Journalists do what they’re told – or face the consequences

Do we all stand up to managers when they make us do something we know is wrong, or do we keep our he

The resignation letter from the ex-Daily Star journalist Richard Peppiatt, complaining about an anti-Muslim agenda that many of us have suspected for some time, raises a few ethical questions. Would you fold your arms and tell your boss you refused to do a story that you found morally wrong, or which went contrary to the tenets of your profession? Or would you get on with it, knowing you were representing distortion as the truth?

Peppiatt's letter appears to confirm what a lot of us have suspected for some time: that the seedier end of tabloid reporting is a world not so much of grafting in the mud for jewels but plucking stories out of thin air (or, as Peppiatt memorably puts it when describing a celebrity revelation about Kelly Brook, "I simply plucked it out of my arse".) He says journalists concocted tales about Muslims, for example about Muslim-only taxpayer-funded public loos, knowing they were nothing of the sort.

I know a lot of people will wonder how Peppiatt could have stuck it out for so long, or why he decided to put his byline to some deeply unpleasant stories that he admits have fanned the flames of prejudice in the first place. He says: "I was too scared for my career, and my bank balance, to refuse." It's a refrain that many of us will find familiar.

Before anyone rushes to judge Peppiatt or suggest he should have got out earlier, we should reflect on our own experiences in a corporate environment – not necessarily journalism, but anywhere. Do we all boldly stand up to managers when they tell us to do something that we know is wrong and counterproductive? Or do we try to keep our heads down, not wanting to be seen as bolshie, hoping that our compliance might give us a reward somewhere further down the line?

We've got bills to pay; some of us have children to look after, too. It's not easy to say no to something when you know it'll mark you out as a troublemaker.

Ethical questions are another matter, of course. But journalists don't have any protection should they decide they'd rather not do a story they're told to cover by their managers. The NUJ has been seeking for some time to have a "conscience clause" for journalists who want to have the right to refuse an assignment they regard as being unethical and ensure their job stays safe at the same time. But I fear it won't ever happen.

Sadly,newspapers are the same as any other corporate environment: you do what you're told, or you face the consequences. You can take out a grievance – which will mark you down as someone never to be trusted ever again – or you can resign, and attempt the complex and stressful process of going to a tribunal. Either way, your career is over.

I suppose many of us would like to hope that, given the same set of circumstances, we would all bravely stand up to our bosses and defend our professional integrity; but then I think many of us would also secretly know that we would grit our teeth and do what we were told. We may call journalism a profession, or a craft, or a trade; but it's just a job, like any other – and jobs are pretty hard to come by right now. We should applaud anyone who's willing to make a stand.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.