How IR Law Turns Press Into Propaganda & Gets People KilledPosted: March 10, 2011
Industrial relations is one of those weird political anomalies; a field which affects literally everyone who’s ever paid their own rent but is somehow seen as a bit of a bore by anyone who isn’t an active card-carrying union member. It’s what prompts the insistence on “balanced” legislation which invariably assumes lawsuits and industrial action are effortless, exhilarating experiences for employees with no personal impositions whatsoever.
But events in the British rag trade over the past week have provided a perfect case study of why the systematic erosion of rights for new employees -particularly the 90-day probationary period in New Zealand, and Britain’s one-year exemptions from unfair dismissal – has been such a dangerous idea.
First Liberal Conspiracy‘s Sunny Hundal posted allegations of political pressure on BBC reporters to recast Government funding cuts as “savings”. Then the next day Daily Star reporter Richard Peppiat tendered his resignation in an open letter which alleged that for the last two years he’d basically been paid to make things up about celebrities, neo-Nazis and Muslims.
Now there are a couple of footnotes about these two cases: Hundal’s source for the BBC allegations is known only to himself, and the claim certainly doesn’t square up with the broadcaster’s online coverage at any rate (see here and here). Like the Guardian, I’m treating it here as a plausible but entirely hypothetical scenario.
And I should also note that Peppiat was apparently a freelance reporter for the Star. Even if he were a full-time employee, he technically left of his own accord.
But both cases highlight the pressure that employers sometimes exert on reporters to distort their work in pursuit of some other agenda. That kind of coercion is hardly unique to journalists, but the fallout is: a dishonest story does more than just injure your pride; it can completely undermine your relationships with sources and thereby your entire career. And your personal problems are the least of it. As Peppiat wrote in his polemic:
Our caustic “us and them” narrative needs nailing home every day or two, and when asked to wield the hammer I was too scared for my career, and my bank account, to refuse.
You may have heard the phrase, “The flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil sets off a tornado in Texas.” Well, try this: “The lies of a newspaper in London can get a bloke’s head caved in down an alley in Bradford.”
It certainly doesn’t help that the National Union of Journalists has been trying unsuccessfully for years to get a conscience clause inserted into reporters’ contracts. Without it there is literally nothing a new reporter can do when leaned on by an unscrupulous editor but either betray their readers’ trust or stand on principle and risk their career in one of the worst job markets of the last hundred years.
This isn’t high-minded ethical complexity either; politicians and the public alike constantly rail against media beat-ups and a perceived general lack of principles. That’s entirely understandable and in many cases fuelled by a sense of personal injury — but newsrooms, like any other workplace, only function properly when they’re free from political influence or prejudice. And that begins with basic employment protections.