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January 30, 2008

Do students need to join the NUJ?

By Dave Lee STD

Last week I read an interesting post by Richard Brennan, a student studying a Masters degree in journalism at Westminster University.

He recently finished a work experience placement with the National Union of Journalists, and was left feeling surprised that not many of his student peers are members.

From his post:

‘£25 isn’t much for the whole of your course, and if you wish to avoid a contempt of court or defamation action, the NUJ can give advice.”

Upon reading that I wondered if the £25 I spent on my own NUJ membership was money well spent.

My membership runs out when my course finishes, and I’ve not had to utilise the benefits once. And I’m confident that if I ever found myself in legal difficulties, advice from teaching staff would be better and more personal than anything I could get from the NUJ.

‘Many students (including me) are blogging,’says Richard. ‘This means that they are producing news content (and comment) and can be sued for what they write. This is also true for those working on student papers and student radio. The NUJ can offer advice and help with damages. Students who graduate from media courses will be going into a career that is often dangerous, and that’s when they’ll be thankful they’ve got a union behind them.”

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Richard feels so strongly about the importance of the NUJ that he will be promoting them at his University.

‘I’m going to try and invite an NUJ officer down to Westminster University to speak about the NUJ,’he told me. ‘I feel that people need reminding how useful the union is.

‘Employers will be impressed if you’ve been on the NUJ Equality and Health and Safety courses, according to journalists I spoke to on the NUJ Officers Stage One Course,’he added.

One journalist who has been very outspoken on the NUJ is Roy Greenslade, who last year announced he would be leaving the Union. However, Roy revealed to me last night that despite standing by his negative opinions on the NUJ, he is still a paid up member.

‘I am so conflicted that although I resigned in public and then by private letter — which has been formally acknowledged — I have yet to cancel my direct debit. I know I should do it, but somehow I just can’t,’he said.

‘I know many people in the union, people who have been activists and feel themselves to be good Union members, who feel there is no longer any point, what with the immense changes wrought by the digital revolution. However, they are loath to leave because they also feel they are abandoning genuinely underpaid journalists working in the provinces and even, increasingly, in London.”

The problem, it seems, is not whether we need a union for journalists – we do – but whether a mass collective of journalists is actually effectively possible.

Roy adds: ‘Students are encouraged at my university to join when they start their course and many sign up. I can’t think that there are any real benefits since most of them will be exploited in work experience, or in short-term contracts. Then again, we have to look forward to a time when collective action, whatever the technology, will be important for journalists.”

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