Ranters Rant - Karl Sabbagh

The recent experience of writer Karl Sabbagh should give all self-employed hacks pause.

Sabbagh, a noted expert on Middle Eastern affairs, and half-Palestinian, wrote to features editors of eight national broadsheet newspapers, enclosing a piece he had written about the 40th anniversary of the Libyan revolution, including details of how he had helped to set up Libyan television in that year.

He thought that the story of a young soldier who had deposed King Idris and set up his headquarters in the new television station, might be of interest, especially as that soldier’s name was Muammar Qadhafi. He also considered that a snail-mail approach might be novel enough these days for the editor in question actually to read the article, which would probably not happen with an email attachment. 

We are always told that ‘I wuz there’ will help a story walk into the paper, so what was the enthusiastic response from all those august publications? Precisely nothing. Nil. Zilch. Only one, the Financial Times, even bothered to reply, with a one-line email saying ‘Unable to use it.’

OK, so those of us who scribble for a living usually know better than to send in a whole piece on spec. However, Sabbagh is by no means an unknown, he has his own Wikipedia entry, and he probably thought that his expertise gave the article a good chance of publication.

However, his experience resonates with that of most freelance journalists these days. We are becoming surprised and shocked when we get any sort of response to an idea we may have the temerity to put up.

It seems to be standard practice these days not to acknowledge a freelance idea in any way, but to ignore it as if it was never received. In the olden days, at least you were told to piss off, in one of 50 different ways editors had of telling you to get lost.  And as Sabbagh discovered, this is not happening just to amateurs or wannabees, but to long-established professional writers who know when they have a good tale to tell.

With the collapse of the newspaper unions, the demise of secretaries and cutting staffing levels to the bone, it’s a miserable business being a freelance journalist these days. And that’s before they tell you the fee; usually half what you would have been paid 20 years ago- for all rights. And then if they do use outsiders, these are usually interns who are working for nothing anyway. Otherwise, it seems, all copy is written by staffers who don’t cost anything – or, at least, they don’t cost any extra.

And still newspapers can’t break even! Or, I wonder: could there be a connection between treating people badly and not breaking even? In the days when section editors invited you in to discuss ideas, or if they especially liked the sound of you, for coffee or lunch, newspapers had huge circulations and made loads of money for their owners. Now that they don’t pay anything, treat people without any courtesy or respect, and never reply to approaches by freelances, circulations are plunging ever downwards.

It’s as if everybody knows they are now cheapskate operations trying desperately, and failing, to make money from their websites, that people can no longer be bothered to buy these rags.

Now I know that it has never been easy being a freelance journalist. It has never been easy to make a living as a writer, full stop. That is nothing new, and those of us who have managed to scribble out a good income for ourselves over the years are very lucky indeed. What is new is the complete discourtesy with which many, if not most, newspaper and magazine offices operate.

They don’t want to see you, they don’t want new ideas and their fortresses have become completely impenetrable.

There are a few exceptions of course. Speaking from recent experience, I find that YOU magazine, part of the Mail on Sunday, is courteous and quick with its replies. But then I know the editor, Sue Peart, and she recognises my name. Rachel Johnson of The Lady is quick to respond but again, she knows my name. Boyd Tonkin at The Independent is also conscientious about responding. But see how I can name them individually, these exceptions that prove the rule? 

Most of the others have probably never heard of me and I suspect it’s the same with Karl Sabbagh. He is just too old, too much of a yesterday’s man for them to bother with him. He can be safely ignored, even if he does have a unique, historically important story to relate. A few celebrities such as Stephen Fry and Ian Hislop always get totally reverential treatment even though they don’t always deliver or if they do, it can be very substandard stuff. But never mind, the belief is that a ‘name’ will shift copies.

But God is not mocked, nor are the readers fooled.

What can we do? Some of the kids now on media courses will inevitably end up as editors, either of sections or supplements, or of whole publications. Could it not be taught on these courses that an email putting up an idea deserves a response – at least initially?

Do any Ranters have any suggestions as to how we can make editors sit up and take notice?

Gentlemen Ranters web site