By John Lloyd
I attended a funeral celebration recently, which I helped to arrange.
It was a celebration of the death of a specialism of journalism: a “beat”, which is the way much journalism is organized. The beat was labour journalism.
Labour journalism was probably more ingrained into the journalistic culture of the UK than any other country: though I’m open to correction on this. I haven’t encountered it in such fully developed form in any other culture I know: I’ve asked about it in the US, Russia, Italy and France. But maybe in the Scandinavian countries, or in Germany, it lives a good life still.
To be sure, other journalistic cultures had, and some still have, specialists who cover stories involving labour issues. They have good contacts with employers, trade unions, officials in government and intermediate institutions which deal with questions of labour, and they would know a bit about what they are writing or broadcasting about (something which we shouldn’t take as always the case in reports).
But in the UK, the group – which formed itself around Ernest Bevin, the Minister of Labour, during the war and which after the war continued to cover the labour movement in the period of the post-war Labour government - became institutionalized. The reporters who patrolled this beat formed an association, the Labour and Industrial Correspondents’ Group, which had a President, rules and a membership list (women were excluded at first).
Because trade unions were so important to the Labour Party – they created it, financed it, organized for its election, sustained, or embarrassed, it in power – the job of the labour correspondent became both high profile and increasingly concerned with the unions. As the “labour question” came to be seen as the central issue of the British polity from the fifties onwards, and as the number and intensity of strikes gave Britain the journalistically-inspired tag of the “sick man of Europe”, so the job of the labour correspondent to some measure displaced and surpassed that of the political correspondents, in the UK as elsewhere seen as the summit of domestic reporting.
There was some good reporting done by this group of men and women (few women: unlike other male dominated parts of journalism – particularly the reporting of war - it never became attractive to most women reporters). But it was dominated by the prism of the unions; and the divisions within the labour movement – left, right, and centrist – also divided the journalists.
We did write and broadcast about the world of work, but usually at one remove. The unions, the labour movement, the battles within the movement, the threats and realities of industrial action – all of these were important and had a direct bearing on the politics of the UK.
But underneath were greater dramas, which have remained – and become more dramatic – even after the decline of the strength of the trade unions due to the Thatcher reforms and the decline of the industrial base in the eighties and early nineties.
These were the huge changes in the nature of work for millions of people, as the industrial society gave way to the post industrial society. At the same time, the processes which are called globalization became more prominent in the domestic life of countries.
In brief, there is a huge area which British labour journalism did not describe adequately: the world of work.
I do not think it was done, or is being done, much better elsewhere. The great growth area in journalism of all kinds over the past twenty years has been in consumer journalism: in the media generally, the growth has been in the quantity and above all in the variety of entertainment. Journalism – that activity which covers the events of the day, and now, the hour – does write about work, but as a by-product of something else.
Thus at the moment, there is much journalism about the measure passed in this past week in the US state of Wisconsin: a bill – called the Budget Repair bill - which limits collective bargaining to wages, restricts wages to inflation, increases the amount employees pay for health insurance and pensions and gives union members the right not to pay dues. But it’s covered as essentially a political story, a Democrats vs. Republicans story, with the main concern being how far it strengthens, or weakens, the Obama presidency.
We have had coverage of the surge of the middle class in India: but it’s been an economic story. We’ve had coverage of the huge growth of the industrial labour force in China: but it’s been a political-economic story.
We need a journalism of work. We need to have specialists, who will write on a global canvas as well as a national one, who see in the huge movements of labour of every kind as one of the great dramas of the world, which require being made into a narrative by journalism.
That is what journalism does, at its best. It brings together diverse facts and trends, movements and personalities, into a coherent story. The duty of journalism is to try to make that story accord with the cats. There is always a greater or lesser degree of simplification in this; and there is always much scope for alternative versions – one of the basic justifications for a free press. But the important matter is to have the reporting.
So there is a vacancy: for a global labour correspondent. When I put up this idea at the funeral for the British labour writers, there came the obvious objection: who will publish the work of such a correspondent. Journalism is a very market-based trade, acutely sensitive to what consumers want and will pay for.
This is the more so at a time of decline : the news media, especially the newspapers, are desperate to retain their audience: so if that audience wants celebrities, they get celebrities. Sine they don’t seem, in the main, to want stories about work, they don’t get them.
Yet journalism can’t define itself as a trade which “makes the significant interesting” if it doesn’t try to do just that. The revolutions in the world – worlds – of work are significant, for many millions. We journalists now live on and by the Net, which – whatever its destructive effect on newspapers – gives us the ability to develop areas in a way we never could before.
Time to work at the journalism of work.
(Contributing editor to the Financial Times, director of Journalism of the Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford and director of the Axess Programme on Journalism and Democracy)