Journalists are all overpaid, right?

CAN badly-paid journalists be the guardians of a free press that defends democracy? Can a change in the law help? Those are the questions that we'll be debating at the House of Commons on Monday 11 July - see LFB meetings page for details.

First, of course, we have to dispel the belief that all journalists have six-figure salaries and bottomless expense accounts. You noticed? Duly dispelled.

The Freelance Fees Guide section on local papers boils down to "Don't do it" and staff salaries on local weeklies are frequently ridiculous by the standards of super- market shelf- stackers. The International Federation of Journalists may have had Afghanistan in mind when it adopted its slogan "There can be no press freedom when journalists exist in conditions of corruption, poverty or fear" - but does that have to apply to Auchtermuchtie and even Acton as well?

The result is a tendency for local media to be produced by inexperienced people who are keen to leave and move on to a "proper job". The tradition of local paper work as the dues people pay to get into journalism is one reason managements can get away with such ridiculous rates.

That they go on to employ and engage as few people as they think they can get away with means that staff are overworked. Members of Parliament should be particularly concerned that their electorates could end up badly informed or treated to a diet of agency stories on national issues.

National papers aren't the bed of roses that non-journalists may think, either. The Guardian/Observer has an agreement with the NUJ setting a minimum rate of £255 per 1000 words, including the 6.5 per cent uplift for web and other re-use.

For a 500-word story, that represents 26 hours' work at the current minimum wage and including all the time a freelance reporter must spend on administration, pitching stories, keeping in touch with things that might or might not make stories... As a rule of thumb, if you spend much more than that 12 hours on the actual story, you're getting less than minimum wage.

The rate may be OK if you're called up to do a top-of-the-head Opinion piece for the Monday edition on something easy like "why videogames really are ruining our culture- which will pay considerably more anyway. But it means that actual investigation - you know, what journalism's supposed to be about - risks being the preserve of a very few staffers and those freelances who do it because they can't sleep at night if they don't. Pressure to fill the most pages for the least outlay means that the rest of the papers constitute the ever-expanding domain of opinion and actors' agents' press releases. This, too, should be of concern to MPs.

And at the Independent, which will not formally negotiate with the union on freelance matters - because it doesn't legally have to - rates are worse. As the Guardian experience shows, negotiations take time to raise rates. Would progress be accelerated if clients were obliged to negotiate minimum terms agreements for freelances, as they are for staff?

Many of our sister unions in joined-up Europe hold annual national negotiations that cover freelances. One reason for this is that their authors' rights laws mean that publishers have to get agreement on syndication, online re-use and the integrity of journalists' work.

In the UK, we'd expect the publishers to complain that since freelances are in law businesses, such negotiations would be a "cartel". But we're not the Pennsylvania Railroad or Bell Telephone: we're lone individuals restricted to negotiating individually with some of the most powerful corporations on earth.

Is it time the law was changed to redress the balance?

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