It’s rare to see hardened hacks and experienced union officials reduced to tears – but Alan Johnston’s powerful and emotional speech to the union’s Annual Delegate Meeting in Belfast this week left not a dry eye in the house.
As we left last year’s conference in Birmingham, news was coming through that they had found a body in Gaza and it was believed to be Alan’s. If that was the news we wished we would never hear, this was the speech every delegate and visitor longed to hear.
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Alan didn’t disappoint, thanking his union for the work we had done to help secure his release, praising our work on behalf of press freedom in the UK and around the world and highlighting the plight of dozens of journalists still in captivity at the hands of governments and paramilitaries around the world. He was joined on stage by Naim Tobassi, leader of the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate who, despite threats against his own life, did so much to help secure Alan’s release.
Journalism under threat was a constant theme of our four days in Belfast. The city’s Linen Hall Library hosted an eve-of-conference event to celebrate the life and work of Martin O’Hagan, the Sunday World reporter and chair of our Belfast branch who was gunned down seven years ago. In my speech, I renewed our calls for action to bring his killers to justice and end the impunity that threatens media freedom.
I was up early on Friday to put the finishing touches to my opening speech.
The speech (39 minutes long – there’s always a staff sweepstake) is my annual report, but it also sets the scene for the union’s work – ranging from the threats to journalism posed by those who obstruct and censor journalists to the threats posed by those companies which undermine journalism by starving it of resources and staff.
Applause greeted the decision of the union’s executive to provide backing to Shiv Malik’s case against police attempts to seize his notes, while anger greeted Archant management’s decision to replace skilled sub-editors with untrained page designers.
Pride greeted the Glasgow delegates as they recounted their victory over Newsquest‘s job cut plans, while outrage – a regular feature of union conferences – greeted news of our latest survey on employers using bogus unpaid work experience placements to fill staff shortages. I used my speech to pledge union action to take employers breaching the law to court.
In one of our moments of high drama there was a standing ovation as president Michelle Stanistreet flew in from a 6am picket duty with her Express colleagues to take the chair and deliver her presidential address, under the conference banner Standing up for Journalism. She brilliantly highlighted the real threats to quality journalism posed by the circulation-at-all-costs philosophy of media owners such as Richard Desmond.
Down to business. 160 motions; the union’s accounts; reports of our Commission on Multimedia Working and Structure Review Group; a student journalists’ conference; fringe meetings and even a photo call with the mayor. Roy Greenslade would have been proud of the way delegates embraced new forms of media but stuck resolutely to defending quality journalism on all platforms.
There’s pitfalls to negotiate – the tricky Israel motion is dealt with, using all my moral authority to convince the conference to unite and move on. Motions opposing top-slicing the TV licence fee; for action to end the abuse of unpaid overtime which steals £480m from journalists every year; and a motion in defence of ITV News are all passed. Attempts to reduce the size of the union conference are thrown out as an ‘attack on democracy”.
‘NUJ boss challenges first minister over Freedom of Information,’says the Belfast Telegraph, picking up on my support for reporter David Gordon and my challenge to the first Minister Dr Ian Paisley to stop undermining the Act. I also win unanimous backing for the motion calling for the Press Complaints Commission to be subject to the FoIâ€ˆAct.
For me, ADM is a constant whirl of writing speeches, delivering speeches, listening to speeches and answering questions. It is the ultimate in democracy – being answerable to 300 journalists in the conference room and in the bars. And they each have their own strong views. It is the real world of 24/7 working and the toughest part of my job. But it is without doubt also the most rewarding. Roll on Southport 2009.