Reader Comments: is it time to shut them down?


Freedom of expression is a human right. But freedom to offend and abuse under cover of anonymity is not. Nathan Briant, a former Oxford Mail reporter now working at BBC Oxford, argues that it’s time for newspapers to think of more efficient way of interacting with readers.




Earlier this week, the Oxford Mail ran a story about the funeral of a local businessman. Anthony Green was the founder of 001 Taxis.

The first comment has since been deleted. The second, from “THEBeardedWarrior”, tells the “moron” who posted the deleted comment to “show some respect”.

The thread continues. Another commenter who says she is Mr Green’s granddaughter is compelled to tell readers to again “show some respect”.

“Fishing for likes on an article to honour my grandad. Some people make me sick.”

As a former Oxford Mail and Newsquest reporter, I only have sympathy for former colleagues who must trawl through pages like that over and over again.

It is now time for the company and others like it to shut down comments and think up a more efficient, sensible way of interacting with readers. The comments are clearly more trouble than they are worth.

Newsdesks will be shrunk down even further over the coming months. Their attention should be spent directing reporters. They should not be troubled by what some loser has decided to share – again.

The Oxford Mail has sought to cut down on the bile from its readers. But it has been too patient and is being too optimistic about what it expects the results to be.

It says, warning readers that their comments will be deleted if offensive: “Freedom of expression is a human right. We live in a democracy and the Oxford Mail recognises the importance of public debate.”

But no one’s freedom of expression means they can discriminate against someone else. I do not doubt that if some people said what they post on papers’ websites in front of a police officer, they would be arrested.

Of course, newspapers are not under any obligation to allow comments. They are simply feeding the problem by allowing them.

Many commenters on papers’ websites are so sad and determined to disrupt (for whatever reason) that if they are blocked, they will simply create a new account. Sometimes some of them are so brazen that they will use an almost identical username to the last banned one.

I understand newspaper companies are harvesting every click they can and I understand why. These past few unfortunate weeks have magnified the press and the wider media’s problems in ways we could not have guessed even at the start of the year.

But now is as good a time as any to make life easier for journalists who are already under enough strain and clean up their own websites.

The Oxford Mail’s editor Samantha Harman and other companies must be given credit for standing up against vile abuse that journalists have received. That is clearly unacceptable and no one in any profession deserves it. But abuse on Twitter is regulated by Twitter, abuse on Facebook regulated by Facebook.

Newspaper companies who would say they are serious about combatting abuse against their readers and staff need also to look at what they can control themselves.

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We’re joining forces to defend jobs, pay and conditions in book & journal publishing

NUJ book branch

The Oxford branch of the NUJ has been teaming up with the NUJ Book branch to highlight issues of concern to members working in the sector. Most recently, we have joined forces to profile how publishers’ responses to the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic is impacting on the pay, hours, and job security of our members. This report, which was published in edited form in the June edition of the NUJ Branch News, was compiled by Catherine Brereton, (NEC Books rep job share), Helen Weir (Book branch committee), and Eleanor Connor (Oxford branch committee). The information comes from reports from members. Use of logos does not indicate the information comes from company sources.


There are 700+ NUJ members working in the Books sector. Since the start of the pandemic, Book Branch (600+ members) has seen a boost in attendance at Branch meetings, with remote meeting proving a success.

It’s been good to see new faces. People are obviously worried about their working conditions and jobs and perhaps having an online meeting makes it easier fo rmore to attend. It’s been good to make contact and has enabled us to monitor the situation in publishing.

There have been equality implications of the health crisis and of lockdown: both are disproportionately affecting different groups according to ethnicity, age, gender, disability and other health factors, class, and family/caring responsibilities. Gathering more information about members’ experiences will inform what activists can do to help them.

Through members sharing a wealth of useful information about their experiences, the branch is tracking the response of different employers and the situation on the ground in different workplaces. The branch is tracking issues such as pay cuts, furlough, cuts in hours, holiday – and how these measures are being implemented – as well as workload, health and safety while working from home, working alongside childcare or other caring responsibilities, mental health, and concerns about the future return to work.

Some workplace examples highlight the picture across the publishing industry: Almost all companies have placed at least some staff on furlough and introduced pay cuts of one kind or another.

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Pan Macmillan (where there is no union recognition, but a new chapel is currently being formed) is unusual in its decision to put almost no one on furlough, instead opting for a range of staggered voluntary pay cuts (for those earning over £32,000) coupled with a reduction in working hours for everyone (to a 4.5 day week). All staff who were on fixed-term contracts due to expire have had their contracts extended to the end of the year. Regular communication has been kept up about measures being taken and plans for the future. For example, staff have been assured that when lockdown measures are eased there will be no hot-desking and hygiene will be paramount.

penguin random house

PRH (Penguin Random House, recognised – NUJ and Unite joint chapel) has also kept in frequent contact with staff – webinars are held every other week with the CEO. PRH as a whole has agreed to furlough terms suggested by the NUJ with almost no amendments requested. However, although it was originally agreed that furlough would be voluntary, in practice some staff are not being given a choice. A long-planned office move is still going ahead, although no one will be moving into it as yet, and staff have been assured that the office will not open until July at the earliest.

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At Hachette (no union recognition), staff being furloughed are mainly at the assistant level and are taking turns. This year’s annual all-staff pay review was cancelled. All furloughed staff are on full pay, and the company gave reassurance that the scheme is a means to preserve jobs, and do not imply that these jobs are less valued by the company.


At Faber (recognised NUJ chapel), around 40% of staff are furloughed at any one time, with departments alternating and adjustments being made every three weeks. Risk assessments are being arranged for home working. Board members have taken pay cuts, and summer hours have been cancelled, along with bonuses and pay increases. There is a feeling that management are being open and transparent in the measures they need to take, including an admission that they need to cut costs as much as possible for survival, but nonetheless morale is suffering and many are feeling overworked. Non-furloughed staff are being awarded one extra day of holiday to compensate for the extra stress.

verso  pluto press

Other independents like Verso and Pluto (recognised NUJ chapels) are placing many staff members on furlough while instigating scaled pay cuts. The Verso chapel is in the process of achieving recognition and is being treated as de facto recognised, which is proving productive. Despite the financial difficulties Pluto is facing, it has awarded staff a £50 per month pay rise to compensate for any extra equipment people have to purchase for home working.


Bloomsbury (no chapel) has taken various measures, including a staggered pay cut scheme for everyone earning over £30,000 along with a small reduction in working hours. The annual all-staff pay review happened in February just before lockdown. Communication was initially patchy but lately improved, with the introduction of monthly town hall meetings.

lonely planet

At the worst end of the spectrum, Lonely Planet (no chapel) announced in the face of this crisis that it is shutting its London and Melbourne operations almost entirely, including its London-based children’s book publisher. Despite efforts to negotiate some kind of compromise, this is going ahead, with numerous staff including several NUJ members being made redundant.

At Oxford publishers…

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Wiley (no recognition) is expecting almost all staff to carry out existing work from home, with discretionary flexibility regarding childcare and other responsibilities falling on individual managers. This is seen as largely successful and the company has foreshadowed intentions to reduce real estate costs internationally with the introduction of more home working, though the implications of this are still unclear.

OUP cropped

OUP (derecognised, Unite) have added a clause to the contract for all staff who earn £30,000 or above (full-time equivalent) stating that hours and pay may be cut by up to 20%. This clause can be enforced at any point – management aim to give 2 weeks’ notice but this is not mandatory – and, once implemented, will be in effect until 31st March 2021. Staff are concerned that there has been little discussion of exactly how the measures would be implemented or how this would impact workload and targets, despite the fact that roughly 2/3 of UK employees earn above the £30K threshold.

T&F cropped

Taylor & Francis (recognised NUJ chapel) have taken a range of measures in response to the pandemic. All offices were closed towards the end of March, with staff instructed to work from home. Office equipment for home use is available at request, either via delivery or pre-arranged pick-up. T&F Management expect that the majority of staff may be working from home until September, although there are plans in place for the reopening of some offices at reduced capacity. Cost-cutting measures include a hiring-freeze, promotion suspensions, and temporary pay cuts for the Executive Leadership Team. Management have also implemented a resource redeployment programme, which has allowed staff in quieter departments to be temporarily seconded to teams with higher workloads. The Chapel has agreed to a temporary suspension of the right to carry holiday days over in 2021. No staff have been placed on furlough and no proposals have yet been made for wide-scale pay cuts or reductions to working hours. The NUJ workplace reps are in regular contact (virtually) with both members and HR/management.

Redundancies in the sector could be looming. A survey published last month by the Bookseller found that more than half of the UK’s small publishers fear they could be out of business by the autumn; bookshop sales have been severely affected by lockdown. The Bookseller also reported that publishers, such as HarperCollins, Hachette and Simon & Schuster, are exploring staff returning to their offices in autumn.

We need to ensure that members are equipped to face the challenging months ahead – that their health and safety at work is paramount and that we at the NUJ resist any threats to working conditions and to jobs themselves.


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A marathon, not a sprint: working from home during Covid-19

Lynn DegeleBranch chair Lynn Degele has been working from home for six weeks. Here she shares her experiences of work before and after lockdown. Continue reading

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Local journalists: how they inform and support us through the Covid crisis

ox mail covid collage print q_pages-to-jpg-0001

During the lockdown, our local journalists have gone the extra mile to keep us informed about how the virus and the lockdown is affecting all aspects of our lives, and about how we can best protect our own health and well-being and support one another. They have done this even as their already depleted newsrooms have been further reduced by furloughs. James Roberts, currently furloughed from his post as a sports reporter at the Oxford Mail, looks back at some of the highlights of the paper’s coverage so far.

THE phrase ‘key workers’ conjures up images of NHS staff performing heroics to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic. But the outbreak has also reinforced the vital role played by another group with ‘key worker’ status: the regional press. Continue reading

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Coronavirus – how the NUJ can help you

Green button with the words "Covid-19 information".The NUJ Campaigns office is doing sterling work compiling useful information for members – including updates on financial support. You can find this on the Covid 19 page on the union website.

Sign up for NUJ Informed, the fortnightly email newsletter from head office, by emailing You can download the newsletter via the NUJ Documents page (which also includes the latest coronavirus briefings).

Follow the NUJ on twitter @NUJofficial and join the NUJ group on Facebook. You can also keep in touch with Oxford and District branch on Twitter and Facebook.

Make sure the membership office has your home email address, especially if you don’t have regular access to your normal workplace email. Contact:

Need help?

This is a difficult time for many of our branch members, whether struggling with working from home or worried about their income.

If you have problems, we will do our best to find you the help you need. Please contact the Oxford branch Welfare Officer, Bill MacKeith, on

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The world of work changed overnight….

In a time of crisis, we need journalism more than ever to keep us informed and to connect communities. Branch member Paul Jenner tells us how journalists at BBC Oxford have found new ways to do their job.

When we started telling people that we were expecting a baby in May, practically everyone told me how wonderful it would be to have a baby in the spring. None of us, of course, was banking on the fact that we would be in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. We talked of how the weather would start to turn warmer and we how would be able to spend plenty of time outdoors. Now, that prospect looks very uncertain indeed.

I remember exactly when I first heard about the coronavirus. We were sitting in our hotel room in Tenerife in January, grabbing a “babymoon” while we had the chance. The TV reporter talked about how the virus was spreading across Wuhan in China, and it all seemed very remote. Now, it seems closer to home than ever. Continue reading

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Please take 5 minutes to defend the BBC

An appeal from your colleagues at BBC Oxford

Respond to the Survey by 5.00pm April 1st

Logo with the words "BBC. Love it or lose it."

The Government put forward a proposal a few weeks before the coronavirus crisis hit, that seems designed to lead to a fatal undermining of the BBC by effectively making payment of the TV license optional.

That proposal was put out for a lightning quick public consultation, which will end at 5pm on April 1.

We understand that the current emergency situation is taking up a lot of people’s time and attention. But we hope you don’t mind us asking those of you who can spare it, for 5 minutes of your time to respond to that consultation.

The BBC belongs to all of us and we all have a voice, but we need to use that voice before the April 1st deadline. Continue reading

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Coronavirus: advice for workers and colleagues

Desk showing a laptop, mug and "to do" list.

Oxford NUJ members are, like all workers at the moment, concerned about the coronavirus crisis, so we thought it would be helpful to compile a summary of our rights and responsibilities as workers and colleagues. These notes were sent to our members on 18th March, and while the general advice should remain accurate there will be further information available as the situation evolves. Please check the NUJ website and social media for the latest updates. Continue reading

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Why we’re standing with the UCU

UCU members on a picket line outside Oxford University Exam Halls.

UCU picket at Oxford University, February 2018. Photo: A K M Adam, Creative Commons via Flickr.

The Oxford & District branch of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) stands in support of members of the University and College Union (UCU) who are currently undertaking 14 days of strike action. We applaud UCU members for standing together against proposed detrimental changes to their pension scheme, and for fighting back against low pay, inequality, excessive workloads and precarious employment conditions.

Many of our members within the academic publishing sector work closely with those who are directly affected and are gravely concerned about the deteriorating working conditions within higher education.

In sending our full solidarity to the UCU the Oxford & District NUJ will be making a donation to the UCU strike fund, and will be asking members to participate in solidarity actions during any further strikes.

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A review of 2019, and lessons for the coming year

NUJ members sitting around a large table having a discussion.

Branch members discuss the challenges of working in publishing with Book Branch rep Anna Herve.

2019 was a busy year for our branch. Branch secretary Anna Wagstaff seeks to draw some conclusions to guide our direction in 2020.

From active campaigning to behind-the-scenes support, we’ve been working to be a voice for journalists and journalism in Oxford: campaigning for transparency in public services and better-resourced local media, raising the profile of the publishing sector within the NUJ, and supporting members struggling with overwork and stress.

What worked well, what didn’t and what should we follow up in 2020? Continue reading

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