In My Opinion: Liz Hodgkinson: Time for freelancers to down tools

WHATEVER is happening to freelance fees? When I worked as woman’s editor at The Times in 1986 – during that terrible Wapping year – we paid freelance contributors £250 for a piece of about 600 words. The average rate for 1,000 words was £400.

Even in those days, it was not particularly good money, but well, some people preferred to have their byline in what was then considered ‘the top people’s paper’ than in some other publications. And sometimes, a better-paying paper was not a suitable outlet for either the subject matter or the golden prose in which it would be written.

However, that was then. Nowadays, you would expect the fees to be at least double what they were a quarter of a century ago. After all, everything else has gone up.

But no, just the opposite has happened. It is hard and becoming harder, to get even those rates. A fee which seemed average or low in the 1980s has now become an impossible dream for an increasing number of hard-working journalists.

For instance, a long-established and supposedly valued freelance contributor to The Telegraph tells me that, over the past two years, his rates have halved, from £500 a 1000 to £250 a 1,000. And it’s not as if he has been specially singled out.

Not that this newspaper is alone. Twenty years ago, I contributed a regular health column to the Guardian, for which I was paid £300 a time. It was difficult to write a good health article containing useful, original research and quotes for that amount in those days, but I hear that they now only pay £200 for such a piece. It is actually impossible to write any kind of proper health feature for that kind of money, and the only way to be cost-effective is to rewrite PR handouts.

Some people may not mind churning out this sort of stuff but most of us like to get something original, something with a bit of an edge to it, into print.

It is true that ever since 1986, when the unions lost all their power, it has been difficult to make a decent living from journalism. Now though, it seems, it’s downright impossible to make any kind of living at all.

What are these big organisations thinking of, paying peanuts? And more to the point, is there anything anybody can do, apart from just moaning?

In the olden days of course, concerted union action and collective bargaining kept rates reasonably high. Now, even on papers where an union exists or is tolerated, it has limited powers to improve rates or conditions for its members.

The present-day isolation of journalists is another factor in the ever-plummeting rates. When they gathered together in pubs, they could compare payments and hassle for – and often get – better rates. Bad pay thrives on the isolation of workers and, these days, journalists hardly ever meet each other. Why are homeworkers always paid so little? Simply because they can never band together, and in any case are terrified of losing even their tiny income if they dare to raise a voice in protest.

And individual action, such as the threat to withdraw one’s labour or to upstick the fee arsewise, will have no effect whatever. The section editor will just go elsewhere. After all, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of kids pouring out of media courses who are desperate enough to get their names into print for a pittance.

And not only kids. There are also flocks of elderly or retired journalists who would love to have a regular outlet on a widely-read paper, even for no money.

No, the only effective way to improve rates is by is blanket strike action. If everybody simply refused to file copy for a particular day – say a Saturday when all newspapers are particularly full of freelance articles – and continued to refuse until rates improved, the management would have no choice but to sit up and take notice.

If all outside contributors withheld their labour, no newspaper could possibly come out. Because although it might be possible to fill one or two empty slots at short notice, no editor could ever fill them all.

Some brave person would have to be responsible for organising all the others and encouraging them to see that while newspapers continue to get away with it, rates will inevitably plummet ever downwards. £250 will become £200, will become £150, and before long, even £100 a 1,000 will sound generous.

Unless something like this is done, journalism will soon turn into a vanity profession, where people just write for the privilege of seeing their names in the paper rather than to earn a living. And when that day dawns, journalism, as we ranters understand it, will be dead for ever.

Journalists should be strong, brave and outspoken, not meek little mice.

Liz Hodgkinson joined the Sunday People in 1973 and then worked for The Sun, Daily Mail and Times. She has been a freelance journalist for many years now and is also the author of more than 50 books, including Ladies of the Street – a celebration of the pioneer women of Fleet Street. Visit www.lizhodgkinson.com to find out more. This article first appeared on www.gentlemenranters.com