Rant no 3

Will the bad treatment and arrogant exploitation of freelance writers never end? After all, just about every publication is more or less completely dependent on outside contributors these days.

But you would not think so, from the cavalier way we are treated. 

The other week I wrote about the deafening silence which often accompanies pitching an idea. But in many cases, that’s as nothing to what happens when you are asked, nay commissioned, to do a piece.  It goes into the ether and you never hear from your commissioning editor again.

More often than not, no acknowledgement of any kind comes your way, not even an email saying something like: thank you for the piece, I’ll read it later and get back to you. 

This lack of courtesy is by no means new, but whereas at one time it was an occasional rudeness, it is now rapidly becoming the norm. In my book Ladies of the Street, I quote the example of Katharine Whitehorn, a leading columnist on the Observer for three decades, and a household name. After she left the Observer she was asked by the paper to do a big piece on nursing. Now, anybody who has followed Whitehorn’s career will know that she sat on many nursing and hospital committees, and was something of an expert on the NHS.

So anything she wrote on the subject was likely to be well researched, well written, pacey and relevant to the readers.

Anyway, she duly wrote the piece and sent it in. Weeks of silence went by. When she eventually rang to say it would lose its topicality if it didn’t go in soon, she received the following justification from the features editor: “Really, Katharine, I’ve got 24 freelances telling me why their piece has to go in this week.”

Whitehorn received this crass response in 1997 and it rankled long enough for her to include it in her book Selective Memory, published in 2008. Most of us who have been struggling on as freelances since that time would never remember an isolated example, simply because this kind of treatment has become so common.

What do you do?  It’s one thing for an editor to ignore your idea, but completely unforgivable for them to ignore an entire piece they have asked you to write. I can only pass on my strategies, learned of long and bitter experience.

If I hear back from an editor asking for the piece—- and after I have picked myself up from the floor in shock at receiving a response at all - my next email would be to arrange the fee. However urgently they may want it, they can’t have it until I have secured this vital piece of information.  Then, if there is dead silence after I have sent in the piece – and after I have also sent them a reminder - I contact another publication for whom this item might also be suitable, especially if the piece is topical, as indeed, most journalism is, by its nature. 

So, you might ask, what if they both run it? So? So what? In my time, I have had an identical piece appearing in the Daily Mail and the Daily Express on the same day – and I am not the only journalist to whom this has happened. It is entirely their own fault.  I have also had identical pieces appearing in different magazines, in every case where the editor sat on it and sat on it and sat on it, never contacted me and was deaf, dumb and blind to my entreaties.

I always hope that when this sort of thing happens, the section editor concerned gets the most extreme bollocking, as they richly deserve. Of course, if the offender is the head honcho, the actual editor, he (or she) is not going to bollock himself, but it may be a lesson to him to behave in future.

OK, you as the little person will not always win but you have to let them know you will not put up with being treated like dirt – in the politest possible way of course.  If the worst comes to the worst, I write an aggrieved email asking if this is the way they would like to be treated themselves. I copy it to everybody who might have some influence, going as high up as I can.

That’ll larn ‘em! Well, sometimes …

But if they keep getting away with it, why should they mend their ways?

As ever, I blame the parents for the way this lack of acknowledgement has become standard. As a child, I was made to sit down and write thank-you letters to all the aunts and uncles who had sent me 10 bob book tokens for Christmas. The result was that it became ingrained in me to acknowledge letters, requests and later, emails. 

In turn, I made my sons do the same. It was often a painful exercise, but it paid dividends. But apparently the practice of children being forced to write thank you letters has died out completely, according to a lengthy correspondence on the subject recently in The Guardian.

I just think that today’s commissioning editors never got into the habit of saying thank you as children, and they have taken this discourtesy into their professional, adult lives. But we must all protest, as loudly as we can, to end this disgraceful practice.

Gentlemen Ranters web site