Category Archives: recent events

We’ve turned whistleblower!

Adrian Harris 2

Professor Adrian Harris, consultant medical oncologist at Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust, addressing the meeting. © Peter McIntyre

The Oxford NUJ branch is blowing the whistle on NHS England for its lack of transparency and its attempts to frustrate efforts to hold it to account for its decision relating to the future of Oxfordshire’s diagnostic cancer scanning services.

The question we are asking is this:

Why is NHS England being so secretive about the basis for its decision regarding the future of Oxfordshire’s PET-CT diagnostic imaging services? What is the basis for its decision to take this service away from the world-class radiology team at the Churchill hospital, where it operates as an integrated part of a world-class cancer care service? Why has NHS England awarded preferred bidder status to a private company that operates from mobile units, and has no-one with a licence to administer the radioactive substances used in PET-CT?

This are questions that should normally be posed by reporters, and our local journalists are certainly doing their best to get answers. It is a question also for Oxfordshire’s Health Overview and Scrutiny Committee, which is empowered to ‘call-in’ questionable decisions made by our public healthcare services, and they too have been doing their best to get answers.

Our NUJ branch got involved because we are alarmed at the lengths to which NHS England seems to be prepared to go to avoid being scrutinised and held to account for this decision. It has not addressed questions of substance relating to the impact the change to the service will have on the quality and safety of patient care. It seems intent on stifling those who seek to voice their concerns, and withholding information that the public has a right to know.

The Oxford NUJ branch is saying that it is not OK for public bodies to hide behind legal threats, to seek to silence critics or to create a climate of fear in public bodies.

We took the unusual step of calling a public meeting in Oxford Town Hall to try to build up a picture of what is going on. We posted the speakers’ presentation on our YouTube channel. You can view the full playlist here. Video recordings are courtesy of Peter McIntyre.

What they said

We invited Professor Adrian Harris, a consultant medical oncologist at Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust, to tell us the story so far from the perspective of those currently running the service at the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust (OUHT).

Adrian explained that the quality of PET-CT scans matters because they change treatment decision in up 40% of cases. Referring to correspondence from NHS England, he argue they had built their case on “incorrect data to force the issue to allow InHealth to come in and disrupt an outstanding service,” and that they were blocking access to key information by claiming there were “discussions” and a “legal review” that do not exist.

“NHS England have not told the truth, they have put legal pressure on doctors, they don’t reply to emails, when corrected in things they don’t respond and the role of Bruno [Dr Bruno Holthof is Chief Executive Officer of Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust] in not taking us through what the doctors say, what the Trust wants to do, passing on messages very worrying to me. We have to have an open access. How can we have an explanation, not only just from NHS England but the local Trust leaders as to why they are behaving like that?”

You can see his full presentation here (11 mins)

We also invited Tamsin Allen, a partner at Bindmans law firm who specialises in defamation law and has long experience representing whistleblowers, to comment on the legal issues.

Tamsin talked about the letter NHS England’s lawyers had sent to the OUHT, warning them that any statement that suggests that the result of awarding the contract to InHealth puts patient safety at risk or compromises the provision of cancer care and research in the health system “would be defamatory if repeated to any third party”.

“That’s an incredibly broad and sweeping claim, and it’s also legally wrong,” said Tamsin. She questioned a later clarification from NHS England that the letter had been intended as helpful advice regarding possible defamation suits from others, rather than a direct threat. “Lawyers are used to using language precisely particularly when talking about the law. That was a deliberate sentence. It’s an intimidating statement.”

You can view her presentation here (14 mins)

We also invited Seamus Dooley, the Assistant General Secretary of the NUJ, to talk about the role of a strong local press in championing the public interest by scrutinising the behaviour of those in charge of our public services.

“This is not about the law. This is about bullying and unacceptable behaviour. From the NUJ’s perspective, we are under no doubt that what this is intended is to have a chilling effect which inhibits debate and inhibits questions. It is about the use of law to close down debate. Does it mean journalists will stop asking questions? I hope not.”

You can view his presentation here (5 mins).

The meeting was chaired by Anna Wagstaff, Secretary of the Oxford and District NUJ branch. In her opening remarks she said, “This is behaviour you could maybe expect from a tobacco company but not from our health service. We’d like this to be a practical meeting focused on how we can bring some accountability and transparency to this process to ensure decision are made in the best interests of the public that the NHS is meant to serve.”

You can view her presentation here (2 mins)

You can see the Banbury Guardian’s report (26 June 2019) on their battle to get access to the relevant correspondence between NHS England and the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust here.

You can see the Oxford Mail report of the meeting here

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Dreaming Spires branch Inspires


More than 60 journalist from every sector came to Oxford NUJ branch’s ‘digitally-converged summer social’.

Those attending included a sizeable contingent from BBC Oxford – whose chapel co-organised the event – on-screen reporters from Meridan TV’s newsroom, Chapel representatives from the Oxford Mail and Oxford Guardian and members working in book publishing.

Anna Wagstaff, branch secretary, explained the thinking behind the event:  “Our local media is interlinked. And in this fast-changing media sector, we all have an interest in fostering a local media ecosystem that offers opportunities to earn a decent living, doing whatever we do to the best of our ability. We wanted to bring together the broadest possible range of members to start to explore common areas of interest.”

The energy generated by the event – which was held in an arts centre near BBC Oxford – was palpable.  Alison Campbell, a Banbury-based PR said: “I can’t believe it when I meet PRs who aren’t in the NUJ – this event is another example of how relevant the NUJ is to us”.  Several others at the event were equally committed to building NUJ membership.

Paul Jenner, BBC Oxford FOC, said: “I was delighted at the wide range of people who came to the social, and as a result we have had several new membership enquiries. We truly are stronger when we work together.”

NUJ president, Tim Dawson, who was invited to the event to speak, later described the social as one of the best NUJ branch meetings he had ever attended.  “The plan to bring people together from every sector really worked.  The mix of people made for an enormously stimulating event – if other branches could emulate this success it would be an enormous boost to the entire union,” he said.

Cross-posted from the

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Yeah but… no but… weighing up the EU options for Oxon

Anne Hall - Jan 2016

Blogpost by Anne Hall freelance member of the Oxford NUJ branch


David Cameron and Nigel Farage weren’t the only ones facing difficult questions about the EU referendum on Tuesday evening. While the prime minister and the UKIP leader were busy practising their soundbites ready to face live questions from the audience, NUJ branch members in Oxford were having their own debate about what the referendum result could mean for them. Continue reading

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Seriatim and strength in numbers: what I learnt at DM2016

paul twitter imageThe Oxford NUJ branch sent 3 delegates to the NUJ national conference, Southport April 14-17, to participate in deciding on union policy and electing officers for the coming two years. Paul Jenner represented the branch for the first time, alongside Anna Wagstaff and Bill MacKeith. He blogs here about the experience. Continue reading

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The new NHS: does anybody know who’s in charge?

Kate Griffin of the Oxford & District branch represented the NUJ at a May meeting organised by the Medical Journalists’ Association in London. This is her (somewhat belated) write-up of the event.

Who’s in charge of the changed NHS? That was the question being addressed by the speakers at the Medical Journalists’ Association event in May. The Health & Social Care Act became law at the start of April, but it will be some time before all the ramifications become clear.

Nicholas Timmins, King’s Fund consultant, said that the NHS has a change management programme “so large you can actually see it from space”. Although Andrew Lansley’s agenda might have seemed obscure to some, he actually laid out his intentions quite clearly in a 2005 speech. (I think Timmins was referring to the speech entitled The Future of Health and Public Service Regulation, which is still available online.) Essentially, he was trying to introduce a market element into our health service, which is very similar to what Labour were doing. Lansley was less interested in what he calls the “wiring” – the structure – and more interested in the principle of pro-competitive reform.

Timmins ended by asking: “Where does power now lie? God only knows.”

Bonnie Green, patient advocate, spoke next. She is former chair of the Richmond LINk. (LINks have been abolished by the Act and replaced with Healthwatch teams.) She pointed out that there’s more patient engagement built into the new NHS structure than you might think; NHS England (formerly the NHS Commissioning Board) has a dedicated Patient and Information Directorate, and clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) have a lay Board member for patient involvement. But it’s too early to say whether the principle of “No decision about me, without me” is really working for patients in the new NHS.

Jon Sacker, communications lead for NHS Clinical Commissioners, had a different take on privatisation. “We have a fixed envelope. Privatisation is another way of talking about rationing.” He mentioned the new Commissioning Support Units, which do what the name suggests: support CCGs in their commissioning functions. (The CCGs still have legal accountability.) But it’s useful for journalists to know about these units because they’re almost like a PR agency working for the CCG, responding to Freedom of Information requests and supplying (or not supplying) data.

Lindsay M Davies, epidemiology professor at Nottingham University, brought out the public health aspects of the Health & Social Care Act. Local authorities have new responsibilities for the health of their populations, but it’s not entirely clear who is responsible in an outbreak or disaster.

She reminded us of the often-forgotten point that the UK has a devolved healthcare system, and the Health & Social Care Act only affects England. As a result, Public Health England and Public Health Wales are very different.

She also sounded a note of caution about the way public health officials are being pushed towards jobs in the civil service or local authorities. “Where is the independent voice?”

The final speaker was Roger Taylor of the website Dr Foster, which provides comparative information on health and social care services. He is also the author of God Bless the NHS.

He said that there is a gap between  “what most people want and what the policy people want”, because patients tend to be conservative. “The money has run out and the willingness to change is not there, so we can expect cracks to appear in the next 12 months.”

Looking at patient-reported outcomes yields some unpleasant surprises: some patients actually self-report as better before an operation than afterwards!

He said that if markets within the NHS truly deliver a better, more cost-efficient service, that’s great. But we’re missing out on the data to make comparisons and draw our own conclusions because private suppliers of healthcare services are hiding behind commercial confidentiality. And that won’t wash, because we need to formulate future policy based on proper evidence.

He ended with a plea to listen more to patients; currently there’s a culture of not trusting patients to know what is best, of ignoring what they say, and that has to stop.

Paul Bradshaw of the Help Me Investigate blogs was chairing the event, and took many questions after summing up. Questions raised but not fully answered included “How do working people engage with patient advocacy groups when they meet during work hours?” and “Why do we have such a complex system in such a comparatively small country?”

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Branch member’s new book takes on WHO/IMF/McKinsey health orthodoxy – and wins

pag_25_John_Lister brighter

It was the Labour Party that started introducing ‘market reforms’ into the NHS, based on the assumption that market-based competition is better than services based on planning, collaboration and peer review by health professionals. Those reforms, back in 2000, were ‘informed’ by a study commissioned from McKinsey at great expense. When Oxford branch member John Lister went back to examine that study, it turned out to be 156 powerpoint slides which, he says, consist of “one assertion after another”. Assertions like: Reducing GPs consultation times by 30% could save £200 million across the NHS. “Nothing about what the consequences would be if doctors reduced their consultation times by 30%, or what the doctors actually think about it, or what the impact would be on patients.”

“If my students handed me a study like that,” said John, a lecturer in health journalism at Coventry University, “I would hand it back for lack of evidence.”

John was speaking at the launch of his new book Health Policy Reform: Global Health versus Private Profit, on Thursday 6th June – a unique and thoroughly researched publication that takes a close look at the evidence (or lack of it) behind health policies being pushed increasingly in the UK, and more disastrously around much of the developing world. More importantly, it revisits some of these policies, introduced with much fanfare and little scrutiny, and examines how they have worked in practice. The only conclusion, he says, is that they haven’t.

And how could they? As John points out, the people who need healthcare services most are invariably the ones who can least afford to pay: the very old, the very young, and the poor. Among those more able to pay, insurance companies do their utmost to make sure that they have get-out clauses that let them wriggle out of paying for the expensive stuff and illnesses their customers are most at risk of developing

“Look at the US: middle-income people bankrupted by healthcare costs. In Peru, 40 per cent of wealthy people can’t access healthcare – never mind the poor.”

It is the UK, under the present government, however, that is now taking a lead in pushing through every variety of market reform on the basis of very little more than ideology – and the virtual absence of any critical appraisal. The very morning of John’s book launch, David Nicholson, the head of NHS England, who will shortly be vacating his post after 10 years presiding over many of these ideologically led policy reforms, commented in an interview that we now need to “question” the idea of the purchaser–provider split. “Why didn’t [he] say that in the last 10 years? Why not when the reforms were going through? Why didn’t [he] say anything about the Health and Social Care Bill until after the Lords had signed it through? Why start critiquing the system now, to get some credibility when all of us were opposed all the way through?”

Researchers and journalists need to take some of the blame, said John. Researchers because they follow the lavish funding offered by the WHO and IMF for people who come up with findings that fit in with their beliefs, and journalists who assume that the orthodoxy being pushed by the big global bodies and research organisations must be right, and fail to ask the awkward questions and demand the evidence.

John’s book, in contrast, is all about the evidence; it fills a huge gap in the health policy debate and has been welcomed by many leading researchers.

What the experts say:

“Essential reading for all students and practitioners of health and social care who want to understand the context within which they are now being condemned to work, and start changing it.” Julian Tudor Hart, author of The Political Economy of Health Care: a clinical perspective

“A really important book which is as ambitious as all-encompassing, and as undoctrinaire as to qualify as a sort of Doyal Political Economy of Health for the 21st century.” John S Yudkin MC FRCP, Emeritus Professor of Medicine and former Director International Health and Medical Education Centre University College London

“A must-read for anyone passionate about universal health care to understand its greatest obstacle and where we must focus our fight” Anna Marriott, health Policy Advisor, Oxfam

“At a critical time for public health care and health systems across the world, John Lister’s book gives us valuable insights into the forces that are arrayed against universal health care and how capitalism is consuming our basic rights and entitlements. It’s time to organise and get them back.” Allyson Pollock, Professor of Public Health Research and Policy at Queen Mary, University of London

Health Policy Reform: Global Health versus Private Profit is published by Libri

More information can also be found at

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The new NHS: what it means for journalists

There was laughter in the room when John Lister ironically described the new NHS structure as “streamlined” and shared a Guardian graphic of the new bureaucracy. It set the tone for the NUJ’s Reporting on our health services masterclass, aimed at helping health reporters get to grips with confusing changes. Lister, senior lecturer in health journalism at Coventry University, identified some of the main issues for journalists:

  • access to information
  • getting that information in a timely manner
  • getting a range of information – not just press releases, but also Board papers, statistics, other info that isn’t specifically targeted at the press
  • transparency
  • access to expert analysis. (You have the info, but can you make sense of it? Is there a specialist who can put it in context or add insight?)

He spoke about the slippery nature of transparency; for example, NHS England (the new name for the NHS Commissioning Board) is relatively open to reporting, but the real nitty-gritty decisions are made by Local Area Teams (LATs).

Many of the bodies that you might want to report on are not obliged to let you do so. CCGs (Clinical Commissioning Groups) have no requirement to meet in public, Commissioning Support Services are not public bodies and Foundation Trusts have no requirement to publish papers or agendas from each board meeting.

Shaun Lintern, of the Health Service Journal and Nursing Times, raised another barrier to quality health reporting: the lack of paid health reporting posts. It’s a deep irony that health service cuts are being underreported because of staffing cuts in our own newsrooms. Shaun was the man who broke the Mid Staffs story, but he wasn’t even a specialist health reporter at the time. He was just a regular reporter on the West Midlands Express & Star who picked up the story from a colleague who was too busy to follow it up. On that day, six years ago, he had no idea that he was about to break a huge story and become one of the country’s best-known health reporters.

He said that we “need to get back to old-fashioned journalism” – not just accepting press releases but digging around, talking to people and so on. He described staying up until the early hours reading the Board papers of health service bodies. “[The papers] won’t have a story – but they might have a clue to the story. Then you can talk to someone.” But he believes that for this approach to be successful, editors need to take the lead, giving reporters time and permission to attend conferences, read through health service paperwork and so on.

He moved to the Health Service Journal over a year ago and the Express & Star has not replaced him yet.

Other comments from Shaun: the new structure is without a doubt not permanent and will almost certainly change in the next couple of years. He believes that the trend for CCGs to merge with each other will continue, because individually they’re too small to be sustainable.

The next speaker was Branwen Jeffreys, a BBC journalist speaking in a personal capacity. She commented that GPs have “taken a step inside the establishment tent” from their traditional position as relative outsiders. 90% of public contact with the NHS is through GPs, but in the past they have seemed less part of the system.

She regretted the loss of Community Health Councils, the “awkward squad” who questioned decisions, and wondered what will replace them.

She raised the issue of underspending as important: why are some departments not spending their full budget when there are patients waiting for treatment? It’s an important issue because only a small proportion of a department’s budget can be carried over to the next financial year. The rest is lost.

Her final tip for journalists was that hospital doctors are more willing to speak out than they used to be, as long as they’re guaranteed anonymity.

Paul Bradshaw (of this very blog) spoke about the public information crisis. In the West Midlands, one and a half health journalists are covering an area with a population of two million. How can you provide in-depth coverage when you’re stretched so thin? He pointed out that many activists are becoming de facto journalists and commented that “it’s the non-journalists who do the digging, but they often don’t know how to tell stories.” For a story to work, you can’t just dump facts on a page; you need a narrative and a human interest angle.

He mentioned the Department of Health website’s recent move to the website, and there was a groan in the room. The new version of the site makes it harder to find information that used to be easily accessible. He added that some of it has proved impossible to find at all.

He gave some more useful tips for sourcing information:

  • Many CCGs have a news feed that you can subscribe to.
  • It’s worth looking at other bodies involved in delivering health and social care, such as local authorities. They might be a good source of stories or comments that don’t fit the official NHS spin.
  • The NHS Information Centre is a good resource but there are cost restrictions on accessing the information and these may get tighter soon.

The discussion from the floor was lively and raised some interesting points. One patient advocate pointed out that patients have more power now and may often have insider information. It’s a mistake to use them just for anecdotes and human interest stories.

During the discussion Branwen Jefferies made the point that it’s hard to work out which problems are caused by structural change and which are caused by a lack of money. We discussed the pricing of services and she reminded us to challenge the assumption that everything is cheaper “in the community”. John Lister added that the unit costs of A&E departments are surprisingly low. They don’t get shut down to save money, they get shut down to soften up communities for other closures.

One trainee reporter from Brighton shared a recent scoop about the new 111 service and how it has doubled the workload for paramedics because poorly trained phone staff send them out on unnecessary calls, including one to a cat with diarrhoea. Her story was picked up by that day’s Metro – sadly without any payment or acknowledgement!

We also discussed mortality rates and how hospitals with high rates will state they don’t prove anything while hospitals with low rates will mention the fact on their websites. Shaun Lintern said that they “may not prove anything – but they’re a smoke-signal, a sign something may be wrong.”

Paul Bradshaw said that he believes health data will be among the last public data to “go open” for use by the public, journalists and statisticians.

We also very quickly discussed bullying, including intimidation of whistleblowers. John Lister described bullying in the NHS as “rife” and “tolerated as a management style”. He added that there is still no support for whistleblowers, so how do we expect them to speak out?

We were running out of time, but touched on the issue of health markets and competition. Anna Wagstaff of the NUJ’s Oxford & District branch said that health services across Europe are being reorganised on the assumption that opening up services to competition makes them better, but she doesn’t know of any evidence that it does – or that it doesn’t. There just hasn’t been enough research into this.

John Lister wrapped up the session by sharing a useful link for health reporters:

A final thought: it’s clear that health reporters aren’t going to get the real stories handed to them in a press release. If a story is really explosive like the Mid Staffs scandal, there will be forces working to keep it covered up. That makes life tougher for working journalists. But it’s also a golden opportunity to combine old-fashioned digging with 21st-century data-wrangling and produce absolutely top-class journalism in the process.

Transcripts of the event are available at This blog post has been cross-posted to Help Me Investigate (Health), which is a great resource for investigative journalists.

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It’s time for geeks to organise

Branch chair Kate Griffin explains why we’re recruiting members who work in new media.

Last Wednesday I bagged myself a Pitch slot at Oxford Geek Night 27, which gave me a minute’s worth of attention from the 150 or so assembled geeks. That minute wasn’t enough to get my point across, even given how fast I talk; hence this blog post.

My basic point was pretty simple: it’s time for geeks to join the union. I was there in my capacity as chair of the Oxford & District branch of the NUJ. That’s short for National Union of Journalists, but like the Hitchhiker’s Guide trilogy, it’s increasingly unreliably named.

The NUJ was originally just for journalists, but its scope has grown and changed along with the job market over the past century or so. Now there’s a whole host of jobs which qualify you to join, including (but not limited to):

  • Front-end developers
  • Web designers
  • UX designers
  • Copywriters – including web copywriters
  • Content editors
  • Content uploaders/assistants
  • Social media officers/assistants
  • Bloggers

Current recruitment practice defines people performing these roles as “creative artists working editorially” and/or “editorial computer systems workers”, which is what allows them to join. Sadly, back-end developers, CMS/CRM developers and database developers are defined as “completely technical” roles, which means they don’t qualify. There’s probably an argument brewing about that, but right now that’s what the rules say.

I will freely admit that until pretty recently, the NUJ has been crap about recruiting and organising people in those types of roles. We’ve focused way too much on heartland members like newspaper reporters. But that’s changing. In 2005 the NUJ established a New Media Industrial Council, officially putting new media on the same footing within the union as other sectors such as newspapers and publishing. At the 2008 delegate meeting, delegates voted overwhelmingly to make new media recruitment a priority, and that’s when things started moving properly. There’s still a long way to go, but the more people who join from this sector, the better the union will get at understanding and helping them.

So why should you join? Well, we fight for better pay and conditions and more job security. We fight for higher professional standards and giving workers the tools they need to do their best work. People in unionised workplaces earn on average 12.5% more and get more paid holiday than their non-unionised equivalents.

Some people think unions are about conflict. I’d say that was the precise opposite of the truth. A good union works to formalise workplace agreements so that there’s less scope for misunderstanding. A good union works to negotiate on tricky issues with the aim of reducing, not increasing, conflict. Yes, sometimes disputes lead to a strike. But that will only happen at the end of a fairly long process, and after the majority of members in that workplace have voted for it.

Our branch sometimes sees people joining in a hurry because they’re facing redundancy or dismissal. They “don’t see the point of unions” until they actually need one – and then they really, really need one to help them with stressful discussions and complex employment law. Why wait until then? The rational move would be to join immediately, to get the union on your side straight away. Even better, persuade colleagues to join and then form a “chapel” (workplace union group) for collective negotiations.

Now you can probably see why I found it tricky to pack all this into a minute-long talk. And there’s still lots more to say. If you have any questions, please do get in touch with me.

As a final note, I should add that my work with the union as Oxford branch chair is completely voluntary. I don’t have any financial motive for wanting to sign more people up. I do it because I believe in it.

This blog post was originally posted to Kate’s own blog.

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Counting the costs of cost-cutting

“What we do matters. That’s a point I never thought we’d have to make.” Anna Wagstaff opened the Quality in Publishing summit with a snapshot of the current situation in academic publishing: cost-cutting and outsourcing leading to a decline in quality.

The event was organised by the Oxford & District branch of the NUJ as a way of bringing together people who work in academic publishing in order to start a conversation about the problems. Oxford is famous as a centre of publishing excellence, but the expertise of editorial workers could disappear within a generation if there is no investment in training.

Peter Wrobel has been paid by various UK publishers to carry out copyediting training – but in India, not in the UK. He told the meeting: “The companies in India don’t feel like sweatshops… but they do feel like factories.” Most India-based copyediting firms don’t even allow employees to use the internet, which means that minor queries about a journal article take a lot longer to handle and usually involve contacting the author directly.

Although the copyeditors in Indian companies are usually qualified to MA or PhD level, they’re not necessarily interested in copyediting as a career and don’t stick around long enough to learn the skills involved in doing the job really well. Mr Wrobel estimated that turnover in the big copyediting companies is around 90%, although management claim it’s nearer 50%. And perfect English, even if it’s spoken as a first language, doesn’t always make for a good copyeditor of English-language publications. He explained that Indian English is very different from British English, which can cause huge communication problems within a company.

So why do publishers outsource? Mr Wrobel told us that the cost of getting copyediting done offshore is roughly an eighth of the cost of hiring a UK freelancer. For that reason, publishers are prepared to accept a certain decline in quality. However, the trade-off is nowhere near as simple as it looks on the balance sheet.

Ursula Huws, Professor of Labour and Globalisation at the University of Hertfordshire, described the “standardisation paradox”: using a one-size-fits-all outsourced copyediting solution means that UK-based employees have to use subtle, non-standard skills to manage the situation. She believes that these tacit skills are under-recognised by publishing management. Her research shows that outsourcing generates extra unpaid work in the UK, and this was confirmed by the experience of many people present.

Professor Huws explained that when an organisation’s structure changes through outsourcing, this often means that tacit knowledge turns into codified knowledge. In other words, training stops being about on-the-job learning and starts being about a specific checklist of items to be learnt. Evaluating performance also becomes codified, with written standards and goals replacing more nuanced appraisals. “It’s management by results, not relationships.”

Outsourced work also happens at a faster pace than in-house work. Productivity targets are set much higher for offshore workers and turnaround times are much shorter. Many publishers use offshore companies “as an emergency service” to meet deadlines that would be considered unreasonable in the UK.

Of course, as Peter Wrobel pointed out, these deadlines are often unreasonable for the outsourced workers too. Indian copyediting firms regularly end up with a backlog of work which they can’t cope with. When this happens, the publisher usually looks for UK-based freelancers to do the work – and offers lower rates than were available before the original outsourcing.

The issue of hidden costs and externalities came up again and again. One audience member reminded us that the basic product of the publishing industry is free to publishers: publicly-funded universities pay for the research and writing that goes into academic journals. If their cost-cutting is driving down standards and pay in the industry, we have to ask whether the current model is the best use of taxpayers’ money.

Steve Ball of the International Centre for Publishing Studies at Oxford Brookes was the final speaker. He said that in order to fight the decline in quality, we need to understand the publisher’s point of view. “To make this process work, you need to talk to publishers and find out what they think they’re doing.” He believes that publishers are conducting a long-term experiment with outsourcing, seeing how this affects the “production triangle” of cost, quality and speed.

An audience member pointed out the problem with such an approach: “It’s a great experiment, but the feedback never comes.” The problem is the distorted market in academic journals. Publishers sell mass subscriptions to academic institutions, so there’s a lack of individual feedback. Professor Huws describes it as “a passive supply with no signals from the market”. (Site licences are sold on the same model.)

This brought us back to the main purpose of the meeting. “As people who care about quality in publishing, how do we make our voices heard when nobody is consulting us?”

Fiona Swarbrick, books organiser for the NUJ, had some suggestions from her own experience. “Get to grips with what’s happening, work with it.” She gave examples of publishers where the union has collected information on quality and presented it to management. Doing the homework and working with management is key.

Steve Ball pointed out that editorial boards can make a difference, because they set the tone, standards and quality for a journal and have the power to take their business elsewhere.

Other suggestions from the audience included:

One audience member suggested pushing for the industry to adopt a “first do no harm” principle when outsourcing work. Indian companies can add value to the published product in many ways, such as structuring content and marketing, but most publishers use them solely for copyediting where they have the potential to do more harm than good. (Many people present complained about having errors inserted into their work through poor editing.)

One of the last people to speak was a professor emeritus with decades of experience in publishing. He reiterated a point that is sometimes forgotten: “The primary function of a university is not to contribute to the economy, or please politicians… it is to create knowledge for its own sake.” We need to shift the focus away from business models and start talking about why journals are produced in the first place. The Quality in Publishing meeting was an attempt to start that conversation.

Note: Reporting restrictions applied to the meeting to protect individual identities. This post originally appeared on the blog of branch chair Kate Griffin.

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It’s not all bad news

Branch vice-chair Kate Griffin reports on last night’s speaker event. This report was originally posted on Kate’s own blog.

Who cares about journalism? Judging by the turnout at last night’s meeting, the answer is: “More people than you might think.” The Long Room at Oxford Town Hall was packed with local journalists, councillors and members of the public.

Journalist Nick Davies gave a talk drawing on the eye-opening material in his book Flat Earth News. He explained how cutbacks have created a newsroom culture that would have been unimaginable a couple of decades ago. Increased pagination and reduced staff numbers over the past twenty years mean that the amount of page space to be filled by each journalist has tripled since 1985. To put it another way, each journalist must now find and check each story in a third of the time.

The result has been a decline in fact-checking and original reporting. The Cardiff University researchers who helped Davies gather data for his book found that even in the country’s top national papers, only 12% of stories are journalists’ own work and only 12% of key facts are being checked.

He explained how churnalism – cutting and pasting copy from wire agencies and PR companies – leads to distortion and misinformation.

Michelle Stanistreet, deputy general secretary of the NUJ, explained that the cutbacks in journalism aren’t a response to straitened circumstances; they’re driven by owners’ desire for bigger profits and a disregard for quality.

She told the meeting that Gannett, owner of Newsquest Oxfordshire, aims for profits of 30% year on year – higher than companies like Centrica, which we traditionally think of as “fat cats”. The current financial climate is simply an opportunity to get away with using pay freezes and redundancies to squeeze even more money out of local newspapers.

We also heard from the Mayor of Oxford, Cllr Susanna Pressel, who expressed her support for local newspapers as a tool of local democracy. She backed up Nick Davies’s comments about churnalism, saying that she is bored of seeing council press releases reproduced word for word in the Oxford Mail and would prefer to see reporters actually coming to council meetings again.

Finally we heard from David Horne, a long-serving reporter on the Oxford Mail and Witney Gazette (both owned by Newsquest Oxfordshire), who volunteered for redundancy during the paper’s current round of staff cutbacks. He compared current conditions at the newspaper group to how they were when he started out as an Oxfordshire reporter.

He said that the Newsquest group was not prepared to spend money on investing in the newspapers and their staff, even if those investments meant greater returns in the future. He also explained how the widespread use of digital cameras is putting professional photographers’ livelihoods at risk.

For me the exciting thing about the evening was the high turnout and obvious engagement with the issues. What could have been a straightforward question-and-answer session became a lively debate, covering issues such as cost, quality and accountability. We also discussed emerging forms of journalism such as community journalism, blogging and citizen journalism.

We didn’t manage to solve the industry’s woes in one evening, but the evening ended on a note of hope that journalists have strong public support when they demand the resources they need to do their jobs properly.

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