Nov 1996

Department of No Help

YES, WELL, Phil Sutcliffe warned us. But some of us thought it didn't apply to us. So the Central Office of Information have started charging freelance journalists, have they?

Well, ever quick to fall in line, the Department of National Heritage - yes, Lady Virginia's own fiefdom -- are now also in the business of charging freelances, if they could. Like a lamb to the slaughter, this freelance put in a request last week to be part of the DNH's press mailing list -- as she was with the old Department of Arts and Libraries.

Back came the answer. Sorry, the answer is "No". "What do you mean, No?" asked this innocent. "You can't. I'm an experienced arts journalist, of some fifteen years' standing, attached mainly to the Glasgow Herald in London on a freelance basis but supplying various other publications besides. You can't do this. You're a government department in receipt of public funds and supposed to be offering a public service."

"Our budgets have been cut," said the worthy. "We can't afford to send press releases to freelances. We've cut them from our lists, We only send now to magazines. You can get information on the internet." "I'm not on the internet," I said.

Back and forth it went, until I insisted on talking to the apparatchik's superior. After another long exchange about the principle of being given access to government arts policy in a free, open, democratic society, the Senior Press Officer graciously agreed to add my name to the list.

"I take your point," he said, "but I'm going to have to take the Nuremberg defence." "And what would that be? Defence of the indefensible?" "Something like that," he laughed.

But really, it's no laughing matter. Self-employed freelances working from home are increasingly being excluded from information. I don't know what the answer is -- other than not letting the, get away with it and robustly, as they like to say these days, arguing one's own case. Have other freelances, I wonder, suffered from other cost-conscious government departments?

Carole Woddis

For those of you who have not resigned your internet subscriptions in protest, there are links to government departments with electronic press releases at http://www.coi.gov.uk/coi/depts/deptlist.html .

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