On the NUJ and town hall pravdas

Francis Sedgemore, Thursday 18 July 2013 at 12:32 UTC

The following is a comment posted following an article in the Press Gazette concerning the National Union of Journalists “defence” of council-run newspapers. My comment first went into a moderation queue, then appeared briefly, following which it disappeared without trace.

“I have no problem with our union representing both journalists and PRs, but journalism and public relations are and must be kept entirely separate. This is a fundamental ethical issue, and the line in the sand is distinct enough, despite the presence of a revolving door between these two sectors of the communications industry.

“As a trade union the NUJ is charged with defending the pay and working conditions of its members, and that includes those employed by state agencies in a communications role. It would be interesting to know how many NUJ members work for local authorities, and the proportion occupied with the production of faux-journalistic publications that resemble independent news media.

“The NUJ statement rightly focuses on the need for new powers vested in the secretary of state, but it suffers from a tabloid headline and standfirst that makes it look as if we are politically defending what are mostly Labour-run council newspapers against the predations of a Tory-Liberal government. Let’s leave that debate to others, or to ourselves whilst wearing different hats.

“Personally, I despise these propaganda rags, and would question the ethical standards of any journalist who works without protest for a town hall pravda. The need to put food on the table and pay the mortgage is a reasonable excuse, but still it is a potential abrogation of moral responsibility.

“Greenwich Time is a case in point. We are talking here of a sordid propaganda organ dumped on the borough by a quasi-stalinist council, within which you will find not a single word critical of anything decided by the Dear Leader and his ever loyal politburo. Greenwich Time really is the pits. I wouldn’t line a cat-litter tray with pages from the rag, so insulting would that be to the noble beast who voids his bowels into the receptacle.

“East End Life is almost as bad as Greenwich Time, with gross mis-reporting of council meetings, quotes from councillors altered prior to publication, and general censorship. If local authority newspapers are not faithfully reporting what happens in council chambers and committee rooms, including the cut and thrust of political argument, they are not newspapers, and should not be masquerading as journalistic media. That applies whatever the quality of existing local newspapers.

“Town hall pravdas are a pestilence that should be eradicated, but we cannot look for salvation in the likes of local and regional commercial media groups. The destruction of council propaganda rags is a job for local people and civil society groups with the freedom to engage in such political activity. It is not our job as a union representing the trade interests of communications workers across the board.

“And spare us please the repeated rhetorical bashing of our general secretary, who is to the best of her ability doing the job we pay her to do. Michelle Stanistreet should not be the whipping girl for our common failings as journalists and trade union activists.

“Where the NUJ statement on town hall pravdas falls down in matters of substance rather than rhetoric is in its claim that the voluntary code governing the political content of council publications is sufficient. It clearly isn’t, and that is how Eric Pickles can get away with imposing further controls on the activities of local authorities. In his situation I would probably do the same, for want of a better solution.”

Intemperate? A little, perhaps, but not as bad as some of the other comments, and I make no apologies for the feline toilet humour. Prolix? Possibly, but that’s no excuse for the digital blue pencil of total textual excision. Did I defame anyone? Certainly not. Have I displayed the kind of swivel-eyed lunacy common to the blogosphere? You be the judge of that.

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