What does it take?

CAN badly-paid journalists be the guardians of a free press? That was the subject of the Branch debate at the House of Commons on 11 July. It is a commonplace that democracy is meaningless unless voters are reliably informed on the issues - but how can they be when local paper staffers are so poorly paid and overworked and even the nationals' freelance rates presume off-the-top-of-the-head pieces (see piece in the July Freelance). And, given the venue: would a change in the law help? Discussion rapidly expanded to cover almost everything...

Robert Jones is Emeritus Fellow teaching the history of journalism at City University. He opened with reminiscences of working in Washington DC: the city "has changed not a whit since Kennedy's day, but... Back in 1979 there was a very effective minimum wage in Fleet Street - so much so that when I sent a student on attachment to the Sunday Times, the then editor Harry Evans decided he couldn't pay that student less than £250 a week, which caused a lot of aggro with the other students." In those days (too) the majority of regional journalists did not earn enough to bring up a family. They had to go into public relations or Fleet Street or broadcasting.

Opinion pieces are easier and also sell a lot of newspapers, because, Robert said, "they articulate emotions that their readers have". It is only at a times of crisis that the general public returns to demanding the kind of journalism that journalists want to provide.

Malcolm Bruce is Liberal Democrat MP for Gordon. He started training on the Liverpool Daily Post: "I didn't complete that training, because I came to the conclusion that I wasn't being trained, I was being exploited."

Weekly papers "don't really know what they're doing - are they ad sheets, or are they the local equivalent of Hello?" There is in Malcolm's constituency a town of 10,000 people that has three weekly papers.

Seeing such weeklies multiplying, Malcolm's first reaction is that this is good, a sign of a dynamic trade - but on the other hand "I don't even learn the names of the reporters. Even the editors aren't there long enough for me to phone them back."

"I don't think we can pass a law - but you must have the right rate for the job. You must be able to negotiate - and I don't know how achieve that. Whether in the news or the fashion pages you need professional standards that engage and inform people. I suspect a lot of good people fall out of the profession because they can't find anyone to pay them to do that."

John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and Secretary of the NUJ parliamentary group. There is an issue about attitudes to journalism, he said - and another about the legal framework.

Journalism at the moment is considered by many to be the province of rogues, vagabonds and thieves - as actors were described in Shakespeare's day. And there is also, deep within British culture, an adherence to freedom of expression and the press and right to a free press - but that is not reflected in a wide understanding of what it takes to make these happen.

"Somehow, over this coming period we need to run some form of campaign of appreciation for the rôle of the press in a democracy," he declared. "People won't recognise their loss until it is lost."

The issue about trade union rights goes back to the Thatcherite 1980s. The law still does not recognise the right to strike as it does across Europe; that leaves UK in breach of its International Labor Organization commitments. One response that trades unions are thinking about is to come forward with a Trade Union Freedom Bill in the Autumn. This would benefit individual journalists, making it easier to come together to make regional and national agreements that can be enforced.

Jeremy Dear concluded as General Secretary of the NUJ. "Undoubtedly," he said, "copyright and re-use of work have seen the biggest abuse of freelances," with rights grabs, false claims that signing the back of a cheque can impose a contract, and so on. The Guardian used to have an automatic system that sent out a letter saying "we now own the copyright" to all contributors - which led to the rights department sending a memo around the office asking whether anyone had a home address for the late Dylan Thomas...

Does the law protect freelances in such matters that are essential to a responsible and high-quality press? Jeremy's notes said "does it buggery" - but "I can't say that here."

The NUJ's wellbeing survey shows that all this is simply driving people out of the industry. Often those who leave are the most conscientious, those who will spend the time to get to the bottom of the story.

So what practical steps can be taken? Jeremy agreed with absolutely everything John said, and added:

  • We could try to extend trade union recognition legislation to cover a wider group of workers. So far we have been able to push to include some casuals - the Central Arbitration Committee drew an arbitrary line between two-and-a-half and three shifts a week.
  • We need to review how competition law is used.
  • We must increase penalties for late payments. Small businesses successfully lobbied to get the Late Payment of Commercial Debts Act passed, but the penalties (£40 on invoices under £1000, plus interest) simply don't deter clients.
  • We need a prohibition on the general waiver of moral rights, to bring UK legislation in line with the rest of Europe.

"We believe we're doing our job in terms of organisation," Jeremy concluded: "I think the politicians can help us. We do need the right to negotiate collectively for freelances."

  • There's an even longer report here
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