National Catholic Register


Protests at Britain’s Biggest Catholic Newspaper

BY Cian Molloy

August 23-29, 1998 Issue | Posted 8/23/98 at 1:00 PM


MANCHESTER, England—Journalists at The Universe, Britain's biggest selling religious newspaper, have voted to take strike action over a management plan to cut staff.

Gabriel Communications, publishers of the newspaper, have asked 30 production and editorial staff to apply for 16 newly created posts, otherwise they will be regarded as having made themselves redundant. Gabriel Communications say the measures are needed to “improve efficiency” and to “ensure the future of the company.” Under the proposal, some staff will see their annual salaries fall by £3,000 (more than $4,500).

As well as publishing The Universe, a weekly tabloid newspaper, Gabriel Communications produce the weekly broadsheet The Catholic Times, a bimonthly magazine Catholic Life, the annual Catholic Directory for England and Wales, several monthly diocesan publications, the Catholic Education Service Newsletter, and the reports of the National Conference of Priests.

The Universe is seen as the company's “flagship publication.” It was first published in 1860.

At its peak, during the inter-war years, The Universe was selling over 250,000 copies a week, but sales have been falling dramatically in the last decade and are now below 100,000. Despite this The Universe outsells all other British religious publications, including The Church Times, official publication of the Church of England.

Gabriel Communications and The Universe are 51% owned, via the Catholic Media Trust, by the English and Welsh hierarchy, with the majority of the other shares held by Catholic religious orders. What is surprising is that the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) is accusing Gabriel Communications of ignoring Catholic social teaching because the company won't recognize the trade union or its representatives.

Another reason for the NUJ using Catholic social teaching as a weapon against Gabriel Communications’ management is that the NUJ is a union of journalists — the first people to spot “an angle” or a weakness in a line of argument. NUJ organizer John Turner was quick to point out that auxiliary bishop John Jukes of Southwark, chairman of the English and Welsh hierarchy's World of Work Committee, has regularly been quoted in The Universe calling on Catholics to join trade unions and urging employers to negotiate with them.

Turner said: “It is sheer hypocrisy for management of Gabriel to ignore the teaching of their own bishops.”

However, in many ways the NUJ can be considered hypocrites for quoting Catholic teaching. The union is rooted in the guild tradition and as a result its most basic work-place units are known as “chapels.” But for many years, there has been a bitter power struggle at national level between moderates and militant left-wing activists, many of whom belong to the Socialist Workers Party (SWP).

Much to the embarrassment of Irish journalists, thanks to the activities of the SWP, a Trotskyist party, the NUJ has a policy, albeit much ignored by its leadership, of lobbying for the introduction of abortion in Ireland. In 1995, SWP members at the NUJ's annual delegate meeting were successful in passing a motion calling on all journalists to promote information about abortion services. The only delegate to speak against the motion was this journalist. The London-based union's policies on abortion are one reason why some Irish journalists, including this one, are calling for an autonomous Irish union.

Notwithstanding the NUJ's posturing, there are real concerns among the English and Welsh hierarchy about the industrial dispute. Asked about Gabriel Communication management's failure to recognize its workers’ trade union, Bishop Jukes said: “I regret that. The general teaching of the Church is that unions are a good thing.”

The bishop also echoed staff concerns that The Universe, under its current editor Joe Kelly, was becoming increasingly secular in content, saying that it could face problems with distribution via parishes if the trend continued: “If they move away from a Catholic output, the paper will die.”

Following last week's ballot on strike action and the resulting publicity, Gabriel Communications issued a press statement saying “the company does not discourage union membership.” But NUJ organizer John Toner said the company was attempting “to create a smokescreen.”

Cian Molloy writes from Dublin and is former editor of an Irish edition of The Universe. He currently works with The Irish Catholic newspaper and is treasurer of the Irish Executive Committee of the NUJ.