18 April 2008

How the angry eight fought to keep racism out of their paper

Howard Hannah recalls how north London journalists won a landmark ruling which effectively kept racist political advertisements out of their newspapers for more than 30 years – until last week...

He was the lead British prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes trials and when Hartley Shawcross made his entrance to take the chair of the Press Council hearing back in 1976, everybody stood up and took notice.

We were in the “dock” – eight journalists from North London News who had refused to work on an edition of our newspapers which was going to carry an advertisement for the National Front, forerunners of the British National Party with the same racist agenda.

As journalists, we had seen at first hand the terrifying community tensions that were a direct result of NF activity. In 1974, a National Front rally in Red Lion Square, Holborn, resulted in the death of Kevin Gately, a 21-year-old anti-fascist student – the first demonstrator to be killed in the UK for 55 years. Their rallies gave young thugs the confidence to launch random, brutal and often fatal attacks on black and Asian people. After the death of a young Sikh in such an attack, one of their leaders, John Kingsley Read, crowed publicly at a rally: “One down, a million to go.”

For us now to find ourselves working on a newspaper advertising such an organisation was intolerable. Our management, based in the Midlands, refused outright our plea to reject the advertisement. We were members of the National Union of Journalists and a meeting of our chapel (office branch) was convened. Of the 12 of us at work that day, eight proposed to refuse to work on a paper carrying the ad. The remaining four, while disagreeing with that course of action, voted to support our right not to work.

The management told us we would be sacked. We held to our position. Management blustered, but finally did not sack us. Instead, they laid a complaint against us to the Press Council: that our action constituted a restriction to the freedom of the press.

Thus, months later, we sat accused in a tribunal off Fleet Street. We were nervous, as only slightly less so were other members of the judging panel who sat in obedient silence as Lord Shawcross cast his eye over the “crime sheet”.

Then suddenly he dramatically proclaimed: “I don’t agree with what you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it.”

Then he glanced round the room and asked rhetorically: “Now who was it that wrote that?”

The hush that ensued was too tense for me. On some dangerous impulse I replied: “I’m afraid I can’t tell you that. But you have my assurance that it was none of us.”

Another seemingly endless silence, while expressions of terror and uncertainty settled on every face (including mine) as Shawcross looked grimly down at his papers. There was a smell of fear in the room.

Then suddenly the great prosecutor threw back his head and laughed. And so everybody laughed. And laughed and laughed (it wasn’t that funny). It was a “man from Del Monte” moment.

Then the interrogation and argument got under way. And several weeks later we received our judgment through the post. Shawcross reaffirmed that trade union pressure or threats of strike should not be deployed to stifle editorial freedom. However, he upheld our right as individuals to refuse on grounds of conscience to be party to producing an issue of the newspaper for the reasons we had given.

No ruling made since that time has contradicted that decision. And to their credit, neither North London News nor any other north London paper has knowingly accepted an advertisement from a racist organisation since that time.

We must hope, for our community’s sake, that the Islington Gazette, the Ham and High and the Camden Gazette’s breach of that responsible, civilised consensus was a temporary aberration.

Howard Hannah, now features editor of the Camden New Journal, was father of the North London News Group NUJ chapel 1975-82.

Camden New Journal

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