Could the NUJ Have Prevented Hackgate?

14/08/2011 18:16 BST | Updated 12/10/2011 10:12 BST

Trade unions protect workers' labour in times of doubt and desperation. In the print-media, a union can offset the excessive use of power from editors and owners. So could the NUJ have disallowed journalists at News Corps from non-ethical pursuits? Could it have prevented the unfolding of a political crisis so grave, it has been compared to the revelations of corruption and criminality of Watergate America?

News Corp's vine-wreathed grapple over our ruling class is nothing new. In fact, close relationships between politicians; the police and media can be dated back to a defining moment in the history of the UK trade union movement- the 1986 Wapping dispute.

When Rupert Murdoch, in a great shift away from the Spanish practices of Fleet Street moved his papers to fortress Wapping, he had many demands. These included the print unions accepting flexible working, agreeing to a no-strike clause, adopting new technology and putting an end to closed-shop production.

Benefiting from the Thatcher government's legislation to allow employers to de-recognise unions, Murdoch was able to bind the media, police and politicians in the pursuit of profit. He created a single-minded, international outlet that recruited only those who were able to- free of union bounds, sell whatever was needed in a competition driven culture that became prevalent at News Corps. But was this preventable?

The NUJ's code of conduct delineates journalistic ethics. When a member joins, they are agreeing to adhere to this code and thus, possess the power of collective action over ethical issues. At the height of the miners' strike, for example, print workers at The Sun successfully stopped the publication of an editorial that described miners as "the scum of the earth, and a front-page headline calling miners' leader Arthur Scargill "mine fuhrer."

In 2006, The Daily Star's NUJ chapel passed an emergency motion to block the publication of a spoof "Daily Fatwa" page, holding the content, which included a "Page 3 burqa babes special" to be "deliberately offensive to Muslims." And in 2009, The Guardian and Observer chapel condemned proposals to downgrade or close down The Observer, stating:

"The chapel is committed to the editorial autonomy, resourcing and identity of both the Observer and the Guardian - along with the protection of editorial standards and absolute rejection of compulsory redundancies across all platforms."

Yet despite the fact that the union at News International; the News International Staff Association (Nisa) was denied recognition as an independent trade union by the Certification Office in 2001, the NUJ is to this day locked out of Wapping.

In one cunning move, Murdoch, the man whose motto has always been to "expand or die", and who recently described Thatcher's name as "a synonym for strength and liberty," built a business that would be able to treat its workers as it wanted. In the mass demonstrations over the Wapping dispute, over 6000 employees were fired, 400 police officers and members of the public injured, and more than 1,500 arrests made. Last month, a 150 year old newspaper was forced to shut down, making redundant 200 employees.

In 2004 when the Employment Bill was being debated in Parliament, John McDonnell and Austin Mitchell's attempts to introduce a conscience clause would have prevented both undue pressure from editors, and the development of a tabloid culture predominant in our current media. But none of the main parties supported it.

With an investigation currently into press regulation, it is essential that we decide whether we need to look at this again. Trade unions are the workers most immediate means of combining in permanent organisations to understand, defend and extend their social and economic interests against systems of competition and at times, corruption.

It is therefore apt that we ask: is there a need for an exterior, regulating body that covers and restricts all print media, or would a change in our current employment and industrial relations legislation be key to preventing a scandal like this from ever happening again? Could the NUJ have prevented Hackgate?