The Labour Party got a lot of mileage from David Cameron’s refusal to give a straight answer in Parliament on Wednesday. Watching minister after minister ask him whether he had discussed the BSkyB during any of his meetings with representatives of News International, I was struck by the unasked question.
Did David Cameron discuss the BBC licence fee with representatives of News International? Did he or any other member of the government come under pressure, as the NUJ suspects, that led to the 6-year freeze in the license fee that, given the inevitable inflation rate rises over the same period, is a serious cut.
Through the following debate, only one member of parliament raised the other important issue that all others are ignoring, the loophole that allows News International management to effectively recognize itself as a union in the shape of the News International Staff Association. John McDonnell’s speech highlighted the ban on unions and how things could have been different if the NUJ was still in the organisation to enforce the union’s Code of Conduct, as I pointed out a couple of weeks ago.
Under the Employment Act 1999, to request recognition, “the union (or each of the unions) [must have] a certificate […] that it is independent.” However, under the section on voluntary recognition, the only requirement is that “the union is (or unions are) recognised as entitled to conduct collective bargaining on behalf of a group or groups of workers employed by the employer.”
There is a big question here as well, not just what to do about the loophole, but why it was left there in the first place. Did Murdoch influence the Blair government at the time to ensure that he could continue to keep the unions out more than a decade after the Battle of Wapping?
The government seems to think that it can kick most of the questions about journalists’ wrong-doing into the long grass of the Leveson Inquiry. But there are some serious questions to ask about Lord Justice Leveson and the Inquiry. First is the revelation that Leveson is socially connected to the Murdoch family having attended two parties in the house of Rupert Murdoch’s daughter Elizabeth and her husband Matthew Freud.
More worrying, though, is in Leveson’s past. When acting as trial judge in Manchester Crown Court, he threatened a reporter with the Manchester Evening News with prison if he didn’t reveal his sources. Has he changed his views since 2002 when he refused to recognize this most essential aspect of press freedom – the right of a journalist to protect their sources? If not, how then can the government’s promises that press freedom will be respected be trusted?
There is, of course, the other issue of the widening of the terms of the inquiry to include broadcasters and social media. The attitude towards the BBC displayed by a number of Conservative MPs during Wednesday’s debate made this seem like a somewhat sinister attempt to shift attention from those accused of actual wrong-doing. Even if it is not intended to be an attack on the BBC, it broadens the scope of the inquiry to a potentially unmanageable scale.
None of this might matter a jot if the predictions of five years for the police to complete their inquiries are true. The Leveson Inquiry is likely to be restricted in what it can do until the police are finished.
This is all starting to sound very familiar to me as an Irish journalist who wrote about the Moriarty Tribunal back in 1998 – that Tribunal into payments to politicians started in 1997 and wasn’t completed until this year. The grass into which the politicians may be kicking the whole issue start to look even longer.
However, the issues of the BBC license fee agreement and the rules around union recognition are not issues that need to wait for the Leveson Inquiry. They are purely political issues and can be dealt with if there is the political will to do so. Parliament may currently be on recess, but that should mean that politicians will be a more visible presence in their constituencies over the next couple of months.
This is a perfect chance for people to put pressure on them to demand, once parliament is back in session, that:
- The BBC license fee agreement is reopened
- An urgent amendment is made to the laws on trade union recognition to limit recognition to trade unions certified as independent.
These issues and more will be discussed at a meeting in London tonight (Tuesday) organised by NUJ members: Murdoch, Power and Corruption: How do we get justice? (7pm at Conway Hall).