When I catch up with Chris Morley, he’s just back from standing outside the Swindon Advertiser’s offices with striking journalists on a bitterly cold January morning.
This conjures up images of donkey jacket-clad workers warming their hands over oil-drum fires on picket lines in the 1970s. Does he agree with some critics’ views that the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) is full of out-of-touch dinosaurs, with little commercial reality for modern-day journalism?
“Winning respect and decent conditions for workers in the workplace will never go out of fashion,” replies Morley, the NUJ’s Northern and Midlands senior organiser. “Those who thought they had commercial reality in recent years have certainly not been proved right as revenues continue to be grabbed by very large and dominant American corporations.”
He’s referring to the likes of Google, Facebook and Twitter, of course, the online trio widely blamed for sucking up the majority of advertising revenues, and he’s pointing his finger at the publishers of traditional media titles, who never saw it coming.
“Those who have been in charge for the last decade have shown that they don’t have the answers with their relentless agenda of cuts,” Morley continues. “The internet’s still a relatively recent – but rapidly evolving – phenomenon, so those who dive recklessly into new ventures are unlikely to survive long term. The NUJ’s practical enough to know that if our members think something’s a good idea and will work, then it should be supported. That’s how we stay in touch.”
Morley speaks with the conviction of a journalist who’s witnessed tough times for industry throughout his career. He joined the trade as a trainee on the now-defunct Walsall Observer in 1983, moving to the Birmingham Mail’s Sandwell office as a senior reporter in 1985, also working as a district reporter in the paper’s Sutton Coldfield and Dudley offices.
He went on to become a sub-editor at the paper until 1997 when what he calls “my dream journalistic job” as industrial correspondent came up. He spent ten years in that role for the Mail, covering many big stories including the Rover car saga, which eventually resulted in 6,000 job losses.
“Rover’s catastrophic collapse left an indelible mark on me,” recalls Morley. “Seeing it so close up from the perspective of workers and their representatives was humbling. The Mail had followed every twist and turn in the fortunes of Britain’s last volume car maker and when the end finally came, I reported from the gates of Longbridge where thousands of redundant car makers were milling around in shock and great distress. It changed the city for good.”
Morley’s interest in the NUJ began when he found it matched his overall career ambitions: “I went into journalism to help – in my little way – to change the world for the better and loved the influence you could bring to right wrongs and bring some justice to the powerless.
“Having got a taste for that, I got increasingly interested in what went on in the workplace. I didn’t feel colleagues were always treated right and I didn’t like looking the other way. So, I became a ‘chapel rep’ to push for better pay and conditions and to temper macho, arbitrary management which grew up in the late 1980s and 90s, when the political climate was hostile to trade unions and the NUJ was unrecognised.”
Morley campaigned to win back recognition at the Mail, and then got elected to the union’s National Executive Council, serving as national president in 2007. “From there, I had a really good view of what the union did and the difference it made to members’ lives and profession.”
This prompted Morley to work for the NUJ, becoming Northern organiser, a role that’s now developed into Northern and Midlands senior organiser, with national responsibilities for workers at Trinity Mirror and Newsquest.
He still lives in Halesowen, in the West Midlands, with his wife Christine, where they brought up their two daughters, but works out of the NUJ’s Manchester office. There, he and two colleagues represent members in newspapers, magazines, digital media, radio, TV and public relations, covering everywhere from Berwick-upon-Tweed to Leamington Spa, and from North Wales to Scarborough.
“We seek collective agreements wherever possible,” says Morley, “as that’s the best way to ensure the voice of the ordinary journalist is heard, and the surest way to improve pay and conditions. But we also fight the many injustices that can befall a journalist individually, such as bullying or unequal pay, and defend members when they get into trouble. Members can rely on us when things get tough, as the law guarantees our place round the table to represent them.”
At this point, I should make the disclosure that I sat around such tables with Morley during my own days as editor of the Birmingham Mail. We’d worked together for years, but with his NUJ hat on, Morley ignored any friendship, determinedly battling for the best deal he could get his members.
The union-management relationship was and still is some battle. Since the early 2000s, declining regional newspapers have struggled to survive without cutting staff and controlling pay rises. Meanwhile, journalists have seen static pay, increasing workloads and fewer jobs, despite bosses pocketing huge bonuses.
Where publishers got it wrong
Morley acknowledges the challenge: “Newspapers have taken a pasting in sales and advertising declines, and digital media has been enthusiastically embraced by media companies.” But he’s less sympathetic about how publishers have reacted: “In the panic to please shareholders and to keep up historically high profits, employers chose to cut their core business to ride on the digital tide.
“It sounded convincing with a blizzard of big percentage increases in online readers, and the lure of doing away with expensive printing presses. But the big recession of 2008 to date has wrecked the old newspaper business model and showed the poverty of digital publishing. It has starkly exposed the myth that the market could always provide for quality journalism.
“The new digital platforms, where everything is measurable, has also uncovered just how much the journalists’ idea of a ‘good story’ does not necessarily chime with what the public want to read. The greatest challenge for journalism now is how to pay for solid, investigative stories that are of democratic value to their community.
“There are many different models now in play, but nobody has yet cracked this conundrum. Employers must be careful to nurture journalistic talent and experience as so much has left the industry. That means better pay – and recognising the stress journalists face working in a newsroom with maybe a quarter of the staff from ten years ago, and the demands of online, video and social media.
“Companies are a lot better at accommodating more flexible working, but much more is needed. Without this, trusted brands will fail and it will be increasingly difficult to continue to attract readers, viewers and listeners and therefore money from serious advertisers.”
But when publishers have to change, experiment and – at times – cut back on resources, what can the NUJ do to help?
“We’ll always work with employers who clearly set out to produce quality journalism,” Morley insists. “We understand that businesses have to sometimes make difficult decisions, but we’ll always act to make sure that if they have to, it’s done in a fair and equitable way. Where there’s genuine dialogue, we’ll work with that to achieve the best outcome with least fuss.”
But it’s the way things are often done that sparks fury from the NUJ, Morley says. “It’s especially sad that, with a few exceptions, editors tend to have lost their passion for stories in favour of managing dwindling editorial resources. If they’re fighting for their staff in private, they’re not doing a very good job and there’s little evidence of them doing it in public.
Mind the gap
“Pay is universally too low for the value that journalists bring, bosses’ pay is far too high for what they do, and not enough is done by anyone to address the endemic stress and lack of enthusiasm for protecting the safety of journalists in all senses of the word.”
And yet, despite the low pay and stresses, Morley is amazed at how journalists have coped: “There can be few other professions where workers have done as much to accommodate change and got so little reward for it. When you consider the new technologies and techniques journalists have had to embrace and be proficient at with minimal training, it’s incredible that the love of the job still shines through.
“[But] the one thing I never hear now is how the work is fun, and rarely that it’s a joy to be given free rein to carry out investigations. The problem is that as no-one has found the answer to making a sustainable media future online, my members are still serving two worlds: analogue and digital. The more they see of what appears to work online, generally and professionally, the less they like it.”
It’s this growing disharmony that resulted in this year’s strike action at some of Newsquest’s titles. But what do strikes achieve, or are they just for show?
“Strikes are the last resort,” says Morley. “Members lose money and relationships get strained. But they do have the virtue of bringing things to a head and publicly exposing where the main problems lie. Members at Newsquest have taken a terrible pounding: nine years of frozen pay, swingeing job cuts, repeated attacks on terms and conditions, ignoring evidence on health and safety concerns – while the company’s making the highest profit margins among its competitors of 20.5%.
“We’ve tried to open a dialogue with senior executives but there’s little evidence that our concerns are acted upon. In such a vacuum, members decided to show their frustration. Managements involved in strike action may not make positive changes immediately but usually prefer not to lose face by doing it down the line. So, rarely is strike action taken in vain.”
In the face of constant cuts, anti-NUJ stances by employers, and a drive for machines to constantly replace more labour, what keeps the likes of Morley going?
“Even in the darkest hours, we achieve better outcomes for our members,” he says. “And when those who are downtrodden stand up for themselves and their rights, I’m always cheered up and re-energised. Solidarity is a powerful drug and it’s one the bosses and their political allies fear most.
“Artificial intelligence is definitely being developed by media companies and I’m sure employers keen to pinch out yet more human jobs will embrace it. But there’ll always be human interactions that robots will never grasp, and there’ll always be a place for the flesh and blood journalist.”
Morley’s 57 this April, but his enthusiasm for the NUJ belies his age: “Perhaps our greatest challenge is how to take best advantage of a new societal climate against harassment, bullying and sex discrimination that’s blowing a fresh, clean wind through very stale corridors of power and entitlement.
“For example, new legislation means all firms with more than 250 employees have to report their gender pay gaps. Watch this space for fireworks!”