General Secretary of the NUJ Michelle Stanistreet on media in the Middle East

"...It's absolutely unacceptable for journalists to be attacked because of the job that they do"

Michelle Stanistreet is an expert juggler. At university she studied English and history and contributed to a number of magazines and newspapers whilst working at least two part-time jobs. When she went on to do a full-time postgraduate course in journalism at City University in London, by night she worked as an usher in a theatre. A challenge yes, but also a testament to her commitment to journalism.

Over time, work experience at the Sunday Express led to her securing a contract there. When the news came that pornographer Richmond Desmond had bought the Express Newspapers, it generated a surge of renewed interest amid staff over the potential support a trade union could offer them. The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) chapel had been derecognized under Thatcher's legislative alterations and was practically non-existent before this.

On the same day, Stanistreet became a member of the chapel committee. It was the beginning of a career where first she would balance being a working journalist with being the voice of newspaper and agency journalists on the union's ruling body and eventually become General Secretary of the NUJ. "I'm also a single mother so you're throwing lots of different aspects of juggling into your life and you become quite proficient at catching a lot of things and you miss a lot of other things. But it just becomes part of day to day life" she says, smiling.

One of the core elements of the union's code of conduct is balanced reporting, "which every member of the NUJ signs up to" says Stanistreet. Yet though the NUJ support reasoned, impartial reporting she points out that the ownership structure in the UK means that you don't always get this. "You often see absolutely unfair and totally partial coverage in some elements of the mainstream press."

Part of the problem is "the economic reality" of how newspapers are designed. That is, funds have been cut hugely in the local, regional and national press, with less space for foreign correspondents to tell their stories. "It's very few outlets these days that are genuinely committed to covering international news in its fulsome complexity."

"That inevitably diminishes the voices that we hear about certain conflicts and the perspectives that we get" she continues. "We hear a very narrow and a very small and partial perspective and that's about economic decisions that are taken by newspaper groups about their priorities in many respects, as much as it is about politics. That's the kind of thing that we should be challenging and arguing about because we need those voices and stories to come through on the pages of our national papers."

This affects, for example, how we see news from the Middle East. Stanistreet points out that people now more than ever need a "rounded perspective" of what is happening there. "It continues to be an incredibly important region to understand in the context of everything that's going on in terms of international politics at the moment."

The NUJ have a long standing policy on international issues. Much of their international work is done through the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) to support reporters doing their work freely without targeting, prejudice, and without attack. "That is routinely and often compromised in the reporting of the Arab Israeli conflict, and that's something that we've been very outspoken about" she says.

The NUJ work closely with their sister affiliates world-wide, including their colleagues in Palestine, responding to calls and alerts about issues within their countries. "In Palestine that has largely been about journalists who may well have been wrongly detained. It might be about pressure that they're coming under, political pressure or pressure on the ground."

In the past the NUJ and the IFJ have responded and deplored the bombings of journalists in Gaza, demanded that the Israeli government justify the claims they've made for attacking journalists in Gaza, condemned the shooting of Palestinian photographers in a refugee camp and a Palestinian photojournalist by an Israeli soldier in Ramallah and campaigned about journalists who have been detained for doing their job.

"It's absolutely disgusting and disgraceful that those incidents continue to happen and continue to happen without the degree of investigation and censure that one would expect from any democratic country and that's where we'll absolutely continue to keep up the pressure against the Israeli government because they have clearly failed so many times to date to tackle what is a terribly important and prevalent problem."

In the event of an incident, the NUJ circle an alert around their membership, make statements, lobby in parliament and speak to the relevant ambassadors in Palestine and across the world. "Just last week I was in a meeting with the Greek ambassador about the closure of the public service broadcaster in Greece in the same way that we have been incredibly vocal about the arrests of journalists in Turkey or with our longstanding work in Africa, particularly in Zimbabwe about the attacks of journalists covering the run up to political elections. So this is for us bread and butter work."

But it does not stop here. In 2007, following much debate, at an annual delegate meeting in Birmingham a motion was passed for the NUJ to support a boycott of Israeli goods. It was a decision which, according to Stanistreet, caused a lot of controversy, in part because some believed a boycott would alter their objectivity as journalists. "I only wish that many of our affiliates in different parts of the world could have equally as robust and open and genuinely democratic engagement as our members here in the UK and Ireland can enjoy" she adds later.

For Stanistreet, the decision to boycott or speak out about injustice isn't about an individual coming down on one side of the political debate or the other. "Whatever side of the polarised political spectrum is attacking journalists then that's the sign of an incredibly unhealthy society and we can stand together with colleagues wherever they are in the world and say that it's not acceptable. It's absolutely unacceptable for journalists to be attacked because of the job that they do."

"They need to know, as well as their own governments, that does not go unnoticed and unchallenged and we need to be there to stick up for them and make it clear that an attack on a journalist anywhere in the world is an attack on all of us. And I think it's about very basic principles of solidarity."

It's also about practical help "journalist to journalist," a key part of what the NUJ and IFJ stand for. Earlier this year the IFJ ran an international women's day in the Middle East about safety, justice and equality. Many journalists in this region compromise their own safety in dangerous situations because "because they know the value of impartial, objective journalism." It's them we need to assist, says Stanistreet.

"Obviously our voice as part of the international community makes a difference but I think our voice as part of the international community of journalists is much more persuasive and much more important in what we stand for as a trade union because there is so much more that we have in common with the journalists who operate around the world than anything that divides us."

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Middle East Monitor