Interview with Jeremy Dear, general secretary of the British NUJ (national Union of Journalists)
The killing of two Spanish reporters during the war in Iraq stirred public opinion in Spain and it increased the anger that the working class and youth feel towards the present right-wing Aznar government. Above all, the case of Jose Couso, a reporter of the Tele 5 TV channel, which is believed to have been a case of blatant murder carried out with a deliberate action on the part of an American tank, underlined the brutality of the invading forces and has put Aznar in a very delicate position. The Spanish Marxist journal, El Militante, interviewed Jeremy Dear, general secretary of the British NUJ (National Union of Journalists), on the war and other developments.
What is your opinion about the information that the media has been giving about the war on Iraq? In Spain many reporters have denounced the manipulation on the part of the government and they have even created a Committee against Censorship of public television. Has anything similar happened in Britain or anywhere else in the world that you know of?
In Britain, Sir Ray Tindle, the owner of 132 regional newspapers issued a statement at the start of the war to say he would not allow any anti-war articles, anti-war letters or anti-war comment in any of his papers. That was certainly not the only case of censorship or news manipulation but definitely the most graphic.
What Sir Ray did was demonstrate what we have always said - that freedom of the press only belongs to those who own the press. That it is the freedom of the proprietor to do what he wants and to use his staff and resources in any way he sees fit.
NUJ General Secretary,
Rupert Murdoch's 175 papers all followed suit adopting a pro-war stance and viciously attacking those who spoke out against the war. The BBC banned its own journalists from taking part in anti-war demonstrations and issued a memo instructing producers to avoid giving air-time to anti-war "extremists". When the World Music Awards were broadcast on radio anti-war speeches were edited out.
At the same time most of the information we were fed came directly from US/UK military sources and was frequently reported as fact - only to be disproved later on.
Having said that there were some brilliant journalists too - trying in very difficult circumstances to report the real horror of the war and to bring the voices of the Iraqi people and the anti-war movement in the UK to the fore.
British journalists have rightly been concerned about much of the media coverage. A number of BBC journalists protested against the ban on them attending demonstrations and media monitoring groups have been set up to assess coverage. We also established a group called Media Workers Against the War which has highlighted the nature of the coverage and organised actions, debates, lobbies, protests and so on to challenge censorship and the false view of the war that has been put forward. It has also given a voice through its website and meetings to those Iraqis in exile who oppose the war who do not get any time in most of the mainstream media.
What is your political stance in your Union in regard to the war on Iraq?
Our union has a very proud record on this war - we have been opposed right from the very outset of the build-up towards war. I personally have spoken on behalf of the union at all the big anti-war demonstrations and hundreds of other rallies. Our constitution says it is one of our aims to campaign for "peace and social justice". We were always very clear this was not a war of liberation, not a war for peace or one that would deliver justice but a war for oil and control of the natural resources of the region. We were also clear that this war would kill innocent civilians, would lead to further impoverishment and create a humanitarian crisis. But we were also very clear that the billions of dollars spent on bombing Baghdad should instead have been spent for peace.
We called for a war on poverty - to tackle the poverty, despair and anger that provide the breeding ground for terrorist groups around the world, to tackle the global inequality that gives rise to so much anger amongst millions across the world and to tackle the social issues at home which shame the Labour government.
If they can find the money for war they can find the money to pay our firefighters who are striking for a living wage, to tackle the problems of student debt by ending the loans system and bringing back grants, by using the money to improve the transport infrastructure, repair crumbling schools and so on.
The death of two Spanish reporters in the war has provoked indignation and these deaths have exposed the working conditions of many reporters. Low wages, temporary work.... What are the demands of the NUJ in Britain?
I think 12 journalists were killed during the course of the conflict including two members of our union. One of them, Terry Lloyd was the victim of a so-called friendly fire incident. After his death Donald Rumsfeld's spin doctor Victoria Clarke basically said any journalists working independently would be at risk.
Our members and union were angry about that but as in Spain we are angry about many other things too. Over the past ten years the media has been a boom sector, making record profits year after year - and yet journalists have been working longer and longer hours and our pay has fallen in comparison to many other professions.
Since my election we have adopted a much more proactive policy of tackling low pay. After not having had any pay disputes for 10 years we have now had 12 in the past 18 months.
Many young members are simply refusing to live in poverty, unable to afford to move out of home or start a family. Some have taken on second jobs and so on just to survive. Now we are fighting back. In the past year we've achieved more to tackle low pay than in the previous decade. We've had a series of strikes which have won the biggest rises for a decade (in one case up to 57%) - and the action will continue as long as the companies make massive profits but journalists continue to be badly paid. As a result of our actions we have seen a massive rise in union membership and have been winning back negotiating rights at many workplaces. Alongside pay, hours, stress and training are key areas we will be campaigning on in the next twelve months. We have demonstrated to a whole new generation that by joining together, taking collective action you can change things for the better.
We know that in the last period in some British unions the left has won leading positions. What effect is the war having in this process? What are the perspectives for the British unions?
The left candidates have won elections in a number of unions recently and it has helped to create an important focus for much of the campaigning around the war and other issues. Trade unions have been at the forefront of the demonstrations and movement against the war. The TUC is still lagging behind the mood of the movement but by having a strong group of left union leaders and delegates on the General Council of the TUC we are able to help put greater pressure on it to act.
The perspectives for the unions are good. Like in my own union, those who have organised major action over pay or privatisation and so on have seen the benefits in terms of increased membership and improvements for their members. Union membership as a whole has begun to grow slightly again after years of decline. Unions were delighted when the Labour government was elected in 1997 but have been increasingly disillusioned by the actions of Blair. It is vital the new group of union leaders wage a struggle to reclaim the party for socialist values - otherwise the danger is that some trade unions will walk away. Already a few have cut some of their funding to the party. It is necessary to organise at every level to win the party to socialist policies which can reverse the disastrous policies of privatisation, building a long hours, low wage economy and acting as a lapdog for US imperialism on a global scale. We need to be fighting for a decent living minimum wage, for renationalisation of privatised industries, for full employment rights for all workers and for a system that puts the needs of people above the needs of big business.
This interview will be published for May Day in Spain. As a socialist what kind of trade unionism do you defend?
May Day is a time for us all to remind ourselves of our heritage and our aims. For me trade unionism is not just about solving an individual problem at work. It is also about building collective strength across a company, industry, country and internationally. I am answering these questions from Colombia where my union and a number of others from Britain are helping to build solidarity with Colombian workers struggling for their rights.
I am a socialist and an internationalist and believe it important that trade unions be prepared to fight tooth and nail for every single benefit for their members but also explain that as long as profit is the driving force it is inevitable that their company, boss or government will come back to take back the benefits at a later stage. That as long as a company makes its profit by exploiting the workforce the workers will never get their fair share.
In Spain the war coincided with the development of the workers' disputes. This process began on June 20, 2002 with a general strike. The war has deepened further the gap between the government and the majority of Spanish society. In Britain the Labour Party is in government. What political effect is Blair's participation in the war having? What effect is it having in the TUC?
The political effect of the war has been huge and contradictory. We have witnessed the biggest ever demonstration in British history, seen the biggest parliamentary revolt against a Labour Government ever and experienced the politicisation of a whole new generation of school students and young workers. Two ministers resigned and thousands of Labour Party members tore up their cards in disgust.
Whilst opinion polls show Blair riding high at the moment his support among Labour MPs and party members and Labour voters has plummeted. There are whispers of a leadership challenge and it is clear new alliances are forming within the party. Certainly amongst the youth it would be very difficult to find any real support for Blair.
And his support is very fragile - it relies on Conservative voters and MPs. It is inevitable that as the truth about the war and about the failure to win a just peace and the failure to deal with terrorism, poverty and hunger around the world becomes clear his support will fall away even more. At home his attempts to introduce more private money into the health service, his attacks on the firefighters and so on are all stoking up enormous resentment. There is a huge gap between the Labour leadership and the Labour Party and an even bigger gap with the majority of people. That's why the job of reclaiming the party for socialist ideas is so important. The campaign around the war and the increased trade union action has served in part to radicalise the TUC to some extent but it has also shown the deep divisions between those who still cling to the discredited 'third way' of social partnership and unquestioning support for Blair in international affairs and those who defend the founding principles of our movement, who believe in militant trade unionism and a socialist internationalism. That struggle will deepen as the economic situation worsens and more and more workers are brought in to conflict with their companies and/or the government.
Finally, the political situation on a world scale, in the context of the economic crisis of capitalism, is unstable. What possibilities are opening up for the left in Britain and on a world scale?
The situation in Britain for the Left is as good as it has been at any time I can remember. We have seen the biggest mass movement in living memory against the war and it is important the labour movement seeks to win all those young people to the banner of socialism. We have a growing, more confident and more active trade union movement and a campaign within the Labour Party to reclaim it for socialist policies. Given the world situation and the Project for a New American Century we know there are going to be further wars and convulsions on a world scale. We are in a stronger position than we were before this war to stop Britain following the US to war.
The US have a vision for the world of 'democracy' enforced at the barrel of a gun and of creating an environment in which US big business can run unchallenged throughout the world. I think this war has created the potential for a movement on an international scale to challenge that vision.