Tuesday 3 May 2016

A house divided against itself: Liverpool CAMRA

An eye-catching MerseyAle cover
I'm finding it disturbing to hear of serious splits in the ranks of Merseyside's biggest and undoubtedly most influential CAMRA branch: Liverpool and Districts. John Armstrong has been editor of the branch magazine MerseyAle since 2003 and has produced forty six editions. He tells me that the branch committee has decided without any reference to, or consultation with, him to discontinue the magazine in its current form. From now on, the committee will produce a much reduced magazine:
  • Major change to the content from the present emphasis on campaigning to a focus on social activities and sound bite news.
  • A cut in the number of pages from 56 to around 24.
  • Printing a much reduced number of copies (probably less than half the current 11,000 print run which attracts advertisers) with reduced print and paper quality.
  • The style to be dumbed down to suit those who find anything more than 140 characters a challenge to read, with sound bite-style news which will date rapidly.
  • The Branch Committee taking over the editorial control of the magazine and its content.
John has stated that there is no problem with funding, the magazine is popular with readers and advertisers (something I have observed myself), and there has been no pressure for change from any source. The decision about MerseyAle was made by the committee alone and excluded him, the magazine's editor, as well as everyone else in the branch. I'd have thought it would have been better to refer such a big decision to an all-members' meeting. After all, if you're certain you are doing the right thing, surely you'd have nothing to fear from a bit of democracy.

Storm in a teacup, you may say. Perhaps, but it is certainly significant locally. I find this quite a bizarre decision, and precisely the kind of thing you get from committees that are so often stronger on criticism than action. In support of this last point, I'd mention that at the Roscoe Head demo a few months ago, which was supported by many CAMRA members from across and beyond Merseyside alongside those from Liverpool branch, the Liverpool branch chair was conspicuous by her absence - even though this is a major campaign that has attracted national attention about a pub that is one of only five to have been in every edition of the Good Beer Guide.

I expect this committee will find that the constant commitment of producing a magazine, even in a reduced form, requires rather more effort and imagination than they envisage. Yes, the first few of issues will undoubtedly look different and be produced without too much trouble, but the relentless schedule will, in time, become wearing. What they probably see as a great revolutionary idea - taking control of the branch's mouthpiece - will become a burdensome chore. I'd hazard a guess that they will reach this stage about 3 to 5 issues in. They will then realise that sacking a committed editor because he exercised a certain degree of autonomy was a mistake: the long-term commitment of an editor doing the job for nothing requires autonomy to maintain his or her interest; it's different when an editor is paid because the salary provides the incentive. Everyone's an enthusiastic expert, until they have to get their finger out themselves.

So many CAMRA magazines across the country are interchangeable, and consequently quite uninteresting. Although I've had my occasional differences with MerseyAle, one thing you can say is that it has always been distinctive. I cannot see that being maintained by the new regime: committees and imagination rarely go hand in hand.

The first results of this decision are that there have been resignations, a lot of support for John from advertisers, and a lot of bemused or angry members. You simply do not treat volunteers in this way, unless you have an agenda: I strongly suspect that this is all part of an attempt to sweep away the old guard, some of whom have been active in the branch since the 70s, 80s and 90s, but even if I'm wrong, it is a disgraceful way to thank someone who has freely given so much time and effort for so many years to producing the magazine. If John had been paid as editor, he'd have an excellent case for unfair dismissal.

I expect it will all end up in tears. In the meantime, a good magazine, which has won awards, will be lost.


  1. A magazine written by committee - what could possibly go wrong? 🤔

  2. A beardie coup! Do some digging, we need the bloody details.

  3. Can't help feeling there's more to this. Wonder what IOM CAMRA will think as they effectively shared the magazine.

  4. Like John I reckon there is something we don't know underpinning this.

    As Cookie says, get digging.

  5. Out of curiosity, besides one-line in Merseyale, what support did Liverpool CAMRA offer to the other pub that was sold at the same time as the Roscoe's Head???

    I'm sure that this is political, however it's easy to fixate on the issue being with the committee's decision as opposed to the decisions of the person editing the magazine...

  6. This at the moment is a one sided argument, A very dangerous position to make a decision from. There are a few inaccurate statements in what has been stated in this article , to name a couple . John has not been sacked or moved on . No decision has been made as to the future formatt print run,size or anything else about Merseyale . All is up for discussion with Johns participation if he so wishes

  7. Ex-committee CAMRA: as I say nowhere in the article that John has been "sacked or moved on", that is not an inaccuracy in the article. I did make a comment about a hypothetical unfair dismissal case, had John been an employee: unfair dismissal can apply when the treatment of an employee leaves him or her no choice but to resign from a job.

    As for the future size and print run of MerseyAle in future, I received this information from John himself. I suspect he is in a better position than you, ex-committee member, to know the what is being proposed.

    1. I think the important thing all all this mess. Is the fact that branch committee are PLANNING a detailed investigation into all facets of MA .Nothing but nothing has been decided yet

  8. I love how the beards manage succession. Proper Game of Beards & ripping the crown from bloodied corpses.

  9. Polotik at work in CAMRA? Surely not...

  10. The editor of a branch magazine has autonomy within the scope of what the Branch wish to put out. That is not an editorial autonomy to pursue an agenda beyond what the branch wishes.

    It is the active members that distribute the edition and contribute to its contents. The resulting publication is a team effort.

    The new publication will be a more effective tool in the fight against Evil Keg.

    1. Who is suggesting an editor should have the right to go beyond what the branch wishes? No one. Let's not invent spurious points of debate.

      CAMRA's policy goes far beyond fighting "Evil Keg". A magazine based on that alone would be on the fast track to the recycling bin.

    2. Surely "fighting evil keg" contravenes the national CAMRA policy against "anti-campaigns" ;-)

  11. Following that "Evil Keg" comment I suggest I was in the room, leave the room as soon as possible!

  12. In reply to any who have suggested that I'm exaggerating and that this issue is no more than a topic for discussion, I produce an extract from Liverpool Branch chair Sonia James Henry's e-mail to the Liverpool Branch Committee on April 11th:

    "As I said when I agreed to take on the Chair of this branch, I want to see changes made to MA, currently, and this is my personal opinion of which I believe I am entitled, it is NOT fit for purpose in terms of the campaign and moving this branch forward."

    Note she wrote, "I want to see changes", and not "I want to discuss possible changes".

  13. Scouse Boozer5 May 2016 at 13:37

    It was crap and can only improve with a fresh approach.

  14. As Editor of MerseyAle I have followed the comments with interest. May I focus the debate on this Key Issue.

    The Nub - Is MerseyAle Fit for Purpose ?

    NO - says the Chair of Liverpool CAMRA Branch Committee, Sonia James Henry

    YES - say the 40,00 readers of MerseyAle and the deluge of email comments received by the Editor.

    The Chair of the Liverpool CAMRA Committee, Sonia James Henry made her intention to kill off MerseyAle clear to Committee members, but not to the Editor, who has been excluded from all Committee communications since February. She stated in an email to Committee on 11th April:

    “as I said when I agreed to take on the Chair of this branch, I want to see changes made to MA, currently, and this is my personal opinion of which I believe I am entitled, it is NOT fit for purpose in terms of the campaign and moving this branch forward” (sic) - email from Sonia James Henry to Liverpool Branch Committee, April 11th)

    Very few people in Liverpool would agree with her opinion of MerseyAle being "NOT fit for purpose in terms of the campaign " nor with her vindictive vandalism in destroying an award winning magazine.

    This action also raises serious questions as to how the Liverpool Committee is being run.

    A CAMRA member respondent to the CAMRA Regional Director and to the Editor, commented:

    "The new chairperson, it appears, is making decisions for, and running the branch as a dictator, rather than as a facilitator which is a chairperson's role. This is most certainly not how any egalitarian organisation should be run.

    I am particularly disappointed with the regard to the closure of MerseyAle, a most enlightening publication, which I have enjoyed reading for many years. Like myself, many people within the branch, Liverpool, Merseyside and other nearby regions have relied on MerseyAle for current information. This has been cancelled without any, let alone full consultation, against the wishes of several committee, and a larger number of branch members"

    Well there you have it. Yes or No ? Is MerseyAle Fit For Purpose?

    Should you want to make your views known please contact the CAMRA Regional Director Ian Garner

    by email ianjools@hotmail.co.uk

    or by post to Ian Garner c/o CAMRA, 230 Hatfield Road St Albans Hertfordshire, AL1 4LW.

    As Editor I should point out that money is NOT an issue in this decision. The current MerseyAle pays for itself through advertising and other income. This is thanks to the hard work of the Editor and especially Jean Pownceby, the Advertising Manager, who has now resigned in protest at the Committee's decision on MerseyAle and also resigned from the Liverpool CAMRA Committee on the basis of the inappropriate way in which the Committee is being run. Both of us are unpaid volunteers who do these roles out of commitment.

    John Armstrong
    MerseyAle Editor

  15. You and other interested parties Nev, could always call an EGM and ask for a Vote of No Confidence in the current Chairwoman and her committee. I would be surprised if all the committee shared her views, anyway.

    Not knowing the ins and outs of the situation, I can’t really comment any further, but it does seem ludicrous to change, out of all recognition, an award-winning local CAMRA publication, on the dictatorial whim of one person.

  16. Bit too much dirty linen being washed in public here I think. Not sure John Armstrong's rabble rousing is going to do him any favours either. All very entertaining though.

  17. I like a bit of rabble rousing too, but generally agree John. I reckon though if feelings are that high, an EGM is the only way. A start would be a motion to a full Branch meeting to test the waters. There are many ways to do this that don't involve dirty linen being washed in public.

    Fascinating though.

  18. An EGM might be a way forward, but as I'm a member of a neighbouring branch, I couldn't be the one to call it. I understand the point about dirty linen being washed in public, but on the other hand, this decision was made by the committee in camera. Dirty linen in public is preferable to decisions made behind closed doors.

  19. It should be played out in public. Its education for us retail customers as to how the campaign minority bit of it works should we ever have an interest.

    Well done Nev for bringing it public!

  20. There is a lot of inaccurate information in this article. This includes additional comments by the editor which are also incorrect. Merseyale is been reviewed, it will continue. No decision has been made on size or format. The editor has refused to engage the process. Merseyale is not self financing, it makes a loss. Anyone who was at the branch AGM would have seen the accounts which backs this up. It is a decision that the WHOLE committee has agreed.

    1. What you say is contrary to what I've been told by several people (not just one person) who are prepared to give their names, and therefore are prepared to stand up and be counted. You hide behind anonymity - I wonder why? I know who I'm prepared to trust.

  21. RedNev, Which bits do you see as contrary? You have obviously chosen to believe what you want. Don't let the truth get in the way of a blog.

    1. If you read what Anon has written, and also read what I wrote in the original post, you will see that the two accounts don't match up. Those bits contradict each other - it's a simply matter of comparison.

      I don't choose to believe anything; I have reported what I have been told by several different people who are directly and closely involved, and whose accounts don't contradict each other.

    2. The following is taken from Liverpool CAMRA website, signed by ALL of the committee. I think you will find this is the official source:
      A Message from Liverpool and Districts CAMRA Committee.

      "MerseyAle is, and will remain one of the main campaigning tools of Liverpool and Districts CAMRA. The committee is currently undertaking a review. We are committed to MerseyAle's future and plan to consult widely.


      Sonia James-Henry (Branch Chair)
      Carol Cherpeau
      Mike Chandler
      Sue Daniels
      Steve Downing
      Geoff Edwards
      Andre Fu
      Mel James-Henry
      Howard Perry
      Tony Morgan
      Ian Rayner
      Tony Williams

    3. Am I supposed to be persuaded by that, Hob? I'd already seen it because I did some investigation in advance of writing. You trust all 'official' sources, do you? My opinion is that a wide-ranging review that begins with the chair declaring that the magazine is not fit for purpose (actual quote I have seen in an e-mail from her) has already eliminated one possibility: that of keeping it as it is.


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