Tuesday, April 15, 2003

This Julian Barnes piece from the New Yorker, outwardly about the experience of being fired, gives a quietly chilling picture on how self-censorship works in journalism today (yes Eric I know, go buy the book).

Observe this passage describing what came to pass after Rupert Murdoch bought his newspaper.

...As a by-product of a labor dispute with the printers, everyone else at the paper—all fourteen hundred of us—was informed that we were suspended. News International no longer recognized our contracts of employment. The journalists inquired upward, and were told not to worry our little heads. You’ll be fine, they said, just carry on working as usual; in a while we’ll issue new contracts on the same terms as the old ones. Then why this sacking? What was the point? Well, it was just that management wanted to sort out some other layer of hapless plant-coddlers, and from a legal point of view it was convenient to fire everyone, while not necessarily meaning it.

This was my first direct experience of corporate management techniques. And the one thing everyone on the paper knew was that Murdoch regarded journalists as expendable; indeed, more or less interchangeable. If one didn’t like the job, another would. It was a chilly moment. Around this time, I heard a News International manager—testosterone in a suit—utter a phrase I have never forgotten. He was being asked about some especially brutal piece of “management”; how could the company possibly do—i.e., get away with—something like that? “You do it by doing it,” he replied. Quite.

The National Union of Journalists called a meeting of the chapel, as a union branch is known in this trade. I went along, expecting—well, the sort of movie scene in which craggy journos denounce wicked new bosses on grounds of highish principle. The main motion proposed sending a letter to Rupert Murdoch protesting at our mass suspension, which was a direct breach of the disputes procedure he had signed up to when he bought the paper. This reasonable stance began to crumble when someone pointed out that Murdoch was a pretty tough customer and might not like getting a letter of protest—especially one that demanded a reply by a certain date. Then someone else ingeniously proposed that we write a letter that didn’t require an answer from Murdoch: this way, we wouldn’t have to find out if our bat squeak of protest had offended the great man. This suggestion was seriously discussed for a while, and even formulated into these menacing words: “The N.U.J. Chapel would like to remind Mr. Murdoch and News International that it is aware of its position.” That seemed to cover it. Or were we, even so, being too bold? On further reflection, we saw the folly of such provocation, and instead resolved to do absolutely nothing for the time being. A while later, we were all reinstated, and everything carried on as before, except for an awareness of the fundamental contempt in which we, as employees, were held.

Notice that no overt threats were made and the "sacking" wasn't really a termination because the contracts were to be reinstated. But the act of firing fourteen hundred people does enough damage to the psyche that it assures that there will be no large-scale protest. Read thru to the end.

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