Contracts campaign gathers pace
THE IMPOSITION of unfair contracts on journalists is the focus of campaigns by the Creators' Rights Alliance (CRA) and the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) - the NUJ is active in both. In the UK, the case was put to MPs from the three largest parties, and a Green Party representative, at a "general election hustings for the writing community" organised by the Society of Authors and Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society on 24 March. For the Liberal Democrats, Martin Horwood MP gave the impression that this issue was a priority for the party.
For Labour, Chris Bryant made sympathetic noises and asked for more information. Ed Vaizey, Conservative, invited LFB's Phil Sutcliffe to intervene.
This Phil did, passionately. The contracts creators are made to sign "are totally unbalanced by the difference in economic power between me and Murdoch, or the BBC, or the government." The issues go beyond grabbing rights and depriving creators of the income we need to carry on as professionals feeding the much-vaunted "information economy". The contracts we are presented with "extend to dumping total liability onto the writer," Phil noted. They often demand the right to change the work and deny corporate liability for legal actions resulting from the corporation's altered version. "There goes my house, or my shirt," Phil observed: "These contracts are crushing for individual creators and if the government doesn't have the guts to do something about it that sector of the economy will be starved. It's strangling us."
Vaizey returned the default answer that his party supports "freedom of contract". Mike Holderness, also of this parish and CRA chair, replied that this is a mere slogan: it serves to pander to the myth that he and Rupert sit down across a table, negotiate as equals and strike a fair bargain.
In any case, "freedom of contract" isn't as sacrosanct as some pretend. Parliament had instructed the government to intervene in another area where contracts are unfair: between landlady of his local pub and the "pubco" that owns it. Horwood observed that the pubco got to own it because of a previous attempt to deal with the issue, by separating the breweries from the freeholds. "You did that to try to avoid dealing with the root issue - the contracts," Mike said: "this time, you have to do it right".
The European Commission is organising surveys of the contracts that creators, including journalists, work under. The EFJ has pushed to make this happen and hopes it will produce quantitative evidence on the economics of unfair contracts. Journalists in the UK will be invited to complete it: when you are, please set aside 15 or 20 minutes to make sure your experience is represented.
Please continue sending details of unfair contracts put before you to email@example.com - for the campaign it is particularly useful to have details of:
- Occasions on which your client put it in writing (paper or email) that the contract they were "offering" was non-negotiable; and
- Contracts that claim to incorporate other contracts that are not shown to you;
...but all unfair contracts are interesting. All such communication will be anonymised and dealt with in the strictest confidence.