There’s nothing quite like journalists in a flap to make a cold-ridden Tuesday afternoon more enjoyable. The reason for this consternation in my office was simple: a NUJ flyer promoting the evening’s chapel meeting. It had two items listed: update on the pay claim (hurrah!) and an update on the anti-war campaign (uh…).
Now, a sizeable proportion of the office are anti-war. Many of them went on the march a little while back. Not me, though. No. I’m more “anti-war, pro-the convincing threat of war” and just possibly “anti-whatever position Chirac is taking at any moment in time”. The anti-war people were just as vocal as I in protesting about the inclusion of the “anti-war update” on the flyer. The NUJ rep’s response was the standard one in this situation: “the NUJ has a political clause in its constitution and the conference has voted to affiliate to the Ant-War Coalition”. That didn’t come as a surprise to me, but it did to many of my colleagues.
I’ve been labouring in the trenches of union politics in one form or another for a decade now, since my love of student journalism got me sucked into NUS politics. I’ve done my bit to fight against the anti-democratic idiocies that the hard left seem to throw up with depressing frequency, “no platform for [insert demonised political group of the day]” being one major example. Through those years I’ve discovered that the basic problem is this: people like the idea of trade unions and collective bargaining, because it makes them feel that they can have some influence over their destiny and aren’t just the employed playthings of corporate paymasters. This is, on the whole, a Good Thing. However, most people hold moderate political views and thus can’t be bothered actually getting involved with the union. And so the extremists quite happily take control, elect themselves onto the national executive and then set about affiliating themselves to every passing leftist cause du jour that takes their fancy. (Note that I am not suggesting that the anti-war campaign is particularly leftist. It seems to be quite uniquely cross-spectrum in nature.)
It’s only when matters of great import to a lot of people like, say, an impending war, that the majority of the membership notice that this is happening. That was the culture shock that washed across the office yesterday afternoon and which lead to some very heated debates in the chapel meeting. Journalists feel this more acutely than most because, no matter how biased we are in our private lives we need to maintain some measure of impartiality in our working roles. An NUJ banner on a demo does little for this industry’s already shaky credibility with the general public.
In essence, this all comes back to the nature of our democracy. We are not a true democracy, we’re a representative democracy. We only really get a say in the running of the country every four years, and many people have even failed to exercise that right. The turn-out at the last general election was very far from good.
This leads, very neatly, to the conclusion that the March, the Anti-War Campaign and the shock in the office yesterday are all manifestations of the same thing: the outrage we feel when we realise that our elected officials aren’t doing what we want them to.
In the office context, that was anger that we, in our professional capacity, are being attached to a cause that we should not be seen to be allied with. Most NUJ members in the office feel that steps outside the bounds of what a union should do. In the wider context, perhaps the country is waking up to the fact that, if they don’t participate in the political process, then politicians will do exactly what they want. The evidence right now is that we’ll continue to re-elect them until they become so morally laughable that even the self-obsessed masses of the UK can’t ignore it any longer.