to be shaken from his bed the next morning to present his ideas to at the morning meeting of the editorial collective.

Mike moved to Philledelphia for a while to work for the Movement For A New Society.  He did not forget his Peace News friends then, however. Some of you might remember the Spycatcher scandal of 1987.  The book, which alleged that MI5 officers had conspired to undermine a democratically-elected administration, was banned by the British Government.  Hard as it is to believe now, copies were impossible to obtain in this country.  When a package arrived at the offices of Peace News, bearing US stamps and addressed in Mike’s hand, his former colleagues were disappointed to find that the book within was called something like ‘A Buddhists Guide To Protest’.  More careful scrutiny, however, revealed a copy of Spycatcher inserted into the binding of this rather more mundane volume.  Reproducing some of its contents gave Peace News a famous scoop – being among the first British publishers to reproduce extracts from the book.

Since he came back to the UK, much of his professional life has been spent at The New Scientist.  But my sense is that campaigning on copyright is what he considers his most important work.

Today, such is his expertise on international and domestic copyright law that his views are frequently sought out by academics, lawyers and legislators.  Despite the esteem in which he is held in learned and some establishment circles these days, though, he remains an iconoclast. 

He is a familiar sight in the House of Lords tea room, discreetly lobbying and gathering intelligence.  His dress code, however, is unwavering.  So far as I can tell, he chooses his apparel so that he can move inconspicuously around a party at the neighbourhood squat, whatever event it is that he is attending.

His leisure interests are famously cerebral.  Once, during a lacuna at an NUJ Delegate Meeting, I noticed that he had slipped a copy of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason into his order paper, presumably to provide some light relief.

He is proficient, quite probably fluent, in several European languages – but I sense that he is happiest expressing himself in machine code or html.

Because of all of those qualities, and the friendship he has shown me, I have an enormously deep well of affection for Mike.  But it is for his work on intellectual property that I, and I think all of us, are eternally grateful to him. 

I know that he is a reluctant recipient of this award – fearing that it might be the equivalent of a ‘lifetime achievement award’.  Let me tell you quite clearly though, it is no such thing.  Of course this is a way of our saying ‘thank you’ for more than 25 years of extraordinary work – but it is also a pledge of our support for the next quarter century.