Journalists, politics and the union movement

[Note: updated 7 September]

An interesting piece on Jafa Pete’s blog about the rights of journalists when it comes to trade unions. Particularly if their union, like the EPMU in New Zealand, campaigns on behalf of a particular political party during elections. [The freedom to belong]

The question is about union membership affecting the ability of reporters to be fair and balanced. Alternatively you could pose this as: Are journalists compromised by their membership of a union that aligns itself to a political party?

As you can imagine [dribblejaws alert] I don’t think it really matters. In fact, I’d go a step further and say that journalists natural class alignment is with the workers. Even more, journalism would be better if reporters recognised this basic class instinct and acted on it at all times.

My argument’s a simple one, journalists are proletarians. They have a typically proletarian relationship to capital and to capitalism. The ideology of professionalism masks this and creates all sorts of confusion.

The class position and class location of journalists is also thrown into stark relief whenever news workers go on strike as they did last week in Australia. It’s also a subtle undertone in Jafapete’s post and his debate with John Drinnan of the Herald.

It’s commonly held on the left that there is a class bias in journalism and the news. It’s perhaps best summed up by Robert McChesney:

All of this suggests that contemporary journalism poses a severe problem for the left and democratic forces. It is the class bias that is the biggest obstacle…

The affairs of Wall Street, the pursuit of profitable investments, and the joys of capitalism are now presented as the interests of the general population. Journalists rely on business or “free market”-loving, business-oriented think tanks as sources when covering economics stories. [Journalism, democracy & class struggle]

This is palpably true, but it is not the result of a class conspiracy by journalists and editors; it is a function of the ideology of professionalism that permeates the industry.

The ideals of professionalism are also entrenched in the Fourth Estate model. That is journalists as a group being a watchdog on government, business and civil society.

Grey Collar Journalists

In my view journalists occupy a contradictory class location. They are working class in the sense that their wages, conditions and experience of labour are all governed by the laws of accumulation. Most journalists work for a media company (capital) and their labour (surplus value) contributes to the profits of the company and its shareholders.

However, most journalists don’t recognise this position. That is they do not see themselves as working class. In the worldview of journalists they appear to themselves as either “middle class”, or “professionals”, or even totally without any class location at all.

Obviously they must belong somewhere, nobody floats around in capitalist society without slotting into the class structure. It is the ideology of professionalism, which, IMHO, masks the true class nature of journalism and the media.

Journalists appear to be supporters of capitals and to be anti-working class (as McChesney argues above) because that is historically how the culture of commodity journalism in the 20th Century has evolved. News production has been (until very recently) a purely industsrial process. News is mass produced at a low price for a mass market that is then aggregated and on-sold to advertisers (selling eyeballs).

This has been for most of the past 80 years a stable system with very few real hiccups. Today that is all changing – the “new media” revolution and Web2.0 have created some real uncertainties for journalists and for the news industry.

We see this with the outsourcing of sub-editing, job cuts, newspaper and magazine closures, mergers and acquisitions and the global expansion of both online news and amateur journalism and blogging.

That’s really all background. The real point is that journalists need the union to defend them from attacks on conditions etc, but they also have a right and a duty to be politically active. As long as they declare it, they should not have to give up the rights of citizenship because of their job.

If we are to make any sense at all of the term “citizen journalist” we have to acknowledge that journalists are citizens. In fact, they are also public intellectuals. Not like Noam Chomsky or Francis Fukayama perhaps, but the public intellectuals of the everyday. I like to call them “quotidian intellectuals”. They are the popularisers, the foghorns and warning lights. They have opinions and are not afraid to express them.

That’s as it should be.

I have a plane to catch IGBTYS


One Response to Journalists, politics and the union movement

  1. Imogen says:

    To quote
    “My argument’s a simple one, journalists are proletarians. They have a typically proletarian relationship to capital and to capitalism. The ideology of professionalism masks this and creates all sorts of confusion.”
    Why then so many turning to PR eh? For the job satisfaction or the feeling they’re finally really making a difference?

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