Wednesday, May 25, 2005


NOTE: this personal posting is copyright Tom Morton, 2005. All rights reserved. No quoting or reproduction without express permission of the author.

The Aberdeen Journals strike of 1989-90 was a nasty, brutal, long dispute, and the results were all bad: diminished, compromised newspapers; bitter divisions between re-employed strikers and those who had worked throughout the dispute; a devastating effect, financially and morally, on the National Union of Journalists, and, following the final "settlement", anger from NUJ freelances at the attitude of the NUJ leadership towards them.
The Journals dispute, along of course with Wapping, put the final nail in the coffin of closed-shop union working in Scottish journalism. It caused upheaval among families as journalists were sacked, couldn't sustain a living freelancing, suffered health problems, moved home. No-one who experienced it would want to put themselves through anything similar again. And people tend to forget that originally, it was about money.
The current BBC industrial action bears few comparisons. Attitudes on both sides of the picket lines on Monday seemed generally good-tempered. Those who chose to work did so with heavy hearts. And it's not about cash. Though of course, everything is about money in the end.
I did my usual two hour show on Monday, and I certainly felt bad at seeing friends and colleagues out on strike. But I am no longer a member of the NUJ, and completely disagree that taking BBC Radio Scotland off the air is by any stretch of the imagination going to "save our BBC" as the placards had it. It can cause nothing but damage to listeners' and viewers' confidence in the station, at a time when it faces more, and increasing, competition than ever before. Severing the relationship between broadcaster and listener, even briefly, can cause permanent damage. And the BBC's creaky infrastructure needs rebuilding, no question.
The thought of next week's 48-hour action fills me with foreboding. No-one, from either side, has pressurised me or even contacted me on the subject. Perhaps music presenters (Moyles, Whiley, Wogan, Bruce, Wogan and Walker all broadcast) are seen as in some way beyond the political pale. Who knows?
I do know this. As a freelance contractor, I have absolutely no job security at the BBC. That's fair enough, I'm not looking for sympathy. I get well paid. It's my bed, I made it and I'll lie in it. if and when the time comes to leave, I hope I'll walk away with some dignity.
But having worked freelance for years, I know that things out in the cold, unforgiving reaches of independent broadcasting make even the proposed, lean'n'mean BBC look like a fat, warm and cuddly teddy bear. And I'm afraid that's the real media world out there, with its buy-out, short-term contracts, its cheapo indie productions where health and safety audits are a laughable luxury, its desperate teenage hacks on starvation wages.
Trying to stop the BBC heading down that road is highly laudable, but taking strike action to do it is simply not going to work. It's like striking against the weather. The problem with the Aberdeen Journals dispute was the political context it happened in: everything was changing; that kind of union action was never going to be allowed to succeed. The technological context of the current action at the BBC means it cannot succeed either.
But scars just as permanent could be left. I sincerely hope not.

Personal posting, copyright Tom Morton 2005. All rights reserved. No quoting or reproduction without express permission of the author.

1 comment:

kenseaton said...


I'm just reading through your blog - catching up on the motorbike stuff - and I caught sight of this about the Aberdeen Journals strike in 1989:

"And people tend to forget that originally, it was about money."

Well, unless you know something I don't (and I was one of the ones sacked) then the dispute was nothing about money. At all. At any point.

A strike was called in mid-1989 over the introduction of personal contracts and non-recognition of the NUJ. As deputy chief sub-editor I had been told I had to sign a personal contract and end any contact with the NUJ. As I already knew the managing director was a turnip I didn't fancy this one bit.

Aberdeen Journals sacked us all when we walked out. However, the company had unwittingly broken a legally-binding agreement with the NUJ and the staff by introducing the contracts and had to concede defeat and take all the staff back.

At that point I told my boss - deputy editor Duncan Macrae (a fine man and a fine journalist) - that if I was sacked again I would not be back. No matter the personal cost.

Two weeks later the company defied the return-to-work agreements about no-victimisation and proceeded to demote staff in regional offices.

Another strike was called.

This was the year-long Aberdeen Journals strike. Nothing to do with money. At all. At any point.

Ken Seaton,
Evening Times