Freedom of expression for all- why I joined the National Union of Jounalists

I read, with interest, Jim McDowell’s piece in the Sunday World this week musing about my recent decision to join the NUJ. 
Firstly, let me state that I am not a journalist; nor do I wish to be solely defined as a ‘blogger’ . I have long held the view that real journalists are those who work for publications and on traditional radio/television platforms. Real journalists are people who, for them, journalism is a career and pursuing the established principles of the profession is their foremost objective. 

‘Bloggers’ are people hopelessly devoted to that platform and who, quite often, believe themselves to be on a professional level with traditional journalists. I don’t for one minute put myself in that category. I am broadly speaking a ‘blogger’ at this point in time simply because it is an effective political tool and suits my purposes. If a better tool for publishing comes along I will use that as eagerly as I use ‘citizen journalism’, ‘blogging’ or ‘communications’. 

I am not impartial in the slightest. As I have already pointed out, most of my writings are done with a political agenda and purpose. 

Would I relentlessly pursue a story, in the purest form of journalism, if it damaged those on the same political page as me? Of course I wouldn’t! But then again, how many traditional journalists also allow their own views to seep into their pursuit of stories? That is not a criticism, but rather an appreciation that everyone has their own personal prejudices and views, rightly or wrongly. 

I decided to join the NUJ because, as I outlined, the tools I use in pursuit of my political aims, namely writing and blogging and publishing stories that I feel are in the public interest; fall under the membership rules of the Union. 

The NUJ rules state that “[t]he union shall consist of journalists, including photographers, creative artists working editorially in newspapers, magazines, books, broadcasting, public relations and information, and electronic media; as advertising and fashion photographers, advertising copywriters, editorial computer systems workers…”

I have written two books, occasionally written columns for established media outlets and also broke more stories, via my blog, than many mainstream media outlets. That means that membership of the NUJ is open to me. 

NUJ membership was also previously extended to Danny Morrison, the former Sinn Fein propagandist and editor of An Phoblacht. Danny’s writings for the republican movement were political propaganda to opponents, such as myself, but to supporters his writings and work were of important public interest. Whether one subscribes to the propaganda or public interest narrative; Danny’s work was carried out within the context of his right to freedom of expression. The key point here is that there are many competing narratives within the NUJ of what journalism, writing or communicating actually is. People join together not to support one and others work, or promote another’s agenda; but to support the wider principle of the right to freedom of expression. 

I view membership of the NUJ more as a means of protecting freedom of expression for all. Everyone should have the right to publish their writings and pursue- without fear- stories that are in the public interest. The ability to write and publish is available to almost everyone in the age of social media and digital platforms. 

Of course, there are both criminal law restrictions to freedom of expression and there are civil remedies for anyone libelled or defamed by another’s speech or writings.

This brings me on to another point Mr McDowell made in his column. He stated the following in the context of my blogging on the Nama scandal; 

“What he has put in the public domain- whether right or wrong- over the Nama affair would have the rest of us hacks hung out to dry by the courts by now.” 

And here lies the challenge for mainstream media. Would they have been “hung out to dry” for publishing much of what I put into the public domain over Nama? Quite often the mainstream media followed up my stories in the days afterwards. 

Anyone I named in regards to the Nama scandals, whether online or in my book, had a legal avenue for redress open to them. They chose not to pursue it. I say that is because what I said was true, and indeed the vast majority of what I alleged has been since independently verified. Others will say it is because there is no money in it for them; but I don’t accept that. Surely the core principle, in such a scenario as he Nama scandal, is about clearing your name? 

As we have seen recently in relation to Jim Wells; ‘bloggers’ and individuals can be pursued as readily as mainstream media outlets for what they publish. Digital contributors do not operate in a legal vacuum. 

I, by writing blogs, can throw caution to the wind in publishing public interest stories. I only have myself to account for; not an entire media organisation or fellow employees. I understand why some editors have to take a more cautious approach; but could this leave mainstream media constantly following up on ‘scoops’ that have already been published by individuals writing on digital platforms? 

Is there a challenge for mainstream media to push the boat out slightly, to resist the threat of legal action more often and go for it? Or would throwing such caution to the wind erode the professional standards of professional journalism? I don’t know, but I think it’s a relevant debate.

I try and maintain a level of professionalism in what I publish. I also, as a personal principle, always protect my sources of information at all costs. I do the former because the credibility of what I publish rests upon not publishing false stories, but rather factual stories that can be independently verified. I do the latter because in life, trust is everything. If I breach the trust of a single person that tells me something in confidence, then how could anyone ever trust me again? 

I consistently, whether I agree with their stories or not, argue that journalists and individuals have the right to publish their writings unhindered and without fear of threat, coercion or violence. Such publications can then be subject to challenges under the law if they can be proven to be false. All published works are also, quite rightly, open to critique and assessment in the court of public opinion. That’s a cornerstone of freedom of expression within a democracy. 

I support the principle of freedom of expression for everyone. I use broadly defined ‘journalistic’ tools within a political context. I publish many of my writings in the public domain. I, therefore, agree with the aims and objectives of the NUJ. That is why I am a member. 


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