In the eye of the storm
ON 11 MAY London Freelance Branch held its first-ever "virtual meeting" through the magic of internet technology. We heard from NUJ General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet and Freelance Organiser Pamela Morton about the union's responses to the crisis.
Michelle opened by paying tribute to the Freelance Office - Pamela and David Ayrton have been "working harder than ever from home, especially in the early days of the lockdown" as freelance members lost work. They have also been central to the union's successful efforts to get freelances some support after we were entirely left out of the government's first wave of covid-19 measures - becoming, for a while, the #ForgottenFreelances.
"It's becoming ever harder to get any movement" from government, Michelle reported, "but we're still pushing to get our voice heard and get support for those freelances who continue to be left out - such as those who have been pushed to do their work as limited companies."
She pointed to the NUJ survey of how journalists have been affected: 84 per cent fear that the crisis will lead to redundancies at their workplace - not least when "furlough" payments fade away - and 39 per cent of freelances don't expect work opportunities to improve in six months.
"The Branch has been doing great work," Michelle said. "People feel very much that this is the eye of the storm" - though anxiety levels are very high, it may be that we have to contend with worse to come with, for example, the Bank of England talking of the worst recession since the Great Frost of 1709.
So there has to be "meaningful intervention to support the news industry," Michelle said - government must "ensure that it can play its vital role for public information and democracy". The pandemic "has underlined the critical role that journalism plays in our communities" and it "can't just be left to the market to support it". We need "intervention to support a vibrant pluralistic future for journalism".
That is the goal of the NUJ's News Recovery Plan. [See update below.] The news industry "needs serious public investment" - but the NUJ "is not asking for handouts for the industry" The existing large players "have shown their business model doesn't work". In the medium and longer term investment must be conditional on quality.
And "the key to the survival plan is ensuring that the technology giants that "suck up editorial content" pay their way. The UK government has pledged to introduce a Digital Services Tax, taking 2 per cent of their revenue from 1 April 2020. This should be increased to 6 per cent "and used to shore up the immediate needs of the industry caused by the pandemic".
It's important that such must support not be soaked up by the big (and Conservative-supporting) media groups. There must be tax breaks and rate relief to support local enterprise models and journalists co-ops. The NUJ has since the Localism Act 2011 was passed been pushing for local newspapers to be designated "assets of community value" - that would allow for local takeovers of titles that owners may choose to close, as has happened for example with village pubs.
Conditions on support for media owners should include trade union representation on their executive boards. Reform of media ownership rules is required, as Protection for whistleblowers is required, as set out in the News Recovery Plan.
Michelle is pleased that the NUJ's plan has informed the approach of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), building on its Global Platform for Quality Journalism . This is also very much an international campaign and has had influence on governments.
In the UK the NUJ has had regular meetings with the government Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS), which have been chaired by Minister John Whittingdale or one of his junior ministers. Regular contact with the Treasury has been assisted by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) - which has been working incredibly hard for all workers. NUJ officials have also met with political parties in all the nations of the UK.
Finally, the lockdown offers some journalists a good opportunity to take part in online training courses. The NUJ training operations in Scotland and Wales are being opened up to members in other nations. And Michelle pointed to the offer of BBC Academy Lockdown Learning sessions for freelances, announced in an email to members on the Wednesday after the meeting.
"The momentum for quality journalism in the public interest is very exciting," Michelle concluded.
And in the Freelance Office...
Freelance Organiser Pamela Morton described her relief at the NUJ and sister unions getting the SEISS scheme after Michelle initiated contact wit the TUC and pointing out that there was nothing for freelances in the government's plans at the time.
Since then, though, "we've had members come to us pointing to the horrendous gaps... We've seen reports that up to 2 million people are not covered - and therefore dependent on the horror that is "Universal Credit".
Do check your eligibility for the freelance support scheme now. Pamela and assistant David Ayrton have already seen reports of the system making mistakes. They can look at challenging decisions with HMRC.
One big gap in the provision is people working through "personal service companies". Many have been forced to do so to continue freelancing - not least because of clients' perhaps superstitious responses to changes in the IR35 rules.
Pamela reviewed some findings of the NUJ survey of members. Nearly 17 per cent of respondents said they were company directors.
There seems to have been "a complete failure" in government to see how people work these days, Pamela observed. People have "portfolio careers" and people are forced into getting Limited Company status. Companies are dropping people who've been working for them for years and years with a one-line email.
"It's been heartbreaking." Pamela has "spent a lot of the time writing to companies to get them to furlough people". In at least one case that led to a company offering a freelance a contract of employment: "not everyone wants a contract of employment but everyone wants to be treated with respect and fairness and dignity."
Pamela said to those members who have contacted the office: "I want to say thank you because you have done so with great patience and understanding. Thanks to you for helping us to understand what is happening for freelances and to present it to government."
In discussion, several photographer members reported being harassed by police or security guards while trying to do their jobs. Others have been threatened by members of the public.
Michelle responded that "one of the first things we managed to do was to get agreement that journalists should be 'key workers'... At the start of lockdown we had examples of poor policing and over-zealous security." As a result of the NUJ raising this, the National Police Chiefs Council Communications Advisory Group has circulated guidelines to police forces in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and these are available to download.
Michelle asked for details of incidents, so that the union could raise the continued failure of some police to understand the guidelines with senior officers. The Freelance office issued a statement the following day. We reminded members of the NUJ's emergency legal advice numbers.
Other members raised the challenge of organisations - from sporting bodies to Downing Street - failing to provide access for journalists. We could not help wondering whether they're using the crisis to cut down on media access. The NUJ will help challenge such practices.