Cheques, Cheats, Charters and the BBC

[graphic: Birtists Blagging

THE BBC's World Service has a reputation for old-fashioned journalistic virtues: things like truth and balance and integrity. The reputation is at odds with the reality, however, for "Aunty" under John Birt is now using its own, sleazy variation on the copyright cheque cheat.

Over the past few weeks, World Service managers have been sending out contributors' contracts which contain -- as Churchill put it -- a "terminological inexactitude". In plain English, a lie.

The terms and conditions for freelance assignments are set out in 50 lines of microscopically small type -- followed by five lines of bold caps, which read:

If you agree to the above offers of engagement, you do not need to sign and return this contract.

A payment cheque accompanies this contract.

Encashment of the cheque will constitute your acceptance of the above offer of engagement on the terms and conditions stated.

Presumably, the BBC lawyers who wrote this tosh are aware of the 1872 Bills of Exchange Act. If so, they will know that the law specifically prohibits the use of a cheque for any other purpose than the payment of money. A cheque cannot be used as part of a contract, and it certainly can't be used as a means of assigning copyright. Since the BBC management presumably knows all this, the inference is that they are knowingly sending contracts with the intention of duping freelances into acquiescence.

"That is exactly why it is so important for freelance journalists to resist," said NUJ freelance organiser Jake Ecclestone.

"It's sad that the BBC management has sunk to the level of seedy confidence tricks on the men and women who actually make the programmes, but NUJ members should be clear about how to respond," he said.

"First, bank the cheque. Second, return the contract (keep a copy) with a covering note repudiating the terms and conditions relating to copyright. Third, send me copies of everything."

The NUJ has been trying to get a meeting with the BBC top brass to discuss copyright for more than six months. Oddly, they keep avoiding us.

The World Service contracts are only part of the problem. Other parts of the BBC are introducing "all rights" contracts for freelances, though the good news is that they are willing to back off if challenged. One NUJ freelance, who has been producing features for Radio 4 and Radio Five Live for the past five years, spotted the change and rang the BBC in Manchester. "Yes," they said, "we've been told to take all rights whenever possible." That means they get all rights unless the freelance is sufficiently awake to challenge them. In this case the BBC backed off.

A linked problem which has blown up without warning is the BBC's decision to end "repeat fees". For many contributors, freelance rates for first use are so poor that it is only the repeat fees which make working for the BBC an economic proposition.

Freelance journalists who have traditionally been employed on contracts which specify repeat fees are advised to reject contracts which demand all rights for a one-off flat fee. The Union is taking these issues up at the British Copyright Council and seeking meetings with BECTU, the Writers' Guild and the Society of Authors.

Jake Ecclestone is a victim of the all-rights policy. After a discussion programme on Radio 4, he was sent a contract which required him to assign his copyright. He is refusing to sign. "At no stage was copyright ever mentioned. I put myself to some trouble to help with a current affairs programme, and the BBC responds like some back-street publisher. This is an indication of how low the professional and ethical standards of the BBC have now sunk," he said.

Freelance editor Mike Holderness has made it his habit neatly to score out the copyright assignment in BBC Talks contracts before signing it and returning them. He has, thus far, always been paid for the first use on this basis. This story, however, reminds him that Five Live failed even to send a contract for his last appearance. . .

May/Jun 1997

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