It would, you’d imagine, take something remarkable to unite commentators from the Telegraph and the Guardian. Yet my union – the National Union of Journalists – might just be managing it.
Some backstory: my regular reader will recall that, last year, the NUJ got into a terrible pickle over a proposed code of conduct for citizen journalists – or, as it called them, “witness contributors”.
That attempt to apply some absurd rules failed, thank goodness. But the union may be at it again, with a new “commission” on multimedia working, the findings of which are starting to emerge.
The only bit I’ve read so far is this contribution to the union’s magazine by Donnacha DeLong, who claims to represent new media workers on the NUJ’s national executive council. His piece is bobbins; it might be a deliberate act of provocation, but DeLong still shows a profound lack of understanding of some of the basics of web 2.0, and introduces the perfect straw man to the debate – that, somehow, web 2.0 “replaces traditional media”. He, and the magazine’s editor, does the union’s members a disservice by publishing it.
But that isn’t the full report – that’s all elsewhere in the Union’s magazine, which doesn’t appear online and which hasn’t arrived through my mailbox yet.
Others have reacted to indirect reports on the report, or managed to get their hands on the magazine. And, lo, the glorious sight of unity – across age-old Fleet Street divides, and even across the Atlantic – has emerged.
First up was US-based Jeff Jarvis, not holding back, attacking the “whiny, territorial, ass-covering, protecting-the-priesthood, preservation-instead-of-innovation faux report”.
Then the Telegraph’s Shane Richmond, who got his copy of the magazine, gave the union both barrels too, calling its approach “blinkered”.
“The article that follows, which ostensibly introduces the concept of convergence, is uncredited and frequently mixes opinion with fact. To my mind it does so to present the internet as a threat to good old journalistic values. Let me share some examples.
After a short intro, explaining that previously separate mediums can now be united online, we’re given this: ‘Print is not dead, nor even unwell, despite the technophiles who promised us a paperless office 40 years ago.’
Firstly, the beginning of that sentence is about one thing (newspapers) and the end is about another (office supplies), which is either devious or stupid. Secondly, where’s the evidence to back up the claim that print is not ‘even unwell’?”
And that’s just him warming up.
Now, my Guardian colleague Roy Greenslade has joined the outcry, and decided that after 42 years of membership he’s quitting the union. In a careful and thoughtful piece, Roy has explained why it would be “hypocritical” to remain a member, given he has clear views on where the industry is going, and what is going to need to happen.
His use of the word “hypocritical” strikes a raw nerve. Like him, my views on what’s happening in the business are very different to those of the union. I’m an optimist about where journalism is going, generally, and think the opportunities emerging are more important (or more real) than the grievances the union has flagged up.
Even if they occasionally have a point, especially around working practices at smaller titles, the union’s almost willful refusal to attempt to understand the true dangers and opportunities in new media leaves me frustrated and angry. It also masks the fact that many of its members are engaged, and knowledgeable, about digital media, and are toiling honestly to make it work.
There is an opportunity – a need, even – for an engaged union that’s able to represent and help its members adapt, as Jeff says today. And, fundamentally, I think unions are a Good Thing – even in a white collar business like journalism – because employees’ rights, especially those of people just starting out, can be abused.
I’m going to wait until I’ve read the whole thing in the Journalist, whenever it finally hits my mat. But I’m already asking myself: is it hypocritical to remain in an organisation that doesn’t reflect some of your most closely held views, especially when you’re not – and I’m not – prepared to rejoin the world of union politics to try and change the line?
I think it is. So is leaving the union the only course of action?