Journalists traditionally exercise a healthy rivalry with their colleagues while on stories, but in their off-duty hours they invariably meet socially, especially when their work takes them away from home. So it was in July 1883 when a group of reporters covering the Royal Agricultural Show in York that year, after a day spent tramping around the muddy show ground, returned to their hotel for a relaxing bath and meal, after which they gathered in the bar. Over their drinks conversation inevitably turned, as it invariably does on such occasions, to some of the difficulties they met in carrying out their work – important matters such as access to information, allegations (usually ill-founded) of mis-reporting, and, in particular, instances of distress involving colleagues and their dependants. In the forefront of their thoughts was the knowledge that at that time there was no corporate voice or organisation to represent them nor any kind of provident fund – other than the customary whip-round – to benefit colleagues who had fallen on hard times.
The seeds at York prospered. After informal meetings a provisional committee was set up to investigate the organisation of a representative body. Although their ideas were sometimes coolly received by some of their colleagues they persisted and the largest meeting of journalists ever held in Britain was arranged at the Grand Hotel in Birmingham in October 1884 at which the National Association of Journalists- “which shall consist of gentlemen engaged in journalistic work” – was inaugurated “to promote and advance the common interests of the profession”. Influential London journalists then began to take a more active interest in the fledgling organisation: at a meeting in the capital in March 1886 it was decided to appoint the first salaried general secretary, with offices in Fleet Street, and launch a regular journal to keep members informed. Two years later its name was changed to the Institute of Journalists, which received a royal charter, from Queen Victoria in 1890.
There was little open government at this time and the Institute’s early tasks including remedying problems over the exclusion of reporters from courts and meetings of public bodies, as well as journalists’ contracts and linage payments. The initial need for ways of ameliorating distress remained in the forefront of their objectives and saw the introduction of a benevolent fund in 1898 and unemployment benefits in 1910. Another early requirement was for help for the orphans of journalists, and an orphan fund was established in 1891 with initial donations from two early presidents: it is now the wealthiest of the Institute’s charities and for many years enjoyed the royal patronage of Queen Mary and later Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.
In more recent times journalism has undergone a technological revolution. The inception of the Institute came about at a time of sociological revolution. It was an era of cheap journalism and circulation warfare when a profusion of new publications appeared most of them with a short life span. There was intense competition for jobs in which the trained journalist had a hard time of it.
Most true journalists then regarded their calling as a profession: it was generally held that the Institute’s existence had raised the tone of journalism, which was also better respected by the public. But it faced a dilemma over both its role and its membership. The founding pioneers had been adamant that membership should be available to all working journalists. The fact that this description also embraced editors and proprietors met with considerable criticism but it was argued that it would have been a travesty not regard journalists like C.P.Scott of the Manchester Guardian as anything but a working journalist. Proprietor members were never numerically strong, although they were often influential. A solution was eventually found in the creation of autonomous Salaries and Conditions Board to deal with salary levels and working conditions from which any member with “hiring and firing” responsibilities was excluded. Nowadays the whole scene has changed with the widespread introduction of individual contracts.
Journalism might have joined other professions whose members were examined before admission, but Institute members prevaricated for a decade over the introduction of entrance examinations, and the matter was eventually shelved. It took another fifty years before entry qualifications were introduced for all journalists through the setting up by the entire industry of the National Council for the Training of Journalists, on which the Institute has always played a prominent part.
These problems coincided with an era of more militant trade unionism and the origins of socialism. The Institute founders had firmly rejected all-out unionism in favour of open membership for all engaged journalism and a non-political policy. Advocates of trade unionism became increasingly blunt with those journalists who sincerely regarded their calling as a profession. Inevitably a breach occurred and discontented elements formed the rival National Union of Journalists in 1910 amid the euphoric atmosphere of the advent of socialism and the growth of local trades and labour councils and the Trades Union Congress.
Both organisations pursued the interests of their respective members independently, although from time to time the prospect of one organisation of journalists was advocated by proponents in both organisations. Four attempts have been made (in 1921, 1928, 1943, and 1966) to merge the independent Institute with the more politically aligned Union. All were unsuccessful. The last one almost succeeded: dual membership was agreed for an interim period during which the Institute ceased its trade union activities in favour of the NUJ and concentrated on professional and ethical matters for both. The “trial marriage” lasted almost five years while detailed negotiations continued but divisions again emerged in both groups and the plans were finally scuttled at a late stage by militant union activities.
After this setback the Institute was speedily restored to its independent status and resumed its trade union role.
A resulting benefit from the Institute’s professional role was the creation in 1973 of the Media Society, which had its origins within the Institute.
Freelance Journalists have always formed a significant part of the membership: a separate section for them was set up in 1943 and they are now one of the largest groups in the Institute. Other groups include sections for travel writers, motoring journalists, public relations and a history and heritage writers’ section.
The welfare of journalists generally, but particularly at times of personal distress-the main object of its founders a hundred and twenty years ago – has always been at the forefront of Institute of Journalists’ activities and still remains one of its prime concerns.