Branch member Peter McIntyre has just become a life member of the National Union of Journalists. Pay your subs for long enough and it could be you, he writes.
Pay your subs for long enough and you may become a life member of the National Union of Journalists. It is a long service medal rather than a mark of quality, but I feel ridiculously proud of it.
In 1971 fresh out of University – and full of hope and insecurity – I became a reporter on the City Press, once local paper to the City of London but by then a mashup of local paper, financial news and apologist for the rich and powerful.
There was no training so I learned on the job and went to PitmanScript evening classes. We were five young reporters headed by John Tulloch who later launched the UK’s first undergraduate media studies programme at Westminster University and in 2005 was seriously injured in the London tube bombings. He recovered to became head of the Lincoln University school of journalism (but died too early in 2013).
We were allowed to do everything including broadcasting financial news for Radio London. I covered the Department of Trade and Industry report into Pergamon Press which concluded that Robert Maxwell was “not… a person who can be relied on to exercise proper stewardship of a publicly quoted company.”
I was sent as a substitute for the editor to have lunch with Rupert Murdoch and a handful of his executives at the Savoy Hotel. This was a blunder – I was put in quarantine at the end of the table and happily ignored for the whole of the meal. I was happier interviewing workers at the Royal Mint angry because their jobs were being exported to Wales.
Wow! They let me join
We were lowly paid even by the standards of provincial journalism with part of our wages in luncheon vouchers. The editor and joint owner Richard Lamb told us he did not understand how we could afford to live in London!
In February 1972, John Tulloch trooped us down to Fleet Street where the NUJ had a satellite office with a hatch to the street. To my amazement, they let us join. For the first time, I felt like a real journalist.
The NUJ is the natural home for all journalists.
A sub from the Times who helped get the paper to bed told me I should “fuck off to a real newspaper”. I went to the Luton News as an industrial reporter. They elected me Father of Chapel (FoC) just in time for group wide pay action against Home County Newspapers. I was delighted when an NUJ official arrived to help us – and devastated when I found his main aim was to get us back to work.
I went to the Oxford Mail and Times in January 1974 as a sub-editor (11 subs for the Oxford Mail with a separate desk for the Oxford Times!). There was a letter waiting for me on my first day telling me that due to my poor behaviour, my Christmas bonus had been cancelled. Welcome to Westminster Press.
Our winter of discontent
I returned to my first love – reporting. This was no golden age, but provincial newspapers provided the bedrock of domestic reporting in the UK –feeding national newspapers and broadcasters. It was a frequent occurrence to find your story virtually unchanged in one of the nationals with someone else’s byline.
I became FoC and was elected to the Provincial Newspapers Industrial Council negotiating with the employers’ Newspaper Society, which specialised in obnoxious negotiations. Here’s a sample. On paternity leave: “I’m not paying my staff to have sex.” On holidays for junior staff: “We don’t pay them enough to take holidays.”
A mood of rising discontent resulted in December 1978 in provincial newspaper journalists embarking on a seven week national strike. We left the building with 57 members and returned seven weeks later with 58 – having recruited one person on their way in. We ran a weekly bulletin, provided daily hot food and eventually won the largest pay rise any of us had ever had.
The 1980 saw a series of “right to manage” clawbacks. There were continual mini disputes where people were declared to have “sacked themselves” including one photographer who refused to snatch a picture of a five-year-old boy against his mother’s wishes.
I was elected to the NEC in time for the Wapping dispute when almost every vote ended 10–9 and the divisions were demoralising and unpleasant.
I met my partner Lise, who was in the first long NUJ strike at Maxwell’s Pergamon Press, in 1981. We still stroll through the grounds of Headington Hill Hall, once Maxwell’s home and now part of Oxford Brookes University.
I went freelance in 1989. Now in my 70s I work less but still pay my subs! All I ever really wanted was to be a good reporter, the best job in the world. But if you try to uphold some values and ethics, you do not have to look for trouble; it will find you. The NUJ is the natural home for all journalists. A sense of independence as a reporter and a sense of solidarity with other journalists turn out to be a really good fit. Joining the union is not about your politics, it is about preserving the DNA of our profession. Thank you for holding my hand NUJ.