Journalism (Closed Shop)

New Writ – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 17th June 1977.

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3.3 p.m.

Photo of Mr John Farr Mr John Farr , Harborough

I beg to move, That this House condemns any attempt by the National Union of Journalists to apply the closed shop principle to journalism. This debate relates to the journalists' dispute in the East Midlands. We do not have as much time as I had hoped, and, since a number of my hon. Friends wish to speak, I shall condense considerably what I had intended to say. For that reason I shall give a brief summary of the immediate background to the debate.

The strike was called by the NUJ in an endeavour to secure a closed shop in three East Midlands newspapers. They are two weeklies—the Harborough Mail and the News Echo—and one other—the Evening Telegraph, which is published in Kettering. The stoppage lasted 24 weeks and, in spite of a complete withdrawal of NUJ labour involving more than 60 employees, it is remarkable that all three newspapers continued to appear on time, although in a reduced form.

Here I pay tribute to the three editors, especially Mr. Ronald Hunt, who brought out single handed 115 consecutive issues of the Kettering Evening Telegraph, a remarkable feat which the whole House would wish to acknowledge. The dispute ended on 23rd May.

From May 1976 the management of the NUJ chapels of Northamptonshire Newspapers Limited, based at Kettering, started discussions aimed at ensuring the renewal of the house agreement covering journalists employed by the company in its five centres. These continued for some considerable time, but the stumbling block to any agreement being reached was the proposals put forward to the company by the NUJ chapel for the provision of a post-entry union membership clause, or closed shop clause, in any agreement. For its part, the management made a number of improved suggestions and had several interesting ideas to put to the NUJ, but it felt unable to accept any suggestion of a closed-shop situation.

Anyhow, this dispute dragged on for some considerable time. I have with me all the details of it, but I shall not worry the House by spelling out exactly what happened. In view of the shortage of time, perhaps it would be best for me to say that after this long period of 24 weeks the dispute was finally resolved. A situation of peace was restored last month, and at present all the staff have returned to work and the atmosphere is fairly calm.

The situation could erupt again—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry) will agree with me—if, under the terms of the agreement that has been reached, on 31st August this year any of the nine Institute of Journalists members exercise their right properly then to resign from the NUJ and the Kettering chapels. If they pursue their avowed intention of so withdrawing their membership of the NUJ, it is quite possible that this situation will erupt again.

I have said that in view of the shortage of time I shall not go into all the detailed reasons for the dispute or the details of the efforts that were made by both management and union. I pay tribute to the TUC for its prolonged, dedicated and hard-working efforts to find a solution.

What lies behind all this is the determination of the NUJ to secure a closed-shop situation. This is probably best highlighted by an extract from the official NUJ bulletin dated 21st May. This bulletin, which was covering the period of this withdrawal of labour, attacked IOJ members in very bitter and unpleasant terms. It is distressing to think that the IOJ, which has a membership of nearly 3,000, can be castigated in this manner by the official journal of a rival union. It is difficult to see, for instance, what useful purpose is served when the official NUJ publication of 21st May goes on to say, for instance, We at Kettering have been locked out since February 25th for refusing to work with these scabs until they accept that they are NUJ members and subject themselves to discipline under our union rules. Members of the IOJ are universally referred to as being scabs. They include, I regret to mention, Mr. Robin Day and the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who apparently are both members of the IOJ.

It is a pity that journalism in this degraded form can appear, as it can serve only to heighten the tension that exists between two unions which are both needed and are both doing an essential job for the Press. No useful purpose is served by this sort of stuff.

I have given a brief outline of the dispute at Kettering and in the East Midlands Allied Press involving weekly newspapers. I have a constituency interest because one newspaper concerned, the Harborough Mail, a weekly, is in my constituency and succeeded in publishing throughout the dispute. All credit is due to its editor.

The situation at the end of the dispute could best be summarised by what Mr. Ronald Hunt the editor of the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph said, as reported in The Times fairly recently: We cannot have the input of news controlled by one union. There are two unions in journalism, and we are not prepared to negotiate any clause to our house agreement giving the NUJ a closed shop. I have skated briefly over the situation at the East Midlands Allied Press. This has been a matter of concern to a number of East Midlands Members of Parliament for a considerable time, but if that had been the only example I would not seek to raise the matter today. But it happens that the dispute which took place between the NUJ and the East Midlands Allied Press in an endeavour by the NUJ to secure a closed shop is a duplicate of a dispute of a similar pattern of events in provincial newspapers throughout the country in recent months.

For example, the situation that arose at Barnsley last year caught the attention of the House and the Prime Minister. In March last year the Barnsley branch of the NUJ urged the local council to refuse to pass information to four journalists who had left that union for the rival IOJ. This matter engaged the attention of the House at the time. The Times of 5th March last year dealt in a leader with the dispute in the following way: The NUJ deny that the Barnsley branch actually asked the borough council to with hold information from the journalists in question. But, on the union's own account, the branch informed the controlling Labour group on Barnsley Borough Council, the Yorkshire Area of the National Union of Mineworkers and Barnsley Trade Council of 'the existence of non-union journalists in Barnsley'. The purpose of passing that information to such bodies was obvious. It was an invitation to them to refuse co-operation to a small group of journalists who had decided to leave the NUJ for the Institute of Journalists. I have dealt briefly with the situation in Barnsley in an attempt to establish the pattern of national activity at local level by the NUJ. I wish to refer to a similar situation in Darlington where the NUJ is now locked in struggle with the Darlington-based North of England Newspapers in a dispute which, I submit, is designed to bring about the closed-shop principle. The situation a week ago was that 108 NUJ members employed by the Darlington-based North of England Newspapers were out on official strike because of the employment of a woman sub-editor who had refused to join the union.

Major principles are at stake and the dispute has all the makings of another bitter and prolonged confrontation. It has been pointed out in a number of articles and reports on the dispute that this is part of a repeating pattern and that journalists have taken on one of the largest newspapers chains in the country, the Westminster Press, which controls more than 100 daily and weekly newspapers and which is categorically opposed to the principle of the closed shop for journalists.

In fact, the dispute in Darlington can be traced back to a date in August last year when the Darlington journalists declared their intention of enforcing a post-entry closed shop requiring all newly employed journalists to join the union. One recruit tried last autumn to defy the union, precipitating a dispute that was eventually solved after the new recruit, under pressure, agreed to join the union.

However, 11 weeks ago Mrs. Josephine Kirk-Smith precipitated the present crisis by joining the Darlington and Stockton Times and declining to join the union. Since then there has been a dispute. Again, time does not permit me to go into detail, but it is worth reminding the House of a short extract from an article that Mrs. Josephine Kirk-Smith wrote in The Times of 4th June. In that article, headed "Why I have made a stand against a journalists' closed shop", she says something that should strike a chord with every hon. Member. It is that the freedom of the Press is threatened by the closed-shop policy in that no one body should hold control over who should write and what should be written. The NUJ has already fallen down in its professional duties in its attempt to control reporting on, for example, racial matters. She adds that all editors must have unfettered authority to hire, fire and use material from all sources and any restriction on the editor's prerogative is a step towards a mass of propagandist broadsheets and that the readers had better beware because this would be only one remove from Big Brother.

I have attempted to spell out to the House the links in a chain. However, there is one hopeful beacon, although it is really no more than a flickering candle. It is a report in The Times of 26th May 1977 to the effect that the TUC Press officers will not restrict information. It said that the TUC had decided that it will not confine its delivery of information to closed-shop journalists. Again, time prohibits me from dealing with this in greater detail except saying that it is a hopeful sign in an otherwise gloomy picture.

There was a debate in another place on 11th May on trade unions and the media. Moving the motion, Lord Orr-Ewing, having dealt with the other media, referred to the activities of those members of the NUJ who wish to secure a closed shop in British newspapers.

In the course of his excellent speech, the noble Lord referred to a powerful and dedicated group in the NUJ which is constantly pressing for a rigid application of the closed shop". Lord Orr-Ewing referred to the NUJ conference, which took place between 19th and 22nd April, at which typical motions were debated and efforts were made to get accepted as NUJ policy resolutions such as members should not report on National Front activities, nor on organisations which they judged racist, nor even on the football match between Chile and Scotland. If such motions, which were debated two months ago at the NUJ conference, are ever accepted, the militant Left might rule, for instance, that discussions on events in Rhodesia and South Africa might not be suitable for publication. There could be a conspiracy of silence about the murders in Mozambique, or mention might be forbidden or forgotten of the million murders which have already been committed by the Marxist régime in Cambodia.

The noble Lord did not point out, but he might have done, that the same conspiracy of silence could apply to the reporting of the immense economic and industrial policy failures in Russia or the sheer drabness of life in Communist China, and reports on the way that the Cuban jackboot is now controlling events with a Marxist pattern of life in Angola might not have seen the light of day in the Press in this country.

The noble Lord referred to an article by Bernard Levin in The Times recently which showed how the Left Wing had worked to control the 2,000-strong freelance branch of the NUJ."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 11th May 1977; Vol. 383, c. 290–1.] Later, the noble Lord referred to the NUJ code of conduct and pointed out that it was within the power of the NUJ conference to vary the terms of that code of conduct. It is an excellent code of conduct, but it can be varied at a moment's notice by conference.

Reference was also made to the situation which would arise if the NUJ practice of controlling and limiting membership of the union were extended to specialist activities. The noble Lord made reference to Peter Robbins, an excellent second row rugby forward for England, who had been banned from membership of the NUJ because journalism was not his principal source of income. If a sportsman is to be banned as a part-time contributor, an artist who wanted to write about paintings, a musician who wanted to write about music, an expert on health, local government, historical or conservation matters who wanted to write about those subjects or, for that matter, a politician wanted to write about politics would not be able to do so because he would not have, and would not be able to get, a union card.

I have referred briefly to the interesting debate which took place in the other place on 11th May. Finally, I want to remind the House of the United Nations Covenant, which was ratified by the United Kingdom on 20th May 1976, dealing with the social, economic and cultural rights of member nations and their citizens. Article 8 provides: The right of everyone to form trade unions and join the trade union of his choice, subject only to the rules of the organisation concerned, for the promotion and protection of his economic and social interests. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those prescribed by law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public order or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. I leave that message with the House. That is part of a convention which this Government of Britain signed last year, and I hope that we can live up to it. I hope, too, that I am not engaging too much is wishful thinking when I say that I hope the NUJ can start to live up to Rule 2 of its code of professional conduct which says: A journalist shall at all times defend the principle of the freedom of the Press and other media in relation to the collection of information and the expression of opinion and criticism. He … shall strive to eliminate distortion, news suppression and censorship. Let us hope that the NUJ begins to live up to that principle.

3.26 p.m.

Photo of Mr Peter Fry Mr Peter Fry , Wellingborough

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) on his fortune in the Ballot, on his choice of subject, and on his presentation of the case. You may recall, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that on two occasions I have tried to draw the attention of the House to this dispute at Kettering, because the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph, the main newspaper, covers most of my constituency, and one of the weekly papers in the Wellingborough News Echo.

I tried to raise this issue before because I felt that it bore out clearly the kind of fears that were expressed on this side of the House when we were discussing the freedom of the Press during the passage of the trade union and labour relations legislation in 1975. The proud words said then about the NUJ must lie a little sick in the mouths of some Ministers, who seemed to think that this union would behave in an almost saintly way over the ensuing years.

I believe that the signs are that there is a concentrated effort to ensure a closed shop throughout our provincial newspapers, almost regardless of the damage that is being caused to those papers. It is only by the dedication in this instance of a few journalists and in particular Mr. Ron Hunt, the editor of the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph, that their aims have been defeated.

If that gentleman had not succeeded in producing 150 editions of that paper, it could not have been produced at all. The revenue to the company from advertising would have ceased and we should have found that the whole viability of the group of offices based at Kettering, and perhaps even wider afield, would have been lost, and at a time of high unemployment many people would have been out of a job.

I should like to make it clear that I do not want to go into the detal of the background to this dispute. It is sufficient to point out one incident which illustrates the kind of mess into which the NUJ gets. While the dispute was on, it was decided at one stage that a representative of the Newspaper Society and a representative of the NUJ would meet to try to set up a group of proposals that would be suitable for both sides. At that time it was decided that Mr. Charles Harkness, a deputy general secretary of the NUJ, should be appointed to act for that side.

When the meeting took place between those two gentlemen, the NEC of the NUJ was holding one of its regular meetings. It was unable to report its proposals in a way that would have been fitting. At that time there was a dispute within the NUJ. At Acorn House, the headquarters of the NUJ, the full-time employees were in dispute and working to rule. This meant that the deputy-general secretary of the union, Mr. Harkness, was not allowed to work any overtime. Therefore at half-past five he had to stop work. The discussion between the representative of the Newspaper Society and Mr. Harkness carried on beyond half-past five. When agreement had been reached, he thought that he would go to put the joint report to his union. Upon doing so he was informed by one of the leaders of the strike at Kettering, Mr. Reinecke, another member of the NUJ, that if he did he would be reported to the father of the chapel for breaking the work-to-rule instruction.

That meant that one of the officials concerned with making the recommendations was forced not to be a party to the recommendations put forward because he was not allowed to work overtime. This kind of "Alice in Wonderland" situation must make us ask serious questions about the way the NUJ conducts itself in public. Further, I cannot help thinking that the Government, despite the presence of a junior Minister this afternoon, would rather that this debate had not taken place. There are too many reminders of what was forecast a short while ago.

Photo of Mr John Grant Mr John Grant , Islington Central

If the hon. Gentleman likes to sit down reasonably quickly, that will give me more time to deal with the points that have been raised. I can assure him that we do not want to duck this.

Photo of Mr Peter Fry Mr Peter Fry , Wellingborough

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The Government are having a lot of practice at ducking at the moment: the Minister must be a past master.

What is important is that we realise that the activities of the NUJ represent a threat to the livelihoods of a great many dedicated journalists. Through the operation of the closed shop, the NUJ can get itself into a position when it is judge, jury, witness and party in the same dispute. Journalists who have decided to join an alternative union find that they can be deprived of their livelihoods.

Is it really according to the traditions of British justice that men can have their livelihoods denied them, not because they do not want to belong to a union, but because they do not want to belong to a particular union? This is the kernel of the whole debate. If we do not show that the activities of the militants in the NUJ are to be resisted, there will be a strong threat to the freedom and the variety of the voices that we hear, particularly in our provincial Press. Once that has been achieved, presumably the next step is Fleet Street.

I hope that the Minister will have the courage to denounce what he ought to see as victimisation of individuals. We have been assured on various occasions that the Government's policy is that it is necessary to safeguard individuals in a closed-shop situation. That is what the Leader of the House said when we debated the trade union labour relations legislation. Is it not time that more people had the courage to speak out about the immoral attitude of certain unions in destroying the lives and livelihoods of certain people?

If only some of those who leapt to the pulpit, religious as well as political, pouring out abuse on certain wrongs in the world would sometimes turn their eyes a little nearer home, where people's lives are being made thoroughly miser- able, we should be in a better position to proclaim our national freedom.

In exposing what took place at Kettering and the activities of the NUJ my hon. Friend has done a service to the House and the country. Only by exposing what is happening as a result of Government legislation forced through two years ago shall we enable the British people to wake up. They are slowly waking. If we can hammer home such examples, when they record their votes they will show what they think of what this Government have done.

3.35 p.m.

Photo of Mr Julian Critchley Mr Julian Critchley , Aldershot

Thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr), we have the opportunity to debate the threats to the freedom of the Press. I am only say that it should happen in the eleventh hour at the fag end of a parliamentary week.

We can discuss the threats to the freedom of the Press only in the knowledge that uncensored newspapers and books exist only in free, liberal democracies where free enterprise is allowed. Today less than one-fifth of the States of the world have even the limited liberty of the England of William and Mary. The remainder take great care to control the Press. The Marxist world certainly controls the Press, and other States which are run by single parties are also careful to control the Press.

What are the dangers to the freedom of our Press? They include monopoly and licences to publish, as advocated by some Labour Members, and the serious threat of the closed shop in journalism, which is at present advocated by the NUJ. There are also the restrictive practices of the Fleet Street mechanical unions, which, by the threat and use of sabotage, blackmail the newspaper owners into accepting over-manning and inflated salaries.

Let me examine these threats one by one. In recent years we have experienced the extinction of various newspapers. This limits freedom, for the concept of a free Press is essentially the reader's freedom to choose. The reduction in the number of newspapers has been due in part to the rising costs of production and newspapers' dependence upon advertising. It is also due to the advertiser's natural preference for the market leader. The frequently made suggestion of forcing the advertiser to use less effective media is superficially attractive, but such a remedy would certainly force advertising out of newspapers into radio or television or on to the hoardings, because in the end one cannot force advertisers to spend their money unrewardingly.

In the pamphlet "The People and the Media", the Labour Party advocated that newspapers and broadcasting stations should be controlled by committees representing their editorial and production staffs and a number of interests, such as the unions, employers and the political parties. But that would mean that newspapers and the broadcasters would be controlled in part by the very people they should be reporting and discussing.

If we wished, we could have officially licensed newspapers, roughly along the line of the IBA and the BBC. Mr. Moss Evans has advocated as much. He is in favour of an operator's licence for the Press. The licensing of the Press was abolished by this House in 1695, which makes Mr. Moss Evans the strongest reactionary in British politics today. Officially licensed media must be neutered and neutral. This is reasonably acceptable in the circumstances of the BBC and IBA, which are obliged to take no editorial view, but this can happen only for as long as we have free newspapers.

I fear a threat to freedom from the NUJ. This body, which I should not be allowed to join even though I am a journalist, is trying to achieve a closed shop in journalism. It is doing so ostensibly to raise wages, which are low, certainly less than is earned by those unionists who work on the mechanical side of the production of newspapers, who have used their muscle. However, there are those within the NUJ—and they are to be found on its executive committee— who wish to impose a censorship of ideas. Phase 1 may certainly be to say "Let us have more money", but the second phase is censorship.

The NUJ—unlike Equity, for example —wishes to control admission into journalism. I have no doubt that the NUJ's strength has already lowered the level of skill and ability in journalism. Must journalists become like teachers, the only profession not to be governed by the oldest and wisest members of that profession?

There is nothing surprising about this decline. What would be the effect on political life if only a politicians' union was allowed to supply candidates to stand for Parliament, and what would be the results for literature if only union members were allowed to write and to publish? Journalism belongs to politics and to literature, not to industry.

The NUJ must not be allowed to issue licences that would allow its members sole access to the public prints. We rightly object to monopoly in newspaper ownership. We should also object just as strongly to union monopoly.

The freedom of the Press is threatened. It is an essential part of the freedom of society. Once the freedom of the newspaper goes, the effective freedom of speech of the citizen and the scrutiny over power also go. How many articles or programmes would there be about the NUJ or what happens in the mechanical unions in Fleet Street under an NUJ closed shop? Like trial by jury, the freedom of the Press is an essential buttress to all other freedoms. Remove it and the whole constitution of British freedom would collapse.

3.42 p.m.

Photo of Mr John Grant Mr John Grant , Islington Central

I agree with the last remark made by the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) but not with very much else of what he said. It is impossible in the time at my disposal, which is all too short, to do justice to this kind of debate. I think that the hon. Gentleman recognised that himself.

I begin by declaring my interest, by saying that I have been a member of the NUJ for nearly 25 years. I must say that much of what has been said this afternoon is based on misunderstandings and misconceptions. I would add that I once worked for the East Midlands Allied Press for a short time. I have no complaints on that score.

The hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Fair) and both his hon. Friends referred to a number of topics which have been extensively debated by the House over the past two years, particularly in the context of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Amendment) Act 1976. Hon. Members will remember that a variety of fears were expressed during its passage which I think were frequently exaggerated and bore little resemblance to reality. Some of these fears have been repeated today. Fears were expressed about the activities and intentions of the trade unions in the newspaper industry and the scope which recent legislation to restore the legality of the closed shop would, it was alleged, give them for interferring with the freedom of the Press.

The final outcome of that lengthy debate —an outcome agreed by both Houses of Parliament—was the inclusion in the Act of provision for the preparation of a voluntary charter on Press freedom to cover those issues of particular concern which have been identified this afternoon. I hope to say a little more about the charter and the more general areas of Press freedom later.

First, however, I wish to refer briefly to the events in the two specific disputes which have been referred to this afternoon, beginning with that involving the East Midlands Allied Press. I think that there has been some exaggerated talk, certainly misunderstanding, about this dispute, but I do not have time to go over the background to the dispute. I should like to move on to the fact that a peace formula was eventually arrived at, based on proposals put forward by the chairman of the TUC printing industries committee, Mr. Bill Keys. It was agreed by the NUJ national executive and the company and backed by the local NUJ chapel at Kettering.

The proposals were shortly afterwards accepted by the nine journalists who were at the centre of the dispute because they had resigned from the NUJ. Their agreement followed meetings with Mr. Keys at which assurances about the implementation of the peace proposals were given in an attempt to achieve an amicable return to normal working. There has been a return to work, with the nine journalists returning to the NUJ and accepting the rules and disciplinary procedures of the union.

It was agreed that any resulting disciplinary measures against them would be settled by the end of August and would not involve explusion from the union. I am pleased that normal work has been resumed at the offices of the East Midland Allied Press. I hope that the remaining issue can be peacefully settled after what, incidentally, was the longest dispute in the NUJ's history.

I pay tribute to the efforts of the TUC. Probably Opposition Members will join me in so doing. I pay particular tribute to Mr. Keys, in what turned out, ultimately, to be a successful search for a peace formula.

I stress that the closed shop was not the only issue involved in the dispute. Far from that, the issues related to pay and conditions as well as the closed shop. I underline that any individual dispute in the newspaper industry is likely to involve a variety of issues, many of which have little or no connection with the closed shop in journalism. That underlines the difficulty of isolating and making special provision for those elements in a dispute that are relevant to the issue of Press freedom.

Photo of Mr Peter Fry Mr Peter Fry , Wellingborough

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the real test of the fairness of the settlement and the intentions of the NUJ is that after the end of August the nine journalists who chose to resign from the NUJ and to rejoin the IOJ are allowed to do so without threatening their jobs with the newspaper?

Photo of Mr John Grant Mr John Grant , Islington Central

It would be quite wrong for me to reply to that question. Although there is no doubt that there is a successful and peaceful return to work, there are still outstanding matters to be resolved. It would be wrong for me to say anything that could prejudice the situation either way. I very much hope that ultimately there will be a successful and peaceful outcome to the dispute.

I do not deny that the East Midlands dispute undoubtedly raises, in a specific form, some of the general questions that were debated during the passage of the Trades Union and Labour Relations (Amendment) Act 1976. The same is true of the other dispute involving the NUJ and the Darlington-based North of England Newspapers. Unlike the Kettering dispute, that dispute is still going on. It would be even more inappropriate and counter-productive for me to try to pass judgment on the issues involved, which again I hope can be amicably and speedily resolved. It is clear that the dispute centres on the closed-shop issue. It illustrates the problem that the House, the newspaper industry and society in general have to face and tackle.

Reference has been made to the article in The Times by the lady in question. There was a letter in The Times yesterday from the father of the Darlington joint chapels of the NUJ. He puts a different complexion on the situation from that put on it by the lady concerned in her article. He writes: for at least five members of this chapel the £30 strike pay we are receiving is actually more than they take home in wages when we are working.This is the very reason why we are fighting for a closed shop: to be able to fight more effectively for better wages and conditions for journalists and all workers in the newspaper industry.We have no desire to influence the content of newspapers, nor—except for blackleg copy during an industrial dispute—to exclude outside contributors.

Photo of Mr John Farr Mr John Farr , Harborough

How does the hon. Gentleman possibly tie that up with the statements that have been given to the House relating to the resolutions that appeared before the NUJ conference that endeavoured to do just that?

Photo of Mr John Grant Mr John Grant , Islington Central

The hon. Gentleman referred to a number of resolutions, some of which were accepted and some of which he stressed were not accepted. I have not had time to go through the letter, but if the hon. Gentleman has read it, as I am sure he must have done, he will no doubt find the explanation within it.

I was referring to the Darlington dispute. What emerges clearly is that it is not some sort of wildcat dispute inspired by what some people have been inclined to call NUJ militants. My impression is that this is a moderate chapel of the NUJ that has sought to take industrial action for a specific purpose. A clear dilemma is posed, namely, how we are to reconcile the legitimate wishes of the union to improve the working conditions of its members, which may in its view involve the pursuit of a closed shop to improve its bargaining position, with the need to ensure that freedom of the Press is not threatened. That is the dilemma, and I turn to the wider question of the general issue that it raises.

Although the hon. Member for Harborough has raised some of the issues in the context of the provincial industry, as the hon. Gentleman says, many of the issues are equally relevant to the national Press. Both face essentially the same kind of financial problems, although they may vary in scale and intensity from area to area.

Issues relating to the freedom of the Press were as we know, discussed extensively in this House and in another place during the original debates on the Press charter, and a provision relating to the charter is now on the statute book. Both Houses of Parliament have agreed that a charter on the lines provided for in the Act is the most sensible way of meeting the concerns which have been expressed about Press freedom. In these circumstances, I hope that hon. Members will accept that these provisions should be given a fair trial before considering whether anything further is required.

I want to say a few more words on the general issue before turning to the charter itself. Clearly, the independence and freedom of the Press must be a matter of continuing concern to all Members of both Houses of Parliament. There was no disagreement about that when the trade union and labour relations legislation was debated, and there is none now. The debate about the charter was not about whether Press freedom should be safeguarded but, rather, about the nature and the dangers to the Press which might arise and the best means of safeguarding its fredom.

It must be said that it is quite wrong to assume, as is assumed too often, that the actions of trade unions pose the only potential threat to Press freedom. After all, "freedom" is a much abused word, never more so than when we are talking about this very difficult subject. Other people—proprietors and editors—exercise the main control over who has access to the Press and what is printed. It is in their hands that there rests the greatest power to censor and to distort and, there fore, the greatest responsibility for ensuring that there is not censorship or distortion.

I do not think that any hon. Member, on whichever side of the House he may sit, would be prepared to assert that proprietors and editors had always exercised this responsibility fairly or wisely. I need only mention the Daily Mail at the moment to emphasise that.

Photo of Mr Julian Critchley Mr Julian Critchley , Aldershot

Surely the difference is that there is a whole range of different national newspapers, the one able to compete with the other. Were we to get a NUJ closed shop, we should be faced with a monopoly situation.

Photo of Mr John Grant Mr John Grant , Islington Central

I do not think so. To answer the hon. Gentleman, perhaps I may go back to the letter from Mr. Duggan, the father of the joint chapels. He writes, quite frankly: It is conceivable that a journalists' closed shop could one day become a threat to Press freedom if journalists were so supine as to allow themselves and their democratic union to be manipulated by political agitators. I am convinced that that situation will not arise. Of course, there are political agitators in any union, and there will be people who may wish to take the course which Mr. Duggan suggests. I cannot conceive that that is ever likely to occur in the sense that he anticipates. I think that the good sense of members of the NUJ would prevent that happening.

I shall deal with the question of diversity in a moment, if I have time. In any event, I hope that the charter—I still hope that it will be agreed—will take care of the difficulties which the hon. Gentleman described.

But there is a dilemma. Trade unions which represent people working in the newspaper industry clearly have the power to restrict the flow of information if they wish to, just as transport workers have the power to restrict the flow of goods. Parliament has accepted that trade union action to secure better terms and conditions of employment and other matters such as union membership is in general legitimate and that the law should not attempt to interfere. It is widely recognised that the attempts made under the Industrial Relations Act to put a straitjacket on collective bargaining and to restrict the right of unions to take industrial action was misconceived and counter-productive.

In assessing the potential threat that the activities of trade unions are alleged to pose for Press freedom the House should look at a couple of other points. First, the law relating to the closed shop and other matters of concern which have been raised this afternoon is now broadly that which existed for many years before the 1971 Act, and closed shop agree- ments are lawful again. There were very few complaints before 1971 that the state of the law and the activities of trade unions constituted a threat to Press freedom, and in the many years that I worked in the industry this was not a major issue.

Secondly, although industrial action on the part of trade unions in the newspaper industry can result in a temporary disruption of the flow of information, there have been few examples of action by trade unions designed primarily to distort or suppress information. Examples have been brought out in the debate, but I am sure that the House will agree that in those cases it was not the aim to distort or suppress information. There have been from time to time other kinds of difficulties, but very few of them.

Against this background our view remains that the most effective way of protecting the freedom of the Press is by means of a charter which gets its strength from the voluntary support of those concerned and from their wish to see its terms implemented voluntarily, not through legislation or statutory enforceability. The industry has itself proved unable to agree on a charter, and the task of drafting the charter now falls to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment.

In taking up this task, he has before him the report which Lord Pearce submitted on the outcome of the talks in the industry to try to arrive at a voluntary solution. He has discussed them with Lord Pearce and has considered further memoranda from the parties to the talks which Lord Pearce asked them to submit on the main points of disagreement.

As the next stage in the preparation of the charter the Secretary of State will shortly be embarking, as is required by the Act, on an extensive programme of consultation with those concerned in the industry and with others to make sure that their views are properly understood and to see whether there is scope for widening the area of common ground which has been established.

It is not proposed to start talks until the report of the Royal Commission on the Press, due in the next month or so, has been published. The Commission will, it is understood, be expressing views on issues relevant to the charter. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State believes that it will be generally helpful if his consultations are conducted in the light of the Commission's views, and not until these extensive consultations are complete will it be possible for him to prepare a draft charter and to submit it to Parliament.

I hope that we shall be able to find a formula which is acceptable to the various parties. I think that events at the East Midlands Allied Press and elsewhere, to which hon. Members have referred in the course of the debate, have convinced me more than ever of the need for a charter which is acceptable to all parties and which provides practical guidance to meet problems related to the freedom of the Press.

There have been many exaggerated fears and misconceptions expressed inside and outside Parliament about the NUJ. I do not accept that there is any reality to the fears expressed. The NUJ is a democratic body and from time to time it takes decisions which are unwise and ill-considered. So, however, do many other democratic bodies including, I suggest, Parliament from time to time. On one occasion at least Ministers of the present Administration have expressed the view that decisions of the union had implications for Press freedom and that the union should consider that more carefully before acting.

I do not believe that the NUJ poses the sort of threat to Press freedom which has been suggested in some quarters. The NUJ remains committed to the principle of Press freedom. It is true that its code of conduct can be changed. I had intended to——

It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.