An open letter from Steve Platt

To corporate bullies

AFTER an association with Channel 4 publications and websites dating back almost 12 years, I have been informed that I "won't be able to do any more writing work" for Channel 4.

Alice in Wonderland with hookah-smoking creature
"What's that," Alice asked the corporate lawyer, "in your pipe?"
Image: Sir John Tenniel (1820-1914)
The reason is nothing to do with the quality of my work. The same notice of dismissal flatters me with the description of "star writer". Nor is it to do with my expertise in particular areas, my knowledge of particular subjects, my availability, reliability, use of grammar, spelling, general demeanour, personal habits or even my unwillingness to carry (still less to answer) a mobile phone....

Rather, it is because of my refusal to sign a contract that was sent to me for the first time three hours before I was informed that my services would no longer be required.

Of course I'd heard that this new contract existed. In fact, just a few days earlier I'd been told by another longstanding Channel 4 freelance how he had been intimidated into signing it that day by the threat that he would not be paid for work already completed nor commissioned for any future work.

I was also aware that the NUJ, of which I am a member, had been trying to negotiate with Channel 4 over a rumoured new freelance contract since Easter.

The "contract" is the most one-sided that I ever seen produced by a reputable employer. Its clauses relating to the production of written work are an insult to any professional writer. (In respect of deadlines: "Time [is] of the essence." Oh really? Sorry, I skipped the lesson about deadlines at media school.) It loads all the responsibilities onto the freelance worker, while offering nothing in return. It takes all rights, everywhere, forever - even though (so I was told), in my case Channel 4 doesn't want to use them.

Well, like a lot of writers, I don't sell my copyright or moral rights, so this was always going to be a problem. (Why, though, does Channel 4 want them if it doesn't intend to use them? Lewis Carroll, are you watching?) But what decided me that someone, somehow should do something was the bullying, the intimidation - the "sign it or you'll never work for us again" attitude - that underlies it all.

So, with one of those "this is probably going to hurt me a lot more than it will you" feelings in the pit of my stomach, I said no, I'm not signing.

For now this affects the work I do for the Channel 4's Time Team magazine, Trench One. But I have no doubt that in time it will affect all the other work I do for Channel 4 as well. This week I have lost about a seventh of my annual income; if the rest follows, I will lose most of it.

I don't want to do this. I don't want to do it for financial reasons. I don't want to do it because I enjoy the work I do for Channel 4. I don't want to do it because I take great pride in a lot of what I have helped to achieve here - sometimes involving long, unsocial hours but always with a sense of being part of an equally committed team.

But sometimes we reach a point where we're simply not prepared to see ourselves or others kicked around any more. This is hardly one of the biggest issues in the world today, but if we never take a stand on the smaller issues how can we ever expect to do anything about the bigger ones?

Each of us has to make our minds up as to how far we go on issues such as these. I'm not asking anyone to do the same as me. However, refusing to take on any work that I lose as a result of this would be a massive boost.

I think it also goes without saying that the sooner we get ourselves organised collectively, the sooner we stop allowing the corporate bullies to pick us off one by one - at Channel 4 and anywhere else. A campaign for proper trade union recognition at Channel 4 seems like a sensible first step.

Channel 4 chief executive Mark Thompson says, "We're approaching the question of rights more open-mindedly." He probably means he's open-minded about how to go about grabbing them, but let's give him the benefit of the doubt.

Last modified: 14 September 2002 - © 2002 contributors
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