It’s not a good sign for journalism in the UK when the head of the national union has to look to Iraq’s fledgling media for encouragement.
National Union of Journalists president James Doherty was in northern Iraq two weeks ago to lecture local journalists on press freedom. He found it a humbling experience. "I told them that they will soon have overtaken us in terms of having liberty of press. Such are the freedoms they’ve gained; and that we will have lost due to big business."
His assessment of Britain’s news media industry in 2009 is bleak: "Nothing short of carnage. We are in a war, and we still don’t know how many casualties there will be," he told NUJ’s Paris branch members last week.
The numbers are already grim. According to the union, the last six months have seen over 1000 jobs go in the UK alone. Anecdotal reports suggest freelance work has all but dried up.
The effects are primarily being felt in rural communities. With local newspapers closing, news is increasingly conglomerated, leaving many towns without a local "voice".
Doherty cites examples in Scotland — where towns that had two titles now have none. In Wales, one news group’s approach to finding local news in the villages is to dispatch a reporter to each town once a week and install them in the charity shop. Police meanwhile have taken to writing their own articles about crime and arrests, because no one else does anymore.
Local and regional press plays an important role in the media that is often overlooked. For example, the Yorkshire Post and Yorkshire Evening Post scored major coups in their investigations into the far right British National Party. These two papers are now looking to shed 10 per cent of their editorial staff.
"The greatest threat to press freedom is no longer government or public relations offices pushing angles. It’s that there’s no longer any journalists to get stories," said Doherty.
A British reporter who spent almost a decade working on national and regional newspapers before moving into local government public relations, told me: "You simply can’t imagine a career in journalism these days. The romantic idea of a reporter charging round breaking big stories and holding people to account simply doesn’t exist any more. On the regionals, every great story you broke would be tempered with thousands of words of golden weddings just to pad the paper out, and on the national [papers]it’s all celebrity bullshit."
"People don’t get their news from local newspapers these days, and the ones that are left are generally lamentable products because they don’t have the staff anymore," he said.
Job cuts in the media industry are being increasingly blamed on the recession. In February, the Guardian reported Rupert Murdoch’s response to his media group’s $6.4 billion loss in the last three months of 2008.
"While we anticipated a weakening, the downturn is more severe and likely longer lasting than previously thought. As a result, we have been taking actions to preserve a solid level of operational profitability and a strong balance sheet without sacrificing future growth. We are implementing rigorous cost-cutting across all operations and reducing head count where appropriate," Murdoch was reported as saying.
But Doherty scoffs at the suggestion the financial crisis is behind the cuts, laying the blame squarely on big business profiteering. "Get through the propaganda. They say the advertising market has collapsed, but the media is not bust! None are making a loss, they are just not making as much as they used to."
In 2008, major UK media companies Johnston Press and Trinity Mirror achieved operating profit margins of 24 per cent and 16 per cent respectively. By contrast, the British supermarket giant Tesco achieved just 5.9 per cent.
The Trinity Mirror group website says it has 8000 staff and 260 titles in the UK. In September, the group announced that with advertising revenues falling at their fastest rate in 20 years they would be forced to make an extra £20 million in savings.
Two titles among the Trinity Mirror group, Glasgow’s Daily Record and Sunday Mail, recently announced plans to make 24 positions compulsorily redundant. The NUJ launched three days of strike action in the last week of April and took the fight to the Scottish Parliament, which last week passed a motion calling on the bosses of the two Glasgow titles to "listen to reason" before making compulsory redundancies.
But if the NUJ does not make strong headway in championing the rights of British journalists, it will come as no surprise to some. The union lost much of its bite 20 years ago, when Murdoch sacked picketing printers en masse at Wapping, irrevocably changing the industry by doing so.
The British reporter that I spoke to said he left the union after feeling largely dissatisfied with its ability to make noticeable change: "I was a member of the NUJ as a trainee reporter earning £11,500 a year. All I got out of it was a magazine wittering on about the rights of lesbians in Peru while I was scrabbling to afford to pay my rent and put food on the table. The first paper I worked for had union recognition but it counted for nothing and the second didn’t and it made even less difference," he said.
Whatever its merits, the NUJ has at least raised awareness about the state of the media industry in Britain. It is also instigating debate about the future of the industry, and has set up local commissions to investigate possible solutions to the problems that media practitioners are now facing.
Doherty predicts the industry will undergo massive structural change. One of his proposals is for journalists to establish local news consortiums run as not-for-profits. "Since we basically own the banks now, they should be putting money into such start-ups," he suggested.
"I think there’s a real chance to create a new media landscape with new regulations and with the public appreciating quality content. There is still an appetite for news, and money to be made from news."
Doherty’s words echo those given by a well-known ex-Australian ex-reporter at last year’s Boyer lectures: "[People] have more sources of information than ever before. Amid these many diverse and competing voices, readers want what they’ve always wanted: a source they can trust. That has always been the role of great newspapers in the past. And that role will make newspapers great in the future."
The NUJ president is well aware of the irony: "It’s a sad day when you have to agree with Rupert Murdoch."
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.