Since first coming to prominence courtesy of his involvement in a bonfire funding row followed by the loyalist flags protest, Jamie Bryson has expressed views that many have taken umbrage to. Thus far outrage has not suffocated alternative and provocative voices. It is always a vital sign for societal health that the widest range of views are considered, and their authors not institutionally disadvantaged for having the temerity to express them.
Recently Bryson was arrested by British police, ostensibly investigating East Belfast UVF activity. He has claimed that laptops seized during an attendant search of his home contain material which should fall under the rubric of journalistic privilege and that the PSNI therefore should not be allowed to trawl through the contents on a fishing expedition: a barrister should first be allowed to peruse and then determine what is relevant to a bona fide investigation.
Bryson's statement on journalistic privilege has prompted ire within the Belfast branch of the NUJ, with its secretary Ciaran O Maolain insisting that the branch would not be offering the loyalist blogger any assistance.
The Branch does not regard Bryson as a journalist, has no intention of supporting his claim to journalistic privilege or otherwise assisting him in any way.
This seemed a rushed and unsolicited response given that Bryson had not asked for NUJ help.
I haven't even asked for representation from the NUJ at this stage. All I want is to be accepted as an equal to other members on the same level of membership … As things stand I'm quite happy with the legal representation I'm getting, but I would like to have the option open through the NUJ should it be relevant further down the line.
The current animus towards Bryson would appear to be a carryover from an earlier conflict prompted by his having applied to join the union. Then O Maolain objected strenuously to Bryson being approved membership, feeling sufficiently moved to tender his resignation from the National Executive Council. Moreover, Belfast NUJ had taken to social media to vehemently dispute that Bryson was a member despite the loyalist writer having paid his monthly dues and appearing to meet all other membership criteria.
Bryson appealed the position of the Belfast branch. When his case was heard in London the NEC stated.
The NUJ can confirm that Jamie Bryson has been admitted as a freelance, temporary member. Jamie Bryson exercised his appeal against the decision of Belfast and District branch not to admit him to membership and his appeal has been successful.
The NEC also held that the Belfast Branch had behaved entirely appropriately. O Maolain responded by claiming:
Jamie Bryson is not a proper person to be in the union and his membership should have been rejected because he is not a journalist.
Nevertheless, Bryson’s argument prevailed against what Newton Emerson described as this "dubious objection."
It is absolutely clear that I meet the criteria. I have followed the NUJ’s own rules and processes and quite rightly been ratified as a member.
This is what makes the attitude of the Belfast branch less appropriate than the NEC ruled it to be first time around. Then it had arguable grounds, albeit ultimately rejected, for opposing Bryson’s membership. Having lost the battle of definition the Belfast branch has little in its arsenal upon which it can call to justify its assertion that it would offer no help to a fellow NUJ member citing journalistic privilege against state intrusion. Bryson is a NUJ member regardless of who likes it and should be afforded the same entitlements as all other members of a similar status.
Bryson might not be the type of member the Belfast branch prefers to have on its books but it seems indisputable that he has lifted the lid on issues in a way that many of his NUJ colleagues were unable to. In relation to the NAMA controversy he could argue:
I believe I have demonstrated a clear web of individuals, including politicians, who have contrived and conspired together to get things done and increase their own bank balances by a nod and a wink schemes.
When he delivered his series of explosive allegations before the Stormont Finance Committee they caused a storm.
If that is not the stuff that good investigative journalism is moulded from, the NUJ might bizarrely find itself calling upon external investigators to investigate the disappearance of investigative journalism.
Moreover, Bryson's commitment to the sacrosanct journalistic principle of source protection was admirable. Believable in his claim that he would see the inside of a jail cell before compromising his sources, he asserted:
I am giving relevant information to this committee which sources, extremely close and involved in this nefarious deal, have provided to me as whistleblowers … I am not in a position to breach somebody’s confidence before this committee.
That is the sort of person the NUJ should be taking into its ranks with open arms.
Seamus Dooley, the general secretary of the union in Ireland has adopted a much more consistent and logical approach:
If an application for support or assistance is received from Jamie Bryson it will be considered in the normal way.
The Belfast branch, where in the past much great union work has its provenance, should consider pulling its horns in on this one. There are bigger fish to fry.
Anthony McIntyre blogs @ The Pensive Quill.