Collective action is key to better terms

A FROG DROPPED in boiling water will frantically try to jump from the heat. The same creature placed in liquid and heated gradually will notice the change too late - or so the metaphor goes. How accurately it describes the behaviour of amphibians, I don't know, but it well illustrates how freelance journalists have adapted to significantly worsening conditions over the past 20 years.

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Once many publications paid generous fees, copyright routinely stayed with creators, repeat fees were sometimes paid and business was generally conducted in an atmosphere of mutual respect. No longer. During the period when union de-recognition for staff journalists was rife, terms for freelances got have got steadily worse. Fees have been frozen, or have actually fallen. Publications started paying on publication, rather than on delivery. Woeful kill fees are offered when perfectly good material is unused. Copyright grabs are commonplace. In short, publishers force terms on freelances that treat them as useful idiots, willing to accept terrible conditions to sustain often economically-challenged lifestyles. The economic crisis of 2008 and the migration of eyeballs and advertising to the internet, only made this worse.

There were a few campaigns of heroic resistance. A copyright grab by The Guardian was resisted. Bauer freelances put up an amazing fight against a copyright grab, but were defeated. Fundamentally, however, freelances rolled over and accepted the worst, or sought work elsewhere to subsidise their careers.

Now, however, Eugene Costello has done us a great favour by researching and writing an excellent piece on the pernicious practice of payment on publication. Like a spark falling on dry tinder, his efforts have set social media aflame - see #StopPOP and #paymentondelivery. Scores of freelances are now relating the appalling treatments they have experienced at the hands of magazines, newspapers, book publishers and broadcasters. The depth of feeling was underscored by dozens of colleagues spontaneously offering to crowd-fund Eugene's research.

It is enormously encouraging to see so passions enflamed, but it all begs a question. What can we do next?

The first thing to say in this. As a trades union activist of many years standing, this kind of spontaneous outpouring of anger is the sort of thing for which I have prayed. Make no mistake, a campaign built on Eugene's excellent work is the kind of thing for which the NUJ exists. As an institution, a trades union can harness energy and provide some resources, but fundamentally it is the actions of ordinary workers that make the decisive difference in all campaigns.

Out next step should be to convene a meeting of people who are willing to have a go at doing something to make a difference. Physically getting together is a bit "old-school", but it is still a better measure of determination than social media froth. The invitation will be open to all working freelances, whether they are NUJ members or not. Not everyone will be able to make it, but it will provide a sense of what spirit there is and help as gather up some more general campaign ideas.

[NUJ President Tim Dawson; © Lucy Adams]

These might include thinking about the publishers that are most likely to be persuaded to change their minds about payment on publication - either because they are vulnerable to losing material, or because they are generally decent. Setting some initial priorities might provide easy victories to sustain a campaign against the intransigents.

We could create more information resources to encourage freelances to understand their rights and to try and assert them.

We could get MPs to table and Early Day Motion (they are kind of parliamentary petition) on the subject and they try to get our own parliamentary representatives to add their name. It won't change anything in itself, but it is a route to involve people from all over the country and draw attention to the issue.

We can dream up social media stunts to name and shame the worst offenders.

Maybe, by coming together, we can come up with something more brilliant by far than any of the tricks from my battered campaigners kit bag.

Of course there will be councils of despair. "How can I take any action that threatens my tenuous grasp on a career as a journalist," some will say. It is an understandable reaction, but unless we work proactively to encourage more freelances to recognise that they are being treated in a way that no other independent trades person would tolerate, things can only get worse.

Perhaps we won't flush payment on publication from our industry in one heroic push. Ensuring that a few hundred freelances better understand their rights, and are slightly more willing to stand up to publishers who are abusing their good will, then the market for all of us will have been improved.

If you want to know when the meeting is scheduled, email me at tim@timdawsn.demon.co.uk and I will keep you in the loop.