TODAY, exclusively on this blog, the General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists issues a bold challenge to the staff at News International.
The challenge comes in the form of a simple invitation to join the ranks of the NUJ.
But if the snap recruitment drive is successful, the most dramatic print union battle since Wapping 1986 will commence.
Michelle Stanistreet’s bold aim is to depose the well-meaning but ineffective News International Staff Association and replace it with independent NUJ trade union muscle.
The aim is to defend the staff against the onslaught it now faces from the company’s Management and Standards Committee.
To achieve that she needs numbers. News International numbers.
She will undoubtedly get them, if the volume of emails I am receiving from staff indicates.
A quasi-independent body in the shape of the Management and Standards Committee is undermining their fundamental rights as journalists and employees.
It has no care or affection for News International, being drafted from careers spent elsewhere.
It has no loyalty to the company, its products or its staff.
Operating largely in silence, its only public pronouncement has been to defend itself by heaping more damaging slurs on the reputations of those it has turned in to the police.
The shocking accusation that Sun staff had put public officials, “effectively on a retainer”, was a cowardly attempt to save face by stabbing the staff who have served the paper so loyally.
Worse, the comment was given to Reuters anonymously and was therefore the slyest of stabs.
An ‘Et tu, Brute?’ moment even more treacherous than their now infamous, “draining the swamp” (again anonymous) quote of which I was the first to condemn.
It is up to the police and the courts to decide whether there were “effectively” retainers. Not the News International Johnny-come-latelies on the MSC which has now infected any potential future proceedings with prejudicial poison.
The brutal treatment of the Sun staff has also extended to their contacts, who have been turned over to the police without any investigation or discovery of their legitimacy.Will Lewis, a leading member of the MSC, told the Leveson Inquiry in a moment of blinding hypocrisy: “Core to any journalist – and I’m included – is the protection of journalistic sources, whether they’re my sources or someone else’s sources.”
This “core” principle was so swiftly overturned that it is difficult to believe the MSC have a coherent strategy.
Their erratic logistics have also extended to how they handle ‘evidence’ when they sift through it. Some are fired on allegations of phone hacking (myself and James Weatherup). Others are kept on the staff when accused of far more serious offences.
Staff at the Sun are having their legal bills paid on the Sun, while we at the News of the World are not.
Faced with a committee that seems to make up the rules as it goes along, News International staff can no longer feel secure at their desks.
If it can trash John Kay, the reporter who is perhaps closest to the Murdoch family, no one can feel immune from its arbitrary methods.
When News International was ‘de-unionised’ in 1986, we all held our ‘individual, personal contracts’ and hoped for the best.
That worked well for a time. Maxwell was the villain and Murdoch the hero, offering superb working conditions and salaries.
And his paternal loyalty too. In 2000, he paid £360,000 in legal fees to defend me against the same claims facing the nine arrested Sun journalists he has effectively destroyed.
Murdoch’s plan is to use the MSC as a hired assassin in order to mitigate in any US prosecution brought under the Foreign and Corrupt Practices Act. The more ruthless the MSC, the greater the mitigation.
And that mitigation could save News Corp hundreds of millions of dollars in fines. And his son from jail.
Rupert can no longer be relied on to protect his staff.
For all News International journalists, the time to join the NUJ is fully ripe. They are under attack. And for the first time in a generation, they have the opportunity to put their tanks back on the lawn.
(Neville Thurlbeck has been a trade union member since 1987 and was an NUJ Father of Chapel 1988-89)