Call to arms

My Ranters piece on the ever-shrinking freelance fees has produced an impassioned response from many aggrieved writers who have witnessed the gradual disappearance of their income.

And it’s getting worse as ever more publications plead poverty and give any old excuse as to why they can’t pay a living wage or, indeed, any wage at all. Just this week, I read that Time Out wants an ‘enthusiastic graduate’ for a three-month internship. Office experience is essential, as is a ‘sound knowledge of London’s retail landscape’. The full-time job is unpaid.

How many enthusiastic graduates will rush to apply, I wonder?

Now that ever more former staffers are being forced into freelance activity through redundancies and swingeing job cuts, we cannot just sit back and let the accountants decimate our fees.

So here’s what we do. We know that unilateral action will get nowhere, and only collective action will produce results. So why don’t we all lay down tools on April 1, Maundy Thursday, and instead, congregate in the Harrow pub in Fleet Street where, coincidentally, Colin Dunne’s book launch is being held?

In the olden days, Maundy Thursday was traditionally a journalist’s day off as there was no paper on Good Friday. Murdoch and Maxwell changed all that, as indeed they did with working on Christmas Day.

Here’s what my son Tom had to say in an email when he read my piece on Ranters:

Hi Mum

I contacted the freelance organiser at the NUJ and he said that he has tried and failed to get a strike going.

I suggested to him that we think about a one-day strike which is perhaps combined with an afternoon in a Fleet Street boozer, and I said that you and your gang of old hacks would be up for it.

Tom lists the reasons – which will be familiar to all freelances these days -  for downing tools in protest:

Here are a few common grumbles:

  • Tumbling rates. The Telegraph, for example, now pays just £250 per
    thousand words. This means low quality features and low quality news,
    both of which will depend ever more heavily on press releases. And
    poor freelancers.
  • Payment according to click. There is a horrifying new trend where
    bloggers’ fees depend on how many readers their piece attracts, which 

    quite clearly means that they will tend to write sensational bits of
    opinion which go heavy on key phrases like "David Cameron". The medium
    will profoundly influence the message.
  • A startling lack of courtesy from commissioning editors. My own
    example: I wrote a 1,600 word piece for the Telegraph Review section
    and filed it five weeks ago. Since then I have heard not a peep
    despite four emails chasing up.
  • Late payment.
  • Commissioning a certain amount of words, printing a cut-down version
    and then paying only for the reduced version. This trick was played on
    me by the New Statesman.
  • Simply not paying. Esquire took eighteen months to pay me for a
    piece, and only then after the NUJ got heavy with them.
  • Extra low payments for blogs. The Guardian offered me £85 for a five
    hundred word opinion piece (for their Comment is Cheap section). This
    sticks in the craw a little when you consider that the site is
    completely plastered in advertising and also that Guardian MD Carolyn
    McCall takes home over a million quid a year.

    We need to stand up and protest against this new shoddy treatment, and
    a strike is the way to do it. Freelances also need to meet up and
    talk. The computer has separated us; hence the meeting in the pub.

    It’s time to fight back, and the best way to do that is to sit in the
    pub all afternoon, combining protest and merriment in time-honoured


    Tom Hodgkinson

Ranters reader Bob Dow had this to say:

Dear Liz,

Loved your piece on Gentlemen Ranters (always my first port of call on a Friday) and totally agree with you about the way good, hard working, honest freelances are being treated.

I was a staff man up here in Scotland for 30-years until I was dumped a year ago during a Daily Record cull. Since then I have found it astonishing the crappy rates that newspapers pay freelances and the unbelievable attitude and lack of respect towards us.

If you want to build up a head of steam on this then I am willing to lead the kilted hordes over Hadrian’s Wall…

Best wishes,

Bob Dow

Right, then. See you there, including the kilted hordes!

By the way, my other son Will told me about a successful freelance outcome at Mojo, a music magazine to which he contributes and which runs almost entirely on freelance contributions. Mojo, owned by the huge German conglomerate Bauer, had written round to all their contributors saying that not only were they buying all rights, but if an interviewee took legal action over any piece, the individual writer would be culpable.

This resulted in all the Mojo contributors getting together and refusing to write a single further word for the publication until they backed down – which they instantly did.

We know that very small, struggling publications cannot afford to pay writers much, or even anything, sometimes. That’s how it has always been with small magazines and how it always will be. But large multinational organisations, which are the ones we are talking about, are an entirely different matter.

They CAN pay but they WON’T pay – unless we make ‘em!


Gentlemen Ranters web site