What does it take?

CAN badly-paid journalists be the guardians of a free press? That was the 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 the world of journalism has changed. When I went to City in 1979 we had 27 students on a nine-month diploma; today we have 300 or 400 on postgraduate courses and two undergraduate courses, including one in journalism & contemporary history, and I don't know how many students are on them."

"Back in 1979 journalism was highly regulated. The NUJ dominated pretty well every newspaper and most magazines. 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. Now few City students go into regional newspapers. They arrive on the postgraduate course £15,000 in debt and then have to pay for the course - there are no longer grants from the government or the old Training Board.

Now interviewers tell prospective students that "if you want to earn money you shouldn't be applying for this course." Rather go into the law or into the City. "It doesn't help your cause," Robert said, "but I can say that my ex-students are mostly satisfied and have found ways of eking out a living." But doing what?

Denis Hamilton at the Times, in the days when Lord Thomson was owner and Harry Evans editor, said that investigative journalism was very expensive and didn't sell a lot of papers. The truth is that proper reporting of any kind is expensive. To write a proper story you need to see a lot of people. In any specialist area, you have to do a lot of reading.

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. People want to know what's happening as quickly as possible, and they want their leaders to be challenged. "The horrible events of last Thursday [the 7 July bombings] are paradoxically good for journalism," Robert concluded: they remind people what it's for.

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."

He was at the Post alongside the late Tony Bevins, John Sergeant and Robin Oakley. Tony and John would take it in turns to pay for the annual Post reunion dinner. Their bank balances were healthier than Malcolm's and they get more recognition on the street, which is perhaps what politicians crave; but they would say "Malcolm, but you're making the news that we report."

It concerns Malcolm that on weekly and regional media, pay and rates do not reflect the job, or the way it's changed. "The idea that you should be paid lineage, as against being paid for what work you put in, is absurd."

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. How to they survive? Probably from adverts - they "see copy as what goes between the ads". We have to accept that people do buy local papers for ads.

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."

The turning point for him was the Aberdeen Press and Journal strike, in which the management basically decided to lock their journalists out. Their attitude was "we will not negotiate". They put all the journalists on individual contracts. "That was the point at which I walked down Union Street with the journalists and told the managing director he was destroying his newspaper, which I believe he did."

The following year Malcolm got a call: "G'day cobber, I'm from the Press and Journal." I'm Malcolm Bruce, he replied. "The MP? What party?"

He observed that pouring out more intelligent well-trained potential journalists is not helping. He has asked in the past why young people want to go into journalism courses and media studies, not engineering. Clearly they are attracted to journalism superficially - but many are called and few are chosen for the real graft of good journalism.

"I don't think we can go back to the highly unionised and highly regulated past," he concluded. "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. He shares Malcolm's experience of local papers: "I go through local journalists on the Gazette at an average rate of one a year."

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. "Some journalists do 'rest' for long periods, just like Equity members"

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.

We were gathered at the House of Commons on the night of a key debate on freedom of speech - one which will affect how journalists write in the future. [Incitement to Religious Hatred provisions of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill later passed their third reading in the Commons by 301 votes to 229 and now go back to the Lords.]

John had come to our meeting from the debate, which was "at that stage where everything has been said but not everyone has said it." A mere six Members invoked Voltaire: during a similar discussion John had mentioned that Voltaire came to Hayes - the audience "thought I was taking the piss. But it's true - he came, and didn't like it much."

"Somehow, over this coming period we need to run some form of campaign of appreciation for the role of the press in a democracy," he declared: "That has to translates itself from pompous statements about Voltaire to recognising that we are losing at the local, the regional and, yes, at the national level something that is necessary for journalists to be able to write objectively." Maybe this is not something the NUJ can do directly; but "we have to inspire this debate able the role of a free press in a democracy. This last week demonstrates that.

"People won't recognise their loss until it is lost."

But, elsewhere in the building on that Monday evening, there was a meeting of market researchers talking about the importance of market research to democracy. The government makes so much use of them with focus groups and so on - why bother having the vote?

On the legal questions: there is an issue about trade union rights, going back to the Thatcherite 1980s. The law still does not recognise the right to strike as it does across Europe; and that leaves UK in breach of its International Labor Organization commitments. We don't have the right to secondary industrial action and, as John said, "this makes industrial action very difficult in journalism, because issues can be narrowed down, sometimes to one person." As the law stands, if management successfully claim that an issue affects one person, anyone who strikes to support them is engaging in "secondary action," which is illegal.

And all UK trades unionists face the hoops and hurdles put in the way of calling a legal strike, that don't exist across the rest of the EU. 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. He reeled off the statistics: more than two-thirds of journalists earn less than the average wage; more than 80 per cent of local paper journalists in the UK can't afford the average house price in their area; more than half earn less than the Council of Europe decency threshold.

But it's not a poor industry - Sly Bayley of Trinity Mirror gets in five days what her experienced journalists in places like Coventry earn in a year. In Bradford the Telegraph and Argus makes £23,000 a day - which is repatriated to Gannett in the USA. And it's not a diverse industry: 88 per cent of daily national newspaper sales are controlled by five groups.

Freelances form the second largest group of NUJ members earning under £10,000 - contrary to what you'd expect, the largest group is in public relations. Local papers are offering £6 for a photo, the same rate as 15 years ago, and now people can't afford to do the work, given the cost of equipment.

Jeremy thanked the NUJ Parliamentary Group for taking up freelance issues such as copyright and the protection  of sources by members like Robin Ackroyd.

"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...

Alongside the problems with copyright there are the exclusions of journalistic works from "moral rights" - the rights to be identified as author and to object to "derogatory treatment" of your work - and then clients' demands that freelances waive their moral rights anyway. This leads to problems like work being used in unsuitable contexts.

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."

He recalled that at the Authors' Rights for All conference in 2000, a French academic produced a league table of Authors' Rights around the world: "when she got to Colombia I thought she'd forgotten the UK, but there we were, just above the USA."

And consider casuals' rights. The Guardian Media Group and News International enforce breaks on casuals so they don't acquire employment rights.

And there are employers and governments that describe the Freelance Fees Guide as a cartel. In Ireland and the Netherlands they have issued legal challenges - "as if the Newspaper Publishers' Association and the Newspaper Society don't act as a cartel when they get together at their swanky dinners and decide how to carve up the industry." Meanwhile if three freelances got together to decide what rate they should charge the Bolton Evening News they'd be treated as if they were Standard Oil threatening the very basis of capitalist markets.

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."

In discussion, branch member Simon Pirani observed that when it came to seeing freelances as cartels, "We're no more individual businesses than were 19th-century miners working by the bucket." Malcolm agreed that the cartel idea is nonsense: "architects and lawyers have guide prices."

Simon asked whether we could get a university department to work out what good investigative journalism costs, so we can show editors an independent assessment. Jeremy responded that one problem is that the News of the World does more "investigation" than other papers: it gave a bunch of journalists six months off diary - "trouble is, that was to investigate David Beckham's alleged affair."

Robert asked whether it would help more to estimate the cost of proper political reporting: there might be rather more mileage in that. The regional press generally no longer covers politics.

Concentrating on political reporting eliminates the row with NoW-style "investigative journalism" - and relates to this building. Even the Times no longer runs comprehensive reports of debates; and when he compares at some of the stories in the Times with the New York Times and Washington Post it is clear that the US papers do proper reporting, though some stories are dreadfully long.

"We have to kick-start the debate," Robert said, "because the proprietors have been allowed to get away with it - it's not easy to stop something that should have been stopped 20 years ago."

Phil Sutcliffe was amazed at how talking about low pay and the quality of the media leads to so many issues: "It's like a week ago being in Edinburgh where people were opposing the whole capitalist system."

He would add more: it is important to offer freelances training in how to to negotiate individually, and networks that enable them at least to have the potential to to negotiate in groups with their clients. Add alliances with staff and, very gradually, we could move back to the pre-Thatcher position in which freelance minimum rates were moved up with staff rates. For 20 years there's been no such steadily rising floor.

"Can we achieve," Phil asked, "rights to negotiate collectively?" It seems that this revived wave of trade unionism is moving the staff cause ahead. But it's not looking as though we can win freelances' right industrially at the moment. Does it need legislation, extending the "rights at work" law?

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