Peter Murray – defending quality journalism

Quality journalism is vital for a democratic society, but expensive to produce.  We need government initiatives to revive the industry in a way that promotes the rights of journalists as workers

  • We are at a critical moment given the imminence of a UK general election
  • The NUJ is calling for: tax breaks for subscriptions to newspapers and magazines; direct support for genuinely local media; public benefit tests on media mergers; and the abolition of the bar to local authorities investing in local media

There are a number of privileges attached to being president – one is being able to attend events like this.

It is very easy to be daunted by the state of the industry.  Like Granville, Ian and Gavin, I was reading last year’s Report for Excellence in Journalism.  It said: “The math seems increasingly inescapable: advertising on the internet, on current projections, will never represent the kind of economic foundation that (once) flowed to newspapers and television”.

We know all too well how the employers here have reacted to this situation: cuts in staff numbers; cuts to freelance budgets; and cuts in the quality and diversity of news.  It is also clear that people recognise the threats to democracy and a civil society from: declining coverage from local newspapers; online news being placed behind paywalls; and having to rely on amateur bloggers for news.

In the Scottish Parliament there has been a committee debate recently on the effect on local newspapers of declining government advertising.  There will be a further debate in the Scottish Parliament at the end of this month on the state of the newspaper industry. Politicians in Westminster, Northern Ireland and Wales too are increasingly recognising the problems caused by the decline in local newspapers.

There is little that Rupert Murdoch has said that I would agree with, but he has said, this month, that quality journalism is expensive.  We know that here, that is why we have always made it a maxim that journalism requires journalists.  News does not happen on its own, it requires reporters, photographers, researchers, subs and designers.

If someone asks me, ‘What is a journalist?’ I say that digesting news is like trying to drink from a firehose.  We need journalists to make sense of the world in which we live.

The best of the new online sites and their owners understand this well enough, whether its the Huffington Post, San Diego Voice, Business Desk or Liverpool Confidential. Success online requires investment in journalism. 

At ADM, we called for public funding for journalism to help the industry recover.  The NUJ’s suggestions include: annual tax credits for individual media subscriptions; the elimination of postal rates for quality media; direct support to help genuinely local media; and, the abolition of legislation that prevents local authorities from investing in local media in the UK. 

The NUJ also believes that there should be strategic use of government funding.

Media regulators should impose public-benefit tests in the case of media mergers, to guard against further concentrations of ownership.

A general election is now imminent, so all of this is political.

‘There is no tradition of foundation funding in the UK,’  Jeremy Hunt, the Conservative arts spokesman, told a parliamentary committee. The Tories hope, if they take power, they will generate a lot more money from foundations and benefactor funding.  The NUJ intervention in this debate is therefore crucial.

We can’t rely on local millionaires, or billionaire friends – that funding is not always there. We welcome initiative from the Scottish Labour Party to let 18-year-olds read newspaper for free.  That would be great – so long as such funds were used for the training of journalists, or apprenticeships, or payment for those on work-experience schemes.

I am also encouraged that the French government is contemplating introducing a tax on internet advertising. The aim would be to prevent big online interests undermining French creative industries with an online free-for-all.

The NUJ too has looked at how much could be made from a ‘Google tax’ levy.  The idea is beginning to be taken seriously in some quarters after initially being rubbished by politicians here.  They can now see it might generate considerable income.

There is widespread agreement that the business model that has served the industry for so long has failed.  It is almost certain that there is no single model that will replace that.

At the NUJ we will campaign to put quality journalism front wherever our members work.

Congratulations to people who organised the conference.  If you are new to the NUJ, and if you work in these areas, it would help the NUJ if you would go out from here and recruit new members.  The experience of a lot of people working in these areas is of low pay and long hours of a kind that we consider unacceptable.  That is very basic trades union work.  The union at every level will be looking to recruit and fight in the online sector.  That means building chapels to give new members confidence to organise to fight for better wages, better training and better workplaces.

Pete Murray works as a radio news producer with BBC Radio Scotland. He has also produced several short video films for the BBC Scotland News website and regularly works as an outside-broadcast producer.  Before moving to Glasgow in the 1990s, he worked at the BBC World Service in London and as a foreign correspondent in south and west Africa. He has held NUJ office as Father of Chapel in London and Glasgow and various branch offices. He currently represents Scotland on the NUJ’s National Executive and was elected NUJ President at the Southport ADM in  2009.


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