It’s the press who are the dinosaurs, not us, say unions

A survey has shown that 92 per cent of trade union members believe the British media is too cynical against them, writes Unions21 director Dan Whittle.

Dan Whittle is the director of Unions 21

A frustrated national journalist of many years told me that some of the coverage of the London firefighters’ dispute has been among the worst examples of anti-union, biased coverage he had ever had the misfortune to read. This had in his view followed hard on the heels of biased, factually incorrect coverage of the post dispute, unions’ role in Labour leadership election, etc.

His view was that there is little point in trying to sharpen up the act of unions – which is already pretty sharp and getting sharper – when the media seems incredibly biased against them.

Trade unionists agree, a survey we conducted last week reveals: 9 in 10 (92 per cent) believe the British Media is too cynical against unions, and about the same proportion think the bias is getting worse.

None of the 100 members, lay reps and full time officials we surveyed believed there was a neutral or positive bias across the media. The Mirror was the only large circulation daily which a majority of those who answered the question believed was biased towards unions (60 per cent), while 43.7 per cent believe The Guardian is at least slightly biased against unions, and 53.2 per cent The Independent.

Almost a third of survey respondents gave journalists just 3-out-of-10 for their knowledge of unions. But on the other hand, survey respondents believe unions could do better in their communication with the media: 40 per cent gave unions marks 1-4 out of ten for their communications.

The frustration is clear: unions have over the past few years innovated, supported members (and businesses) through the recession, and sought to promote credible alternatives to cuts – while the press response has been characterised by a confrontational and macho portrayal reminiscent of the 70s.

You don’t see twenty and thirtysomething journalists turning up to work in platform shoes and bell bottom jeans but they are more than happy to frame union matters using language as outdated as spandex trousers when talking of union “bosses” about to cause a “Winter/Summer/Autumn/Spring of discontent”.

But journalists are under more pressure than ever – not only to follow an editorial line but in terms of time. They barely have time to do their job quite apart from educating themselves on the ins and outs of unions.  With less industrial correspondents employed to provide the industry’s expertise the task is getting more difficult. But as the cuts bite the importance of updating the image of unions is more pressing than ever.

• Tonight, Unions21 will hold an event to kick off their work in this area which will report to the ‘A New Generation, What the Public Want from Unions and How We Rise to the Challenge’ conference next March.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.