American culture National Writers’ Union Boycotts Huffington Post, Demands Bloggers Share in Wealth
Tom Hodgkinson: ‘Respect don’t pay the rent’
< Back in the 1970s and 1980s, as my mother
never tires of reminding me, journalism was a very well-paid job. My
parents started with nothing and ended up with boys at private school, a
Morgan in the drive, and a Georgian house in Richmond, all thanks to
the Sunday People, the Daily Mail, The Sun and the other papers they
Naively, my brother and I followed our parents down the journalistic
but the money's simply not there any more, and certainly not for the
impecunious freelancer. Non-hacks are often amazed when I reveal the
pittance I earn. Not that I'm complaining, of course: I've made my own
and what's more I know how lucky I am to have this particular column
I remember being tempted, when I was starting out as a journalist, to
write for less than the going rate. But I never managed this because
sort of practice was strictly frowned upon at the time – the reason
that such undercutting would undermine the whole system. Even though
National Union of Journalists (NUJ) had lost much of its power by that
point, remnants of a guild-style approach survived.
The guild was a medieval invention; it was a brotherhood of craftsmen,
of the principles they held dear was the just and fixed price. There
be no undercutting because this would damage the livelihood of your
linen-dyer or stonemason or apothecary.
No such brotherly feelings remain today. Not only have freelance rates
over the past few years – as in other so-called "creative"
industries – but a tribe of bigmouths called "bloggers" has
appeared on my particular patch. That memorable Grub Street toiler Dr
Johnson once said: "No one but a blockhead ever wrote except for
and he was right: the problem is that the blockheads have taken over.
In the old days, journalism was a craft that had to be studied. There
excellent blogs out there, to be sure. The problem is that any idiot
call themselves a blogger and start pouring rubbish into the ether.
are no editors to weed out the dross.
The avatars of this "write for free, it might lead to paid work"
system tend to make sure they themselves get paid. One such would be
Greek-born, Cambridge-educated Arianna Huffington of The Huffington
the US news website which recently launched over here. She built a
business by using the work of 8,000 unpaid bloggers who were desperate
get their names out there for the "prestige". In February of this
year, she sold the company to AOL for $315m. Lately The Huffington
been the target of a virtual strike: America's Newspaper Guild and
Writers Union have called for freelancers to withhold their services.
Californian Freelancers Guild produced a poster which read: "Hey
Arianna. You can't eat prestige. Pay your contributors. Because
doesn't mean free." Or as the punk poet John Cooper Clarke once put
don't pay the rent."
I don't suppose the anti-Huffington strike will be successful. Freelance
strikes are notoriously tricky. I myself tried to call one last year
protest against The Daily Telegraph having slashed its freelance
sent a note out to my London Freelance NUJ group saying that I was
day off work and instead would spend the day in a Fleet Street boozer
asking whether anyone would care to join me. My phone rang. It was the
telling me that I was not allowed to call a strike and would I call it
I sent out another message, telling people this was now not a strike
but a "strike
meeting", the wording suggested to me by the NUJ. By this time the
had left the idea and it struck me that not only had the NUJ had its
cut off in the 1980s, but that now it had just committed a further act
self-castration by cancelling a strike.
In the end, my freelance strike comprised three people: me, my mum (who
going to be in the pub anyway for a book launch) and Ian Bone of Class
magazine. Bone loves any sort of strike or demonstration. He is a
and witty troublemaker and his latest project is a tabloid newspaper
The News of the World. So thanks to Bone for turning up, but I think
safe to say that my strike had little impact on the evolution of media
Who knows what will happen in the future. The Huffington Post may look
and liberal compared with a Murdoch paper, but at least the Murdoch
pay their freelance hacks. But now that particular edifice is
we looking towards a future of bloated new-media executives and
poverty-stricken scribblers? I think, brothers and sisters, that we
need to seize the means of production, and produce and sell our own
magazines and papers.