‘The editor should be absolutely independent, so long as he does not use his independence as a partisan ...’
THE JOURNALIST got off to a good start: the first editor was one of the NUJ’s great leaders, Harry Richardson, who after ten years in the chair took over as the union’s second General Secretary.
Harry Richardson was a dashing left-winger and a colourful and provocative writer who from time to time lifted the Union Journal, as it was known for its first nine years, above the mundanities of everyday union affairs to a quite inspired level.
His first issue began: ”The National Union Journal is being published by the Executive of the National Union of Journalists in response to a wide-spread demand from the members for some vehicle by which the news as to the progress and purpose of the union may be conveyed from branch to branch. It is intended that the organ shall be an arsenal from which may be drawn weapons to defend the union from the attacks made upon it by its opponents”.
It then did just that, devoting three pages to defending the union from an attack on the Institute of Journalists, the employer-dominated body to which the NUJ was set up as an active and democratic alternative.
His democratic impulses came out in his report of the ADM in Birmingham in 1911. “Delegates did not appear to be so ready to accept Executive views and proposals,” he wrote, “and that, on the whole, is a healthy sign. It is better to over-do rather than under-do criticism.
“We say this with the full consciousness that if our advice is taken, we shall, on occasion, wish that the branches would go to sleep and leave the management of affairs in the hands of those who are necessarily supplied with more data upon which to form judgments.
“But sleepy branches inevitably beget either self-seeking or somnolent officials. We were glad, therefore, to find that so many delegates had been instructed to ‘go for’ the editor of the Journal.”
The sometimes awkward relationship between the journal and the NUJ executive was expressed at the 1914 ADM when F J Hamer, the incoming President, said that when he joined the Executive he was under the impression that the Journal was under the control of the National Executive, and had, according to the Journal’s own report, “ventured to offer some criticism on one or two things. He had since discovered that his action was impertinent. The editor was appointed direct by the conference, and the editor alone was responsible for the Journal.”
William Watts, the union’s founding General Secretary, responded to suggestions that the Journal should voice the policy of the Executive by telling the conference that in his opinion, they were going to put the editor of the Journal “between the devil and the deep blue sea”.
Mr. R C Spencer (Manchester) sarcastically proposed that they should appoint as editor a “jelly fish”. If they were to have an editor, he must edit the paper. They would never bring out a paper with which everybody would agree.
HARRY RICHARDSON’S Journal faced more or less continuous criticism from Fleet Street members in the Central London Branch. The June 1914 issue included a lengthy attack from the branch on the union’s leaders, F J Mansfield and C P Robertson, both of whom were later to edit the Journalist, which ended: “We are tempted to say much with regard to the liveliest of all the ADM debates — that on the future of the Journal. But although our members hoped for more than a few general phrases, and expected to see reproduced a few of the home truths we were instructed to particularise, we feel, on reflection, that the rank-and-file of the union members, on reading the other comments and admissions for which space was found, and noting that our resolution was carried with complete unanimity, will be convinced that we established our case for “reform, and the inauguration of a new era of increased unity”.
Three years later they were back with a motion at the 1917 Manchester ADM that the Journal “should be entirely remodelled as regards both makeup and the nature and quantity of its contents, its editorial policy being modified in such manner as to increase the efficiency of the Journal as an active organ of union policy.”
Fleet Street leader Tom Foster said: “I think the make-up is wrong. The whole thing is wrong from title-page to imprint. The title is misleading. A better title would be The Journalist, for it would then appeal to all journalists.” Mr. Black (Newcastle), seconding, said the production was poor, and “the Executive has too much control and brings too much influence to bear on the editorial policy.”
And so the title was changed to the Journalist. At the same time, tragically for the fledgling union, the founding General Secretary William Watts, whose health had declined under the heavy workload he was carrying — he was still not paid full-time for his work — died in office. Harry Richardson was elected to succeed him, and for a period in 1918, before another editor could be elected, held both jobs. In the renamed journal he published a hilarious interview with himself, which began:
“Commissioned by the editor of the Journalist to interview the first whole-time General Secretary of the union. I found him at three o’clock in the morning of September 3 going downstairs, stifling a yawn with one hand and carrying a baby’s feeding bottle in the other.”
Elected to succeed him was one of his London critics, Frederick Mansfield, an urbane establishment figure who tended to patronise northern radicals like Watts and Richardson; he was a prolific and authoritative writer, who was to author the first history of the NUJ in 1942, but after 18 months he stood down, giving way to another Fleet Street hand, C P Robertson, who straight away decided to assert his independence, beginning his first editorial: “The General Secretary was not quite correct when he said last month ...”. The GS, of course, was Harry Richardson; Robertson had been runner-up when he was elected.
In 1921 C P Robertson was taken ill and a stand-in brought out the April issue. A note explained that the editor “has been ordered by his doctor to leave off all work for at least a month and go away for a complete rest. I undertook to see the Journalist out. I hope that in the circumstances members will pardon any shortcomings. Like the pianist in the Wild West I have done my best — but it is notorious that trade union officials are not trained journalists.” The note was signed “HMR” — Henry Marriott Richardson, temporarily back in the chair and as wry and self-effacing as ever.
JOURNALIST EDITORS tend to last either a very short or a very long time. There were half a dozen more before 1942, when a tussle over independence cost Owen Rattenbury the job. He wrote a leader saying: “The editor should be absolutely independent, so long as he does not use his independence as a partisan.”
At ADM that year he stood down as it was revealed that a leader written by him had been stopped by the President, who that year was Tom Foster. His successor, Gordon Schaffer, a one-armed left-wing Labour activist on Reynold’s News, the Sunday paper owned by the co-operative movement, was an adept political operator who maintained an equilibrium with the NEC with ease. In 1948 he stood down and the position went to his friend and Reynold’s News colleague Allen Hutt, who edited the journalist for 23 years.
Allen Hutt was a communist, and his politics were divisive in the cold war days, but the leadership always stood by him, for he was totally embedded in the bureaucracy. He was on the NEC himself and was NUJ President in 1967-68; in one issue that year he included eight pictures of himself.
He became chief sub-editor of the Daily Worker — now the Morning Star. He was a great authority on newspaper design and devoted pages to articles dissecting the design of other papers, with picture stories of himself receiving design awards. There were pages on fraternal visits to and from the socialist countries of Eastern Europe.
Incongruously he peppered the paper with cheesecake pictures of beauty queens at Press Balls around the country — not union members but young women setting out on the beauty circuit. He liked his pretty girls, did Allen Hutt, invariably captioning them as “attractive”. From 1963 he turned the Journalist, until then a bland and formalistic quarto newsletter that had varied little in 50 years, into an A3 tabloid newspaper, and from then on the Journalist was to change dramatically every time the editor did — as if it were an assertion of independence.
ALLEN HUTT’S Journalist ignored activity outside the NEC’s control, such as the rise of political activity and the wave of unofficial strikes in the late 1960s. Rows blew up over his policy of not reporting ADM in detail: he used to write just a highly personal “sketch” of the proceedings and list the decisions taken.
Members started to complain and there was a storm of protest at the 1969 ADM over an editor’s note he had inserted under a letter complaining about the reporting of the previous year’s ADM. Allen Hutt wrote: “The Journalist feels no obligation to give space to speeches contrary to long-established union policy.”
The conference passed a motion — despite opposition from the NEC — that members’ views should be reported “whether or not they accord with NEC or NUJ policy”, and in 1971 it all caught up with him. For the first time for 14 years he faced a contest for the job — still nominally elected annually at the conference.
A young man called Ron Knowles, a fearsome militant from the north of England, barely known at national level, had the presumption to run against him. Allen Hutt won — by ten votes, 167 to 157; the front-page account of this “sensation” was alongside a story of the editor winning yet another design award. But Captain Hutt had run aground and the next year he stood down.
In the changed spirit of the time it was decided to make the editorship a full-time job, to be elected every three years, and to grant the Journalist editorial independence. For a year the job went, pro tem, to Allen Hutt’s long-serving assistant, Ted Simpson of the London Evening Standard, and he put up to stand for the full-time job. But at the last minute he pulled out and Ron Knowles the militant was unopposed and had the paper in his hands.
His Journalist was brash, outrageous — at times almost brutal; the journal of a very changed union. He received shoals of angry letters that he revelled in publishing — and letters of support came flooding in response. The union was buzzing then.
MILITANTS IN POWER was his splash headline when the NEC, likewise transformed by a new intake of radical activists, scrapped its Administrative Committee, the secretive core of decision-making of the ancien regime. But while it crowed over triumphs and fulminated against bosses and scabs, it was open to all and ran a wide range of debate.
THE NEXT change was just as drastic in the opposite direction. Ron Knowles decided to become an NUJ industrial organiser, covering his home turf in the English provinces, and the new editor, the first elected now by a ballot of the whole membership, was Tony Craig, formerly of the Daily Express. He was much maligned and didn’t last long but his paper was admired by many. He adopted an elegant but rigid modular layout and filled the paper with acres of long reports, transcripts of meetings and other documentation; it was the NUJ newspaper of record, very formal, with a pompous leader column.
What put paid to Tony Craig was a relatively frivolous matter. He had decided to revive a cartoon strip, Varoomshka by John Kent, which the Guardian had dropped shortly before. It showed the adventures of a glamorous and lightly clad ingénue making naïve comments on current affairs. But it wasn’t funny and the editor must have wondered whether it was worth the trouble, because it brought a torrent of condemnation for what radicals in the union — not just women — saw as the sexism of the drawings. After a few months he dropped the cartoon and shortly after that left the job for reasons unconnected with the editorship.
His successor, Bernie Corbett, was a former sub and union activist on the Birmingham Post and the Guardian with a strong focus on story angles and a mordant genius for headlines. Journalistically his paper was outstanding, but after 18 months he returned to the Guardian; he was more at home on the subs’ desk. For a year the Journalist was edited on a temporary basis by Eric Butler, the 63-year-old sports sub on the Sun who had refused to join Murdoch’s move to Wapping and whom Bernie Corbett had dubbed the “Hero of Wapping”.
After these three short editorships came another long one. Tim Gopsill was elected in 1988 and re-elected in 1993; in 1998 and 2003 there was no contest. In 1993 he converted the paper back to an A4 magazine, with full colour from 1996. Relations between the Journalist and the leadership were regularised by the establishment in 1989 of an editorial advisory board, elected at ADM every year, but this did not mean controversy had died.
During the short General Secretaryship of Steve Turner (1990-91) the new leader was granted a column in the Journalist that he employed to lambaste all and sundry — including the editor. “Terrible Tim’s political toy” he called the paper.
Like Frederick Mansfield, Tim Gopsill was also a historian of the union, as co-author of Journalists: 100 Years of the NUJ, published in 2007. His co-author was Greg Neale, who had been Father of the NUJ Chapel at The Times during the great Wapping dispute of 1986-87.
There were two challenges to the independent editorship during Tim Gopsill’s tenure, both of which were seen off. In 1998 General Secretary John Foster drew up terms of employment for the scheduled election that would have subjected the editor to direction by the General Secretary; this was at first approved by the NEC but quickly reversed.
Then in 2002, when Jeremy Dear took office, he produced a far-reaching blueprint for the reorganising the union called Building Our Collective Strength. Among its comprehensive recommendations was one to review the Journalist’s editorial independence. The document came up for endorsement at the 2002 ADM, where the bulk of it was enthusiastically approved, but the clause on the editorship was removed, and so the status quo prevailed.