NUJ should have played stronger role in deterring phone hacking scandal – Tom Watson MP


Mr Watson was speaking at a book promotion as part of the ongoing Wimbledon Bookfest.


By Lorcan Lovett

The phone hacking scandal at News International may have been deterred if the National Union for Journalists had played a stronger role, according to MP Tom Watson.

The comment was made at Mr Watson’s ‘Dial M for Murdoch’ book promotion on Wednesday evening as part of the Wimbledon Bookfest.

The politician said media improvements in ethics, regulation and ownership can help prevent another ‘Dowler moment’.

“I think the NUJ actually have a role to play in the code of conduct,” he said.

“Had they been stronger in News International I think these junior ambitious reporters might have had the strength to stand up to their managers who were asking them to break the law.”

As part of the select committee who questioned Rupert Murdoch over ‘Hackgate’, Mr Watson was also ‘horrified’ by the lack of preparation from an unnamed fellow MP.

The NUJ, which has 38,000 members, established their Code of Conduct in 1936 and require journalists to abide by it when signing up.

General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet said: “It is significant that the unfolding scandal at News International happened in a workplace where the NUJ has been effectively blocked by Rupert Murdoch.”

Ms. Stanistreet interviewed 40 journalist members for the Leveson Inquiry, a report into the press, using 13 of these as witness statements.

Fear of job loss and career damage meant these statements had to be anonymous, resulting in an attempt by Associated Press, owners of the Daily Mail and Metro, to block the evidence.

They claimed that all tabloid newspapers risked being ‘reputationally damaged’ by ‘untested’ claims from journalists.

The high court challenge failed and the statements highlighting unethical practices were used.

The evidence includes a reporter being told by the news editor to ‘write a story about Britain being flooded by asylum-seeking bummers’ and instructions to ‘make stories as right wing as you can’.

Another statement involves a reporter being told to go out and find Muslim women to photograph. The statement claims the order was: “Just f*****g do it.  Wrap yourself around a group of women in burkas for a photo.”

Len McCluskey, General Secretary of Unite the Union, said NUJ members were forced to abide by questionable tactics, allowing a culture of unscrupulous journalists to be promoted. 

“The NUJ have fought for many years to try and stop that and in many respects the NUJ have been absolutely vindicated by what’s coming out now,” he said.

When asked what is needed for improved press regulation, he added: “You would certainly need to have an independent body that has statutory powers and not just a toothless tiger.”

The NUJ and Mr Watson say the current system, with the Press Complaints Commission, does not work.

The NUJ is campaigning for a ‘Conscience Clause’ where a clause in a contract of employment would allow journalists to stand up on a point of journalistic ethics without fear of being dismissed.

They do, however, accept that this clause alone will not solve the industry’s problems.

They hope for a new model, roughly based on Ireland’s Press Council and Ombudsman where media organisations are required to be involved if they want to be covered by law.

Recommendations are due from the Leveson Inquiry by the end of the year.

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