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Respect Dont Pay the Rent. by Tom Hodgkinson

Posted on Sunday, 13th May 2012 @ 01:21 AM by Text Size A | A | A

 

 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 toiled for.

Naively, my brother and I followed our parents down the journalistic
route,
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
bed,
and what’s more I know how lucky I am to have this particular column
on this
wonderful newspaper.

I remember being tempted, when I was starting out as a journalist, to
offer to
write for less than the going rate. But I never managed this because
that
sort of practice was strictly frowned upon at the time – the reason
being
that such undercutting would undermine the whole system. Even though
the
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,
and one
of the principles they held dear was the just and fixed price. There
was to
be no undercutting because this would damage the livelihood of your
fellow
linen-dyer or stonemason or apothecary.

No such brotherly feelings remain today. Not only have freelance rates
tumbled
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
money,”
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
are some
excellent blogs out there, to be sure. The problem is that any idiot
can
call themselves a blogger and start pouring rubbish into the ether.
There
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
the
Greek-born, Cambridge-educated Arianna Huffington of The Huffington
Post,
the US news website which recently launched over here. She built a
huge
business by using the work of 8,000 unpaid bloggers who were desperate
to
get their names out there for the “prestige”. In February of this
year, she sold the company to AOL for $315m. Lately The Huffington
Post has
been the target of a virtual strike: America’s Newspaper Guild and
National
Writers Union have called for freelancers to withhold their services.
The
Californian Freelancers Guild produced a poster which read: “Hey
Arianna. You can’t eat prestige. Pay your contributors. Because
freelance
doesn’t mean free.” Or as the punk poet John Cooper Clarke once put
it: “Respect
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
to
protest against The Daily Telegraph having slashed its freelance
rates. I
sent a note out to my London Freelance NUJ group saying that I was
taking a
day off work and instead would spend the day in a Fleet Street boozer
and
asking whether anyone would care to join me. My phone rang. It was the
NUJ
telling me that I was not allowed to call a strike and would I call it
off?
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
heat
had left the idea and it struck me that not only had the NUJ had its
balls
cut off in the 1980s, but that now it had just committed a further act
of
self-castration by cancelling a strike.

In the end, my freelance strike comprised three people: me, my mum (who
was
going to be in the pub anyway for a book launch) and Ian Bone of Class
War
magazine. Bone loves any sort of strike or demonstration. He is a
brilliant
and witty troublemaker and his latest project is a tabloid newspaper
called
The News of the World. So thanks to Bone for turning up, but I think
it’s
safe to say that my strike had little impact on the evolution of media

business models.

Who knows what will happen in the future. The Huffington Post may look
fluffy
and liberal compared with a Murdoch paper, but at least the Murdoch
papers
pay their freelance hacks. But now that particular edifice is
crumbling. Are
we looking towards a future of bloated new-media executives and
poverty-stricken scribblers? I think, brothers and sisters, that we
urgently
need to seize the means of production, and produce and sell our own
small
magazines and papers.

Tom Hodgkinson’s new book, ‘Brave Old World’, is out now, published
by
Hamish Hamilton, priced £16.99

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