- NUJ’s black members (BMC) invited Canary editor Kerry-Anne Mendoza to deliver Black History Month lecture
- NUJ ‘chapel’ at Guardian/Observer ‘chapel’ protested Mendoza invitation
- NUJ’s NEC voted to ask BMC to discuss invitation again – but claimed it would respect BMC’s freedom to choose, as well as freedom of speech and dissent
- BMC voted unanimously to renew invitation
- NEC representative demanded BMC change its motion after its unanimous vote, to incorporate the NUJ’s ‘red lines’ – or NUJ would block the invitation
The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has been mired in controversy over the past month by the dire behaviour of some of its mainstream journalist members toward ‘new left media’ editor Kerry-Anne Mendoza – and by its own handling of the fall-out.
In September, as the SKWAWKBOX reported, Guardian/Observer journalists – mostly white and largely privileged – reacted with outrage to the news that the NUJ’s Black Members Council (BMC) had invited Canary editor-in-chief Mendoza to deliver the Claudia Jones lecture for Black History Month.
A week or so later, the Observer (and Tory Spectator) columnist Nick Cohen and Buzzfeed wrongly attacked the Canary for reprinting an article by journalist Max Blumenthal, claiming that it had led to a ‘targeted online harassment campaign’ against a US journalist who had been deported from Nicaragua for activities that, according to Blumenthal, had little to do with journalism.
The mainstream claims were false – Buzzfeed subsequently retracted its accusation, although Twitter comments remained online. Ironically, the false accusations led to a campaign of targeted online harassment against the Canary and Ms Mendoza.
Quotes by the NUJ’s general secretary had formed a key part of the basis used to attack Mendoza – but in spite of this, the union neither apologised nor withdrew her invitation.
But behind the scenes, it has behaved in a way that has caused outrage among black journalists and led to accusations that the union has tried to subvert the very democracy it claims to respect.
The NUJ NEC
On 12 October, the NUJ’s National Executive Committee met to discuss the situation surrounding Mendoza, the lecture and the outraged reaction at the Guardian/Observer against her invitation – but also its objection to Mendoza’s support for a social media campaign to boycott the Guardian, which was triggered by the behaviour of the paper’s journalists but was not initiated by Ms Mendoza.
The NEC passed the following resolution:
This NEC accepts the report of the General Secretary in respect of the Claudia Jones Memorial Lecture.
This NEC does not support campaigns calling for the boycott of newspapers and strongly resolves that supporting such campaigns is inconsistent with journalistic trades unionism.
This NEC congratulates The Guardian/Observer Chapel on its willingness to support the Claudia Jones Memorial Lecture and commends the principled way in which it handled criticism surrounding the intended event on 11 October and the resolution reached by the Guardian/Observer black members’ caucus.
This NEC reaffirms that it is the responsibility of all journalists to do their utmost to promote and protect the safety of journalists, particularly those working in conflict situations.
The NEC reminds all members of their obligations under our Code of Conduct
This NEC calls on the entire Black Members’ Council to meet to consider rescheduling the Claudia Jones Memorial Lecture and in doing so ensure that whoever is invited to deliver the lecture commits themselves to the above principles.
The NEC also reaffirms the respect we have for NUJ democratic structures and the freedom we accord them when choosing speakers; and the principle of freedom of speech and the right to air dissenting views at our meetings.
The paragraphs praising its Guardian/Observer ‘chapel’ and the final lines about respecting democratic structures, freedom to choose speakers and respecting freedom of speech and dissenting views should be noted particularly.
The BMC, as called on in the above resolution, arranged a meeting to discuss the lecture and its invitee. With a representative of the NUJ NEC in attendance, it discussed the following motion:
The BMC notes the NEC motion of 12 October in regard to the Claudia Jones Memorial Lecture. We applaud the NEC’s support for the right of the BMC to choose the speaker.
The BMC reaffirms its support for the NUJ’s code of conduct to which all NUJ members must abide.
The BMC reaffirms the NUJ’s support for the safety of journalists, particularly in conflict zones and that members should consider how their work in a professional capacity can negatively affect them.
The BMC supports the importance of jobs for journalists and particularly the need for racial diversity.
We resolve to write to Kerry Anne Mendoza, the editor of the Canary and an NUJ member, to bring to her attention the motions by the NEC and BMC. The BMC asks if she would do a speech based on her publication and the importance of online outlets like hers, in consultation with the BMC chair, for the lecture to take place on 30th October in London.
The BMC recalls the IFJ [International Federation of Journalists] 25th year report detailing the killing of 2,297 journalists and the impact it has had on high levels of impunity.
The BMC believes that the vast majority of killed journalists are in the global south and hundreds are in jail. BMC applauds the work done by the NUJ and sister unions worldwide to advance the safety and protection of journalists and calls on all NUJ members to stand by and uphold union policy on the safety of journalists.
The resolution to maintain Ms Mendoza’s invitation is as clear as the BMC’s concern for the safety of journalists – but the motion did not contain the strictures on her topic of conversation and readiness to promise ‘good’ behaviour that the NEC wanted.
This led to a remarkable – and shockingly anti-democratic – turn of events.
The NUJ’s response
Based on the BMC’s motion and given the short time remaining for the lecture to be delivered within October’s Black History Month, an immediate invitation should have been sent to Kerry-Anne Mendoza as outlined by the BMC.
Instead, an email was sent, by the senior staffer who attended the BMC meeting to represent the NEC, to all council members – and it made clear that their democratic decision was not the one they had been intended to reach:
The two key points of principle that the meeting was convened to consider, highlighted in the NEC motion and discussion, and then clearly articulated several times at the outset of the BMC meeting were
1) opposition to calls for boycotts of any publication, especially where we have an organised and strong chapel – which is the same chapel that helped to establish the Claudia Jones lecture in the first place, and
2) the issue of the safety of journalists.
As temporary/acting servicing officer of the meeting those two issues seemed clearly understood and accepted red lines by the committee, and a consensus was reached. These key points would form the basis of my contacting Kerry-Anne and establishing whether she will abide by those principles and remain the speaker.
That was my plan for today – to write to her in those terms. But it is clear from the discussions over the weekend that the motion as it stands fails to clearly reference one of those agreed red lines – beyond the line about jobs for journalists.
Members are expected to work to help strengthen the NUJ in its work and to abide by the following principles and practices:
(i) to treat other members of the union and union staff, with consideration and respect and not to take actions which threaten their livelihood or working conditions
(ii) to defend the interests of other members of the union in the same way as they would defend their own interests
For clarity’s sake, and to make the process of engagement with Kerry-Anne as straightforward as possible, it is necessary to make the motion as clear and explicit as possible.
Given the NEC’s position, the lecture cannot go ahead as planned unless she agrees to those two points of principle.
The communication with her needs to be explicit with no room for further confusion.
It is also important and worth flagging up that the proposed speaker has been tweeting support for a boycott of the Guardian over this weekend.
The motion was passed unanimously.
A number of things leap out – screaming for attention – from this NUJ message:
- the meeting was not called to discuss only ‘two key points of principle’, but the BMC’s whole decision and motion concerning the invitation
- the NEC’s 12 October resolution reaffirmed its ‘respect’ for
* the union’s democratic structures
* freedom of speech and the right to dissent
* the BMC’s freedom to decide for itself who should be invited to speak
- in spite of this ‘reaffirmation’, the follow-up by the NEC’s representative states that
* ‘dissent’ is not allowed to include calling for the boycott of a publication whose journalists responded in a racist or condescending manner to the invitation for the BAME editor of an independent publication to deliver a lecture for Black History Month
* based on its letter, the NUJ’s NEC was not prepared to respect the freedom of the BMC to make its own decision about whom to invite to deliver the lecture. Instead it was planning to veto the invitation ‘unless [Mendoza] agrees‘ to its demands
Most strikingly of all, however, was that despite the NEC’s supposed ‘respect’ for the democracy of the NUJ’s organisations, it was demanding that a motion be amended to its liking after it had been unanimously passed by the BMC.
A BMC member told the SKWAWKBOX:
The NUJ big shots are hell-bent on setting conditions that would make it impossible for Kerry-Anne Mendoza to accept without a humiliating climb-down – forcing her to renounce the ‘boycott the Guardian’ campaign. On top of that, they have tried to subvert the democracy of black NUJ members by issuing an ultimatum to change our motion after the fact, or see the matter taken out of our hands.
This amounts to the bullying of a black woman NUJ member by her powerful opponents at the Guardian, who even called a special chapel meeting for the purpose.
The NUJ bureaucracy has supported these predominantly white, privileged journalists over its own Black members, who elected the BMC to represent them, have few jobs in the industry and face racism every day.
Kerry-Anne Mendoza told the SKWAWKBOX:
I’m absolutely astonished to find out what’s been going on. It’s incredibly disappointing that the general secretary of my own union is part of a witch-hunt against myself and my publication.
The NUJ is supposed to be a trade union, not a trade association designed to protect the interests of individual corporations.
But the biggest tragedy in all this is that it’s preventing us properly commemorating Claudia Jones. This memorial lecture was never about me, or the Canary – or about some upset Guardian pundits. It’s about honouring the memory of a pioneering black, left-wing, feminist journalist – and we will be doing that no matter what the Guardian or the NUJ have to say about it.
The SKWAWKBOX repeatedly tried to reach the NUJ and the individual who attended the BMC meeting and subsequently wrote the message to BMC members demanding that their motion change, but was unable to obtain comment from either.
A number of points from these events stand out as particularly troubling.
- How can a union that claims to be democratic demand that a motion be changed after it has been democratically agreed by the council with the acknowledged authority and freedom to make it?
- How can a union praise the ‘principled’ behaviour of journalists who not only made untrue claims about a Canary article but also triggered exactly the kind of online mobbing of Mendoza that they claimed to abhor – and whose objections to an invitation to another NUJ member were at best elitist and at worst racist?
- At what point does a journalist acting – nobody has seriously challenged the factual accuracy of Blumenthal’s article published in the Canary – as a government agitator cease to be a journalist and start to be an agent?
- How can a publication be treated – by a union – as exempt from calls for a boycott, no matter its behaviour, merely because it employs some journalists?
- NUJ members – including some of the people involved in the genesis of this scandal – routinely attack not only the journalism and integrity but also the very existence of ‘new left’ publications, including the Canary, whose writers are also for the most part NUJ members.
One such attack can be clearly seen in the objection of members of the Guardian/Observer NUJ chapel to Ms Mendoza’s invitation to deliver the lecture in the first place.
Many of the attacks by ‘MSM’ journalists are deeply personal, intensely abusive and aimed, sometimes explicitly, at undermining the credibility and, therefore, at damaging the income, of independent left journalists and publications.
Rebukes and interventions by the NUJ regarding those attacks – on NUJ members – have been conspicuous by their absence.
So in what way is the ‘boycott the Guardian’ hashtag on Twitter worse than those constant and vicious attacks – and how is the NUJ fulfilling its purpose as a union if it ignores the latter yet acts on the former?
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