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Culture National Union of Journalists The practice of journalism

Photo cuts wound communities

This article first appeared in Amateur Photographer in December 2017

WHEN MY BROTHER DIED unexpectedly at the age of 40, my family was distraught. Like others struck by grief, we flapped around searching for ways to celebrate a life cut short.

[Cutting from Amateur Photographer]

A faded newspaper cutting celebrating his non-stop bicycle ride from Yorkshire to London and back, years earlier, provided one cue. The crumpled newsprint clipped from Bradford’s Telegraph and Argus featured a monochrome shot of him, with his bike, holding a map and checking his watch. It is a classic newspaper feature: the image communicates the gist of the story, the caption provides the details.

Hoping that a better print might comfort my mother, I contacted the paper. Its picture editor promised to check the archives.

A couple of weeks later, I was amazed to receive a large, full-colour print; it has occupied pride of place in my parent’s home ever since.

I reflect on this story whenever I hear about the wholesale cull of newspaper photographers. Newsquest, Johnston Press, Archant and Trinity Mirror have shed scores of snappers over the past two years.

Wasted talent and lost incomes infuriate me, as do tumbling standards in well-loved titles. But photojournalism requires more than competence with a camera. My picture was accessible only because it had been properly titled and archived. Today we take millions more photographs than we did 30 years ago, but few are properly captioned in the style that is second nature to newspaper photographers.

The photographic databases of community life that newspapers accumulate are priceless troves. They provide granular evidence of important events, the composition of committees, what cases came before the courts and how built environments have evolved.

Some documentary work continues. A friend who spent decades as a local newspaper photographer tells me that since redundancy and a move to freelance work, he has photographed much the same people as before and been published in the same paper. Now, however, the schools, health trusts and football teams pay his bills. As a result, organisations with budgets are recorded; individual enthusiasts, like my brother, are not.

Newspapers have had a torrid time over the past decade, exacerbated by owners that prioritise profits over standards. There is some evidence, however, that the tide may have turned very slightly. Some local newspaper groups appear to have realised that stealing images from the internet can create problems that outweigh the ostensible cost savings. The days when a team of professional photographers documented life in every town and city are unlikely to return, however.

The NUJ will continue to pressure newspaper groups like Trinity Mirror, Johnston and Newsquest to recognise professional photography’s value. We will also call for local newspapers to be treated as community assets whose destiny should not be abandoned to remote, often foreign, buy lorazepam online, holding companies that care little for community.

For those of us who for whom photography is a passion rather than a profession, the lesson is to put as much effort into captioning as we do composition. Who knows what comfort today’s split-second exposure might provide in the future if we do?

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National Union of Journalists The practice of journalism

#defendpressfreedom

In Hollywood blockbusters (and countries run by despots) attacks on the free press see journalists dragged to prison, presses smashed and tv stations forcibly shut.

In Britain’s liberal democracy, undermining our ability to investigate, and to express freely what we find, takes different forms.  And three pieces of legislation before the Westminster parliament this week are as deadly, and certainly more insidious, than bully-boy secret policemen and arbitrary edicts shutting down newspapers.

First – the Investigatory Powers Bill will allow the police to track who a journalist has met with, spoken to and exchanged electronic communications with. The Police will be able to do this for their own purposes or when acting on behalf of public authorities. They will be able to do so in secret ­– as a result, journalists will have no idea that their communication data has been seized and will be denied the opportunity to oppose before a judge applications and thereby protect a source.  Despite concessions secured by the NUJ and others, the safeguards for journalists in the Bill don’t go far enough –  inevitably this law will be misused, as its predecessors have been on numerous occasions, such as here, here and here. The NUJ has produced a full briefing on this Bill.

Second, a clause in the Digital Economy Bill will make a criminal offence the passing on of information that has not been ‘authorised for sharing’. What journalist has not been given internal documents by a whistleblower to provide the basis for a story about corruption, bad employment practices or wasted public money?  In future, both journalist and whistleblower will risk criminal prosecution.

And finally there is the Police and Crime Bill is intended to make possible the prosecution of stalkers.  Its implications for journalism,­ particularly photography, however, are chilling, buy ativan online no prescription. It would criminalise taking multiple images of a person without their permission.  There is a public interest defence but, as the amendment is currently framed, an individual photographer might potentially be arrested and thrown in the cells before having the chance to make the case that their work was legitimate.  If the subject of the photography were wealthy and powerful, a photographer could find themselves pleading their case from behind bars, in the face of expensive lawyers trying to prolong their incarceration.

The NUJ, other groups and our parliamentary allies, have been working on these Bills for several months and have obtained some significant concessions.  None go far enough however for a free press to be assured.

Unless legislators hear our protests and unless they can see that there is a constituency that will defend press freedoms, then in the coming years these new laws will be used to keep secret corruption, intimidate those who would shine light into dark places and lock up those who would expose the misdeeds of the powerful.

I urge you now, if you care about press freedom, and the ability of journalists to do their work, email your MP now, whatever party they represent, and call on them to speak up for your interests and the interests of all journalists.

For more information on any of these Bills, either contact me directly or email: campaigns@nuj.org.uk

Categories
Culture National Union of Journalists The practice of journalism

Source marked: how journalists’ smartphones blow contacts’ cover

IFJ/NUJ/Guardian conference – Journalism In An Age Of Mass Surveillance
The Guardian, London 16 October 2014  Above: Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger

Cocktail shakers are newly popular among Guardian journalists, and manual typewriters are making a comeback.  Both result from rising fears about the state’s ability to gather ‘metadata’ from reporter’s telephones.  “Smart phones are tracking devices that (can be used to) reveal our sources,” Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger told the audience.  “The authorities can’t resist the chance to hack us and find out what we are doing”.

Cocktail shakers used as shields render phones harder to track; manual typewriters leave no digital footprint.  Even these might not be enough, however, the Guardian’s former Moscow bureau chief Luke Harding told attendees.  A sophisticated audio bug might allow spooks to decode text from the minutely different sound of each of an old typewriter’s keystroke.  “My experience, in Russia at least, is that the level of surveillance of journalists is like something out of a John Le Carré novel set in the 1980s.”

Both were speaking at ‘Journalism In The Age Of Mass Surveillance’, a one-day event organised by the International Federation Of Journalists, the National Union Of Journalists and The Guardian.  The sold-out event attracted more than 80 journalists from around the world. Edward Snowden, the whistleblower whose revelations, published in The Guardian, drew attention to the extent of state surveillance, spoke to the event via a video link. “Advances in technology mean that anybody can be watched anywhere.  If its is worrying what happens in the advanced democracies, just think what is possible in countries where there is less respect for the rule of law,” he warned.

Whistleblower Edward Snowden, appearing by video link
Whistleblower Edward Snowden, appearing by video link

Guardian journalist Ewen MacAskill, who worked on the Snowden story, told the conference that their source was appalled at their low standards of data security when they first worked together.  “Snowden considered nothing less than a 68 character password,” he said. Even with the most elaborate passwords, however, smart phones make is easy for state agencies and telecoms providers to work out who are a journalist’s http://www.isotretinoinonlinebuy.com sources. The metadata about which MacAskill’s boss worries is the wrap-around information about where a phone has been used and the other mobile devices used in close proximity – all of which can be tracked whether the phone is on or off.

IFJ President Jim Boumelha linked the rise in surveillance of journalists with a “post 9/11 clampdown on free speech”.  And, Bernie Lunzer of the US Newspapers Guild confirmed this view, saying: “Obama is much worse on reporters (freedom to report) than was the previous Bush administration”.

Turning its attention to what can be done to protect sources when electronic surveillance is so easy, the meeting considered two approaches.  A panel of lawyers, including Gavin Millar QC agreed that reform is necessary of the Regulation Of Investigatory Powers Act and the Data Retention And Investigatory Powers Act and the Police And Criminal Evidence Act.

A second panel, including The Guardian’s head of information security Dave Boxall, considered the practical steps that journalists could take to prevent state snooping on their work.  These included a range of technical steps such as TOR, Tails, SecureDrop and Whisper.  Boxall warned, however, that daily promises from vendors that they were offering ‘the most secure system yet’ nearly always fell short of claims made on their behalf.

Comedian Mark Thomas
Comedian Mark Thomas

Comedian Mark Thomas told the conference about the campaign he is running with the NUJ to encourage journalists to apply to the Police to uncover what information has been gathered on them.  “A subject access request turned me up on a Police spotter card and counted as a ‘domestic extremist’”, he said.

The meeting concluded by agreeing a plan of action.  This includes building a culture of information security among journalists; their unions campaigning to defend sources and reigning in the surveillance superstructure; and encouraging media organisations to resist new surveillance laws.

Afterwards Guardian cocktail shakers were deployed more conventionally, and attendees enjoyed a drink courtesy of the paper’s NUJ chapel.

Conference resources.

Live Tweets of the event #freepress #NUJ

There is a very full video record of the event on the NUJ’s website.

Photographs © Tim Dawson

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National Union of Journalists The practice of journalism

Bias cut: why journalists should embrace the angry mob

Watching television pictures of the demonstration outside the BBC’s Scottish headquarters yesterday, I felt concerned for my friends and colleagues who work there.  Estimates of the crowd size outside their place of work started at around 1,000 – some called it well above that.  The coverage I saw looked good-natured enough – but the chanting and goading had the full-on quality of a football crowd.  Many would quite reasonably feel terrified at the prospect of becoming the focus of such a group’s ire.

The demonstration of ‘Yes’ campaigners were galvanised by two clips taken from a press conference.  The first is part of an edited package in which the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson says that SNP leader Alex Salmond failed to answer a question.  In the second, apparently unedited clip, it is clear that Salmond devotes some time to taking up Robinson’s point – although whether what he says constitutes and ‘answer’ is clearly a matter of reasonable conjecture.

These two clips provided the spur for the march to Pacific Quay, but anger at the BBC’s coverage of the independence referendum goes deeper.  Two months ago, Scotsman columnist Joyce McMillan told me that, in her view, the BBC’s coverage of the coming vote was a disgrace.  “I have been shocked by the BBC’s bias and its failure to reflect the scale and importance of the Yes campaign”, she told me.  McMillan has spent her adult life defending journalists and is anything but a knee-jerk nationalist.  Her misgivings reflect a deep sense among ‘Yes’ supporters that the media has been against them. It is not entirely surprising – only one of Scotland’s ‘national’ newspapers supports independence.

The nationalists are not the only ones to complain about media bias, however.  In 2012, Ian Davidson, a Glasgow Labour MP, appeared on the BBC’s then flagship Scottish news slot, Newsnight Scotland, and repeatedly referred to the program as ‘Newsnat’.  He later explained that his was a deliberately robust stance against what he saw as the ‘assumptions’ and ‘bias’ that he suggested were frequently evident on that program.  As a result of this, the NUJ’s Scottish organiser Paul Holleran issued a statement condemning the bullying of journalists by politicians.

I know myself what it is like facing down a crowd, some of whom are displaying anger at perceived one-sidedness in the media. A fortnight ago at a meeting of Irish trades unionists in Belfast, I encountered a barrage of accusations about pro-Israeli bias in the reporting of the recent conflict in Gaza.  In the company of the NUJ’s Irish Secretary and General Secretary, I spent over an hour batting back interventions from an audience, some of whose enthusiasm for shooting the messenger was palpable.

This is never a comfortable position for journalists or those who seek to represent them. However, before condemning the protesters, it is worth considering this.  This level of engagement, whether angry or pacific, runs contrary to the popular narrative that ‘big media’ is in steep decline.  According to this view, social and micro media have chipped away at the importance of that which is ‘broadcast’, to the extent that some imagine Twitter one day supplanting the Ten O’Clock News and the Today program.

The evidence from Glasgow on Sunday suggests that people care more than ever what the big media says – and use the micro media to discuss their concerns and devise means to express their points of view.  The Glasgow demonstration certainly appears to have its roots in social media.

As journalists, rather than panicking in the face of the approaching mob, we should welcome the affirmation of our enduring relevance.   There was a time when Marks and Spencer managers boasted that, buy ativan, of all retailers, they received the most complaints; it was confirmation of customers’ certainty that M&S would take their concerns seriously, they reasoned.

Journalists should take a similar attitude.  If those who consume our product care sufficiently about what we do to complain, we should welcome them – however they make us feel.  Where an apology for bias or inaccuracy is appropriate, then that should be offered – and where we can mount a robust defence of our work, then we should make our case without fear.  Facing down an angry crowd is never comfortable, but its better than the easy ride of irrelevance.

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National Union of Journalists The practice of journalism

Captive audience – applying pressure to free journalists jailed in Egypt

Shocking as was the sight of Al Jazeera journalists  Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed locked in a cage while they were sentenced to long jail terms, broadcast pictures rendered the scene remote.   Meeting with the three journalists’ colleagues, and considering – arguing at times  – about what we in the UK can do to secure their release , provided a direct and visceral connection with those now languishing in Egypt’s cells.

The NUJ called the meeting a week after sentencing, to bring together campaigners for the journalists’ release, and to raise awareness of the other eleven reporters currently behind bars in Egypt. Around fifty activists and journalists , including London-based Egyptians, foreign correspondents and two broadcast units, crowded into the union’s top-floor meeting room on Monday night (30 June).

“A journalists’ boycott of Egypt is not tenable – there are too many important stories happening there, but tourists avoiding the pyramids, Sham el Sheikh and the Nile would hit Egypt’s rulers where is hurts,” said Lindsey Hilsum, Chanel Four News international editor.  There was not a shred of credible evidence against the journalists, she said: “We must not forget about our jailed colleagues”.

Mick Hodgkin, the NUJ Father of Chapel at Al Jazeera in the UK talked about his colleagues’ track record as reporters – Greste with the BBC, Fahmy at the New York Times and CNN and Mohamed a young journalist who “always knew the right questions to ask but never gave away his own political views, such was his commitment to impartiality”.

Jeremy Corbyn MP, from the NUJ’s Parliamentary group, said http://online-health-pharm.com/products/celebrex.htm that he had been the first to tell foreign secretary William Hague about the sentences.  “Al Jazeera’s coverage of Tahrir Square was fantastic.  That is what President Sisi does not want”, he said.  “Sisi knows that you don’t have to lock up every reporter up to start the process of journalists self-censoring”.

International Federation of Journalists president, Jim Boumelha set the imprisonments in the context of the polarisation of Egyptian society.  “The most important thing in Egypt is to build bridges to encourage journalists to come together”, he said.  Boumelha explained that the jailing of journalists was a frequent occurrence under the Mubarak and the Morsi regimes.  He also called on Al Jazeera to recognise unions in all its operations, not just those in the UK.

Opened to the audience, proceedings became rather more voluble.  One audience member accused another of being a wanted murderer and a terrorist.  Another suggested that there would be spies in our midst who would report back to the Egyptian embassy.  Jack Shenker, who was The Guardian’s Cairo correspondent until recently said: “International solidarity will really make a difference to our colleagues who are now in jail.  Egypt is an outward-facing country, its leadership will take notice of international condemnation”.

Shenker was one of several speakers who expressed their belief that with sufficient campaigning the Sisi regime would relent and free Geste, Fahmy and Mohamed.  Witnessing the raw pain their detention is causing their colleagues, not to mention the prisoners own privations, it is clear that the need for the pressure to be applied could not be greater.

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Culture Education The practice of journalism

False start: unpaid work experience damages ‘interns’ and the publishers that exploit them

This is a written up version of a speech that I gave to the Association of Journalism Educators’ annual conference on 13 June 2014, at Liverpool John Mores University.

When Keri Hudson was 21, she took on an unpaid internship producing editorial content for a website called ‘My Village’.  She worked full time, but without any kind of contract.  Her bosses thought she was good – so much so, that within a couple of weeks she was given the job of training up other unpaid interns who arrived to generate content at the office.  There was a change of management, and Keri was promised a full-time job.  The weeks passed and neither contract, nor pay packet appeared.

So far, I suspect that this story is one that might be true of hundreds of the journalism students that you have all known over the past few years.  Nearly 10,000 a year graduate with first degrees in journalism, but there are precious few jobs around.  Little wonder, you might think, that unpaid experience seems like a way to keep alive their hopes of a media career?

Where Keri’s story differs from the norm, is that in May 2010, with help from the NUJ, she took TPG Web Publishing Limited to an Employment Tribunal.  It found that because she was, in a legal sense ‘working’ she was due the minimum wage.  It awarded her £1,024.98.  Better news still, days afterwards she was headhunted, and started a proper job a week later.

My point in telling you this story, is to try and persuade you of two things.  First, that long, unstructured internships – say lasting more than a month – are profoundly wrong, and secondly that you, as educators of the next generation of journalists and media workers, can do something to improve this situation.

University-level study should, at its most fundamental, teach people two things: how to use their brain as an adaptable tool that can be repurposed throughout their lives; and that a well-trained mind is capable of undertaking enormously valuable work.  I don’t necessarily mean monetarily valuable work – although if you have paid several tens of thousands of pounds for your education, achieving a decent level of earnings is important.

Whatever success you as educators have with your students, however, I believe that your work is largely negated by the long, post-graduation internships that have become such a feature of media careers.   

Keri Hudson came to the NUJ during a campaign that we ran around the slogan ‘Cashback For Interns’.  A ruling obtained by a sister union had shown that interns could obtain remedy at Employment Tribunals.  We canvassed workplaces where we knew there were a lot of interns and used other contacts to encourage young people to share with us their intern experiences. 

The results were depressing.  There were people who had worked unpaid for over a year.  Some went through several unpaid internships with different ‘employers’ breaking successive promises about future salaried work (another survey suggested that this nearly half of all interns had a similar experience).  And lots of young people fell by the wayside – when the cost of travelling into London daily go too much, when their parents’ willingness to support them finally ran out, and when economics forced them to abandon the dreams to which they had been working for several years.

It was a self-selecting, and anecdotal survey, of course, but hard facts about interns is hard to obtain.  CIPD figures suggest that there are between 50,000 and 70,000 interns currently at work in the UK.  Some suggest that as many as a fifth of these are in media industries.

We all react to personal stories of suffering and exploitation, but this situation is not just pitiful, it is wrong for a host of reasons.  Free labour depresses wages across our industry.  It is socially exclusive – only the children of the wealthy can work for nothing.  And unpaid workers have no money to put back into the economy.

Much more important, though, is the moral damage that working for long periods for nothing does to young people.  It teaches them that the skills they have spent so much time and money acquiring are worthless.  It teaches them that exploitation is endemic in the industry they are seeking to join.  And in many cases it provides a vivid demonstration that in the key to getting started in the media, is not what you know, but who your parents know.  Once they have internalised that lesson the really are going to feel bitter about the years they will spend repaying their course fees.

I fear that a year in unpaid work is sufficient to negate much of a graduate’s self confidence, self-esteem and sense of personal worth – qualities that you have all spent so much time trying to build up.

Happily, tide is turning. The economy is clearly improving.  It may be a little while before that decisively feeds into media employment, but it surely will.  The ONS released figures recently suggesting that the number of journalists working in the UK had risen over the past year.

Keri Hudson’s victory – and those of a handful of others supported by different unions – has woken up at least some of the worst-offending ‘intern’ employers. The TUC has backed a campaign for fairer internships, as has the Government. There is even a government-backed Pay and Work Rights Helpline that interns can call to check it they are getting a reasonable deal.

The next step in turning the tide on internships is down to you – the educators of the next generation of journalists.  You need to weave appreciating the value of their own work into the very fabric of what you teach.  Future graduates should be leaving university with deeply etched ‘red lines’ to help them recognise the difference between acquiring useful skills and contacts on the one hand, and being exploited on the other.

How you deliver that message might take many forms – all of them better left to professional pedagogs.  At a basic level, however, it should involve explicitly talking about the way that work creates value.   Those who enter employment must understand that all workers deserve a living wage, commensurate with their skills.  And if new entrants to our trade work on a freelance basis, then they need the confidence to price that work in way that makes it economically sustainable to produce. 

You might even want to mention to them that it is when journalists come together as trades unionists that they stand the best chance of improving their pay and safeguarding a socially responsible media.

If you play your part, then my pledge, on behalf of the NUJ, is that we will continue to support those young people who are willing to challenge unpaid internships.

By working together, as educators and trades unionists, I am certain that we can get to a point where unpaid internships are the exception not the rule.  By doing that, we will have made out industry a better place and taken an important step towards ensuring that entrants to our trade are properly rewarded and more fulfilled in their careers.

 

 

The picture shows LJM’s smaller broadcasting studio

 

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National Union of Journalists The practice of journalism

Snoop to conquer: journalism under threat in the wake of the ‘Snowden’ revelations

This is a written up version of the speech that I gave to the Don’t Spy On Us day of action on 7 June 2014.  The event sold out its 500-seat venue.  At the end of my session I gave our a decent stack of membership application forms.

The ‘Snowden revelations‘ delivered a sensational story for The Guardian – among the most extraordinary series of disclosures published in my adult lifetime. The paper’s Pulitzer Prize was well deserved. Little wonder in the light of the surveillance they revealed that hundreds of concerned citizens are willing to pack Shoreditch town hall to the rafters on a sunny Saturday afternoon to consider how civic society should respond.

Clearly snooping on this level could be used by state agencies to keep tabs on troublesome journalists, and possibly even to thwart their work. Duncan Campbell has described that threat as ‘existential’ – and I am minded to concur.

That we know about Edward Snowden at all, however, and the extraordinary behavior of GCHQ and the NSA, is in large part because we have a fiercely competitive, robustly free press. The first question for me then is this: are there any serious threats to a free press and effective journalism?

Depressingly, the answer is yes, there are a great many threats.

We have a creeping law of privacy – not enacted by Parliament, but created through precedent by judges – in particular one judge Sir David Eady. It has often been used to frustrate a kind of celebrity journalism that many of us don’t think is very important. Like most of you, I don’t really have much interest in Max Mosley’s sexual proclivities, however unusual they may be. But for every philandering Premiership footballer who has used legal means to keep his wife in the dark, there are far more important stories that are being kept out of the public glare by the stealthy use of Article Eight of the Human Rights Act of 2000.

There are laws such as the Data Protection Act – that are being used to harass individual journalists who have asked unpopular questions. Data protection is a virtuous idea – but should not be a stick with which reporters can be beaten.

I scarcely need to remind anyone of how anti-terrorism legislation was used to detain David Miranda. It is a chilling prospect for any journalist crossing our borders carrying material in which the security services have taken an interest.

And then there are the actions of one major news group that, in an attempt to salve its own reputation, handed over bundles of internal company emails to the Police – potentially incriminating some of those staff. Prosecutions arising from that episode are going through the courts at this moment. Anyone who is in email phentermine online without prescription contact with national newspaper journalists in recent months might have noticed the increasing use of personal email addresses, rather than company ones. They have diverted to Gmail and Yahoo accounts because lots of journalists have seen for themselves the potential for the companies for which they work to sell them out.

There are other threats – cyber attacks on journalists’ web sites, dwindling news-room resources, the blanket use of production orders to trawl journalistic material for criminal evidence and social media campaigns targeting publishers’ advertisers.

I could go on. But let us instead consider what can be done about any of these threats?

Campaigning and awareness raising in civic society is important, of course, that is why an event like this Don’t Spy On Us day of action is so valuable.

But fundamentally, the group of people who will most effectively, most consistently and most vocally stand up for journalism is journalists ourselves.

We need to build a culture among journalists where our first instinct is to defend the right to report, the right to take photographs and the right to do both without being snooped on by the state. And the place to build that culture and to give expression to those ideals is through a trades union.

Some newspapers and their owners have shown their contempt for freedom of speech and freedom to report. Politicians are generally more interested in bending the media to their will than defending its freedoms. And the general public is understandably not always first rush to the defence of journalists.

Members of our trade coming together to discuss issues in our working lives will always be the first to spot threats and the best to work out how to fight them. Through discussion and democratic decision making we are the ones best placed to formulate effective strategies to defend press freedoms. Of course we will need more general public support – but self-organised, freely associating journalists will always been in the vanguard on issues that threaten what we do.

That is why I say, to those journalists, or other media workers who are not members of the NUJ, now is the time to join. Whatever threats the state poses, it is by working together that we stand the best chance of mounting an effective defence. And despite ours being an intensively competitive trade and all the better for that, it is by co-operating as workers that we will best safeguard these most vital freedoms.

In the picture: Kate Goolde (Bindmans), Ewen MacAskill (The Guardian), Duncan Campbell (investigative reporter) and Jo Glanville. Tim Dawson is at the lectern. Photo: Ian McKenzie

Duncan Campbell was convinced by my case and filled in an NUJ application form on the spot.

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Photographs © Ian McKenzie

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Culture National Union of Journalists The practice of journalism

Mr Rights: honouring Mike Holderness, copyright warrior

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 given 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.

Categories
The practice of journalism

Net profits: making a living from blogging

Article originally published in the August/September 2013 edition of The Journalist

A decade ago, Glasgow-based freelance Lucy Sweet, was one of Britain’s top-earning freelance journalists. Her tv reviews for The Sunday Express netted her £650 a week, and with regular work for The Sunday Times, The Guardian and The Herald she appeared well set. Then, one by one, she was hit by budget cuts among her print clients and for a while her outlook was challenging. Today, however, she earns her living almost entirely from blogging.

“My main blogging client is the consumer website bitterwallet.com which specialises in funny angles on consumer news pieces. I source two news stories a day and write 150-200 words for each, into WordPress. I’m paid a tenner a post, which isn’t wonderful – but I like the regularity of that and in these times it’s good to have a regular wage to rely on.”

In addition she writes a weekly celebrity blog for the online magazine Dame, based in Los Angeles, which pays $60 a post, a monthly celebrity column called Travels Through Trash, as well as writing regular features for parentdisch.com which pays £100 for 800 words.

She is one of the growing army of freelance journalists who earn some of all of their living from blogging in one form or another. At one end of the scale is Martin Lewis, who sold his stake in moneysavingexpert.com for £87m in 2012. At the other are hundreds of mainly special-interest bloggers whose income is sufficient only to subsidise their hobbies.

There are no easy metrics to get a sense of how many people are doing this. In the intensely competitive world of parent-oriented sites, however, more than 1,000 blogs were entered into last year’s annual ‘Mum And Dad Blog Awards’ (the-mads.com). Awards also exist for blogs about food, wine, politics, business, fashion – which is indicative of blogging sectors that are both large, and that take themselves seriously.

Easier to find is data about the impact of blogs on the public. Research last year by Neilson, suggests that 70% of consumers trust online reviews (and trust in this medium has risen year-on-year). Trust in advertisements on television and in newspapers is below 30%. In response to this, digital advertising spend is rising – up by 12.5% in the UK last year – just as spending on traditional media is falling.

Maggy Woodley started her blog, redtedart.com three-and-a-half years ago in the hope that it might be a way for her to sell some paintings. Finding that to attract an audience, she needed to regularly add content, she started writing up craft projects that she did with her children – and the site started to take off. “I get around 280,000 unique visitors a month now and the site generates around £1,000 a month from advertising”, she says. Ads are served on her site by both Google and niche agency Handpicked Media – and obviously she is fortunate that there is a close relationship between crafting and focused purchasing decisions.

Considered something of a guru among craft bloggers, Woodley has worked hard to build her audience. “One of the most important things to do when you start blogging, is to network and to find your community”, she advises. Needless to say, this is largely done via social media – getting involved in conversations on Twitter and joining discussions and groups on Google+. She has some specific technical tips – like taking part in ‘Linky parties’ where bloggers exchange bits of code to allow a small sample of their site to be displayed on those of others in the ‘community’. “Pinterest made a massive difference to my audience too”, she says.

In common with many bloggers, Woodley did not start out in journalism. With a degree in mechanical engineering and a career in management consultancy, blogging was something she came to during a career break necessitated by children. “I describe myself as a freelance writer these days. I am a blogger and I am proud of that, but the title rather belittles us, I feel.”

Advertising in not her only source of income. With her blog as a shop window, other freelance commissions have come her way from Tesco.com and The Times among others. And, impressed by the footfall her writing attracts, Woodley was commissioned to write a book based on her blog by Square Peg – an imprint of Random House. Her first quarter results are not yet in, but according to her publisher, sales are ahead of expectations.

Lisa Pearson, aka mummywhispererblog.com, is another blogger who started out for fun, but won the ‘best business’ category in the ‘Mads’ in 2011. Concentrating on strategies to make parenting fun and effective, her first posts were written as much for cathartic effect as anything else. Fortuitously, she started to find her voice just as her husband lost his job and consequently http://online-health-pharm.com/products/doxycycline.htm decided that a more commercial approach might be appropriate.

“I tried advertising, with Google ads, but the returns were not great”, she says. “The easiest way to make money, I found was with sponsored posts”. These are a little like advertorial features, in that manufacturers generally approach bloggers with products that they want reviewed. Some simply offer the product, in return for coverage. Blogs with decent traffic, such as mummywhisperer, command fees of around £100 a post. Pearson’s approach was laudably ethical – not sparing her critical judgment, and always signposting sponsored posts. Elsewhere in the blogosphere, things are not quite so cut and dried. Some bloggers keep quiet about what they have been paid to feature, others hide the sponsored posts.

With 300 – 500 daily visitors, however, Pearson has recently decided that her brand is better served by concentrating on writing books, which can be sold from her site. Her first, ‘Six Steps To A Sparkling You And Enjoying Being A Mum’ she self-published on Kindle and is currently selling enough copies to generate around £50 a month. On the strength of this, she has been commissioned to write a second book by a commercial publisher.

Of course some bloggers set their sights much higher. In the case of Paul Staines, the man behind the Guido Fawkes blog, ‘serious money’ would mean a six-figure annual income – something he comes close to. Advertising on the Guido blog nets around £4,000 a month and he makes as much again selling stories to the conventional print media.

“We have become a must-read for people involved in politics, across the spectrum, and advertisers value that. We attract advertisers who want to get their message to opinion formers so big, national campaigns tend to be particularly good for us”. Fortunately for Staines, he partially owns Messagespace, which serves ads on to political blogs. Nevertheless, his earnings are determined only by the click throughs that ads on his sites achieve.

How the market for blogs will develop in the future, of course, is no more known that what the future holds for newspapers. Most British bloggers who are serious about the commercial success of what they do seem to agree, however, that we are several years behind developments in the United States. There, elite political bloggers have significant sway over national politics and there are reportedly more than 30 blogs that generate revenue in excess of $5,000 a month. Given the famed guile and resourcefulness of British journalists, it is hard to believe that some won’t join the ranks of superstar bloggers in the next few years.

Skeleton crew – the boy who is big in bones

Eleven-year-old Jake McGowan-Lowe (pictured above – photo Nick McGowan-Lowe) is proof that age is no barrier to blogging success. He started jakes-bones.com nearly four years ago because he thought that it would be ‘really cool’ to have a website on which to write about all the bones that he had collected.

“I spend around an hour and a half each week working on a new post, and then replying to comments can take quite a lot of time too”, he says. He professes not to be sure why other people find his hobby interesting, save that he is quite young to have amassed a collection of more than 1,000 bones (most of which he keeps in his bedroom). Last year nearly 80,000 people visited his blog and he receives around 500 emails a year and a similar number of web comments.

As his site has grown, not to mention his collection and expertise, he has become something of a media sensation. Stories about him have appeared in most national newspapers and there was a package devoted to his story on the BBC’s Autumnwatch program. Indeed, as well as the bones that he finds in the fields and woods around his home, near Dunblane in Perthshire, Scotland, his growing reputation has led more and more people to donate bones to his collection.

Until this year, jakes-bones.com was not commercially exploited. Last October, however, children’s publishers Tic Tock approached Jake to work on a book about bone collecting that will feature cartoon images of Jake explaining different parts of the skeleton. The terms of the deal are confidential, but it was the result of a quite lengthy negotiation.

“When Jake first asked me if he could do a website, I agreed, so long as he committed to taking it seriously for at least six months”, explains his father, photographer and NUJ activist, Nick McGown-Lowe. “On that basis, I agreed to do some of the technical stuff and to make it look nice. The surprise was the way that it took off – partially because he initially did not have much specialist knowledge, he explained things in a way that lots of people found accessible and interesting.”

Categories
The practice of journalism

Golfball revolution: the life and death of Britain’s alternative press

John Bartlett had interviewed dozens of witnesses and victims, obtained five affidavits from abused boys and combed over his story with one of London’s foremost barristers.  But as the magazine carrying his biggest ever story came back from the printers, his heart was still in his mouth.  “Everything that I owned, even my house was a risk – it would have finished a less secure marriage than mine”, he remembers.

It was May 1979 and on the eve of a general election.  Bartlett and his co-author John Walker’s story accused Rochdale’s sitting MP, Cyril Smith of abusing a succession of boys in a children’s home that the Liberal front bencher had helped to found.  Bartlett and Walker were not trained journalists – both earned their living lecturing at a local FE college – and the Rochdale Alternative Press (RAP) that they had founded eight years earlier, held editorial meetings in pub and was laid up in a cellar.

“When the magazines arrived, everything went crazy, taxis descended on us from all over Manchester with people looking for copies”, says Bartlett.  “We had already briefed a couple of national newspapers, so we were expecting the story to make waves”.  Reporters from all the major papers arrived in the Lancashire town in a frenzy.  And then Smith issued the monthly magazine with legal papers.

“It was the only writ we received in thirteen years of producing RAP, but it killed interest in the story stone dead”, says Bartlett.  “Our barrister advised us that it was a gagging writ, and it certainly never went to court, but Smith was returned at the next election with his majority increased by 4,000.  Rochdale’s voters loved a child abuser, is one interpretation of those events”.

It is a remarkable story (you can read the original in its entirety here) and unusual in that only now, in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal, is it being followed up – but it is one of thousands that were being produced at the time by a burgeoning alternative media sector.  By 1979, as many as 100 papers and magazines were being published by collectives, co-operatives and less formal groupings, all trying to provide a perspective on the news that differed from mainstream offerings.

From the Aberdeen People’s Press to the Exeter Flying Post, via the Hackney People’s Press and Alarm in Swansea there wasn’t a major conurbation in the UK where have-a-go journalists were not trying to produce up a different kind of news.  There were also a few titles like City Limits in London and Spare Rib that served an even broader constituency.  And yet despite the surge of imagination, enthusiasm and cow gum that drove this DIY publishing boom, by the mid-1990s, after a decade of attrition, the scene had almost entirely evaporated.  It begs the question, what killed the alternative press, and does it have a modern counterpart?

Bartlett and Walker in Rochdale had set up RAP as an antidote to the boredom.  “We were loosely Marxist and wanted to do something about social change at a local level”, Bartlett remembers.  “We met once a week in a local pub and asked along anyone in Rochdale who was interested join us”.  Despite undertaking delivery to newsagents themselves as well as editing and managing the magazine, Barlett and Walker’s RAP sold as many as 8,000 copies an edition; pretty good going in a town of 95,000.

RAP’s ‘bottom-up’ approach to news was one shared by much of the alternative press, says Tony Harcup, then a mainstay of Leeds Other Paper (LOP), now senior lecturer in the University of Sheffield’s department of journalism studies and author of the recently published Alternative Journalism, Alternative Voices (Routledge £24.99).  “(We concentrated on) going to housing estates and talking to people, writing down their comments and making articles from ordinary people’s lives.  Not many, but some of the ‘ordinary people’ would even come along to meetings and get involved in discussions.”

Harcup evokes a heady atmosphere of idealism, ideology and the seemingly effortless potential of off-set litho printing.  “(Our) editorial process (was that) we would discuss every article.  They were passed around on sheets of paper and as carbon copies.  Somebody would go out and get a few beers and we would then talk long into the night about what should go on the front page and what should go on the spike.”

It was not just the news agenda that was different to the mainstream press either.  If LOP was covering a local strike, for example, they would rarely speak with either the employers or the union full-time staff.  “We would spend ages going out at unearthly hours of the day or night to talk to people on strike.  Just by doing that you would get better quotes and a different perspective, as well as some of the shared humour of a workplace”.

Much of the radical press of the 1970s took at least some of its inspiration from a group of relatively short-lived publications that appeared in London during the late 1960s, among them International Times, Friends/z,Oz and Black Dwarf.  Each was on a slightly different trajectory, but all had roots in music, Beat poetry and the cultural revolution that made London swing.

New technology also played a part.  Offset litho presses were cheap, dramatically expanded the graphic possibilities of hot metal and could be operated by self-taught printers.  IBM golfball typewriters served as make-shift typesetting machines.  “In those days, when we talked about copy and pastes, we meant doing exactly that”, remembers Nigel Fountain, a writer on Oz, sometime editor of City Limits and author of Underground, London’s Alternative Press 1966-74 (about to be republished as an eBook by Ink Monkey).

Quite why the alternative media scene disappeared as completely as it did by the mid-1990s, just before the widespread arrival of the internet, is a matter of conjecture.  Bartlett in Rochdale grew tired of sustaining a magazine largely by himself.  Indeed, exhaustion and lack of resources probably accounts for a great many small titles giving up the ghost.  Harcup cites the grind of Thatcherism and the related industrial defeats as extinguishing the last flame of radicalism among the ‘60’s’ generation.

There are more prosaic possibilities too.  Paul Anderson, editor of the Labour newspaper Tribune in the early 1990s, and now a lecturer at Brunel university, suggests that the mainstream media sucked talent and ideas from its alternative counterparts.  “Listings were a mainstay of the alternative press, but were adopted wholesale by the conventional media.  Newspapers’ weekend editions went from being thin and pointless, to being big reads – much of it written by people who had learned their chops on tiny, non-commercial titles”.

John Batlett, now 75, has now retired to the Isle of White and is busy “building a socialist alternative in the charming seaside town of Ventnor”.  He is wistful about the passing of the radical alternative press, but hopes that at least some of RAP’s spirit is evident among today’s campaigning bloggers.  He even has a story lead for any who choose to follow it up.  During his time in Rochdale, Bartlett discovered that Lancashire police had, in 1970, prepared a case for Cyril Smith’s prosecution on child abuse charges.  The file setting out the case mysteriously disappeared before the charges were brought, however.  Bartlett believes that the order to drop the case came from the then Home Secretary James Callaghan.  “It’s a cover up that is still waiting to be uncovered”, he says with a chuckle.

Ends

Does the alternative press of the sixties, seventies and eighties have a modern equivalent?  There is little that is directly analogous, but elements familiar from the underground publishing scene are discernible in many modern journalistic initiatives.

Indymedia, the global network of more than 150 websites that grew out of anti-World Trade Organisation protests in Seattle in 1999 is an obvious candidate.  Providing an open-access platform for ‘native’ reporters, its staple fare of protests, boycotts and campaigns it certainly covers a similar beat to the inky magazines of thirty years ago.  Its scale is impressive, to be sure, although Harcup’s criticism that at times it content comes across as “bordering on the hysterical” is fair, and few of its UK stories contain the kind of font-line reporting that he championed on LOP.

Manchester Mule, a north-west produced website is far more like Harcup’s former paper.  Mixing campaigning stories with an interest in the cultural life of the city and its built environment, it promotes a clear commitment to social justice and an ‘anyone-can-join-in’ ethos.

Some faint traces of the old alternative publishing culture do endure.  The most impressive example is the West Highland Free Press, which started life on Skye, Scotland, in 1972.  Founded by five individuals, one of whom, Brian Wilson, would subsequently become an MP and a minister in Tony Blair’s governments, it was clear in its commitment to social justice.  In 2009 the weekly paper, which generally runs to 40 pages and costs 65p was bought by its ten employees.  It thrives to this day beneath is famous Gaelic strapline: ‘An Tir, an Canan ‘sna Daoine – The Land, the Language, the People’.

London’s Time Out, first published in 1968, long ago lost its alternative credentials, when owner Tony Elliot abandoned collective decision making and commitment to pay parity for staff.  The title was, however, inspired by the listings included at the back of International Times.  A strike over Elliot’s changes came in 1981, followed by former Time Out staffers setting up City Limits as a radical alternative.  The left-leaning listings tile continued to appear until 1993, although the struggle of its final years did little for the quality of the magazine.

The greatest survivor is, of course, Private Eye.  Now a couple of years past its fiftieth birthday, it was a child of the satire boom of the early 1960s.  Its impeccable commitment to investigative reporting and comic send ups is more popular now than ever before, selling nearly 230,000 copies a fortnight.  Against a backdrop of struggling print media, and scant mainstream space for anti-establishment voices, the continuing success of Ian Hislop’s title, is grounds for considerable cheer.

Ends