Mike's Media Monitor

By The Drum, Administrator

March 24, 2005 | 6 min read

Money may make the world go round, but it also seems to have a nasty habit of sending media employers into a spin. While the National Union of Journalists prepares for a day of action on behalf of its freelance members – scheduled for June 7 – there is rarely any shortage of evidence to remind us why. In Scotland, there is a particular issue of first-rate work receiving second-rate pay.

One only needs to read last week’s Press Gazette trade magazine for journalists. In the funnies section, although it’s no laughing matter, essentially, a magazine based in Manchester is inviting freelancers to write for, er, free.

If only it was an one-off. Of particular concern to the NUJ are the derisory rates among regional newspapers throughout the UK. But even our star columnists and reporters in Scotland are likely to be earning less than they are due. They may be every bit as talented as their counterparts working for London-based titles, but rates have been allowed to slip behind. The Herald, for instance, pays about £300 for a main piece on its op ed pages. London rates for similar, prestigious journalism are roughly double. If even the talent cannot command the true price, what hope everyone else?

With the country’s colleges and universities churning out ‘media graduates’ by the thousand, there is no doubt it is a buyer’s market, leaving freelancers of genuine quality constantly aware that, should they put up too much of a fight against low pay, there are any number of wannabes happy to take their place at a fraction of their fee.

So, it will come as little surprise to learn of an incident which came to the attention of the Edinburgh freelance branch of the NUJ the other day. Simply, one of its members had approached one of the country’s national titles, offering to work, as a sub editor, for half-pay.

Temporary though the offer was – until sufficient confidence in the person’s abilities had been established to pay the full rate – it was, nevertheless, a breach of a key tenet of trade unionism. It is not nostalgia that draws people into an union such as the NUJ. Undercutting one’s rival simply leads to a spiral of diminishing fees.

This is not unreconstructed old-style socialism. Pay is inextricably linked to quality. And not only does it affect those who are commissioned; those doing the commissioning are also affected. A preoccupation with the bottom line can leave people blind to the talent at their fingertips.

Morale, however, can be still badly shaken even when money is not so much an issue. At Scottish Media Group, owners of Scottish TV and Grampian TV, it is understood that staff are to be rewarded for their service, with free shares in the company. Yet, the staff are said to be in uproar. Indeed, some are more angry than they would have been had no offer been made at all. And it’s because of a ‘string attached’, an anniversary clause in the giveaway. Only when a member of staff has reached an anniversary, divisible by five, can they collect. Therefore, even someone with, say, 20-odd years of service but about to retire before reaching their 25th or 30th year with the company will receive nothing.

Trade unions, NUJ and BECTU (Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union), are trying to sort the situation out. And across at Trinity Mirror (Daily Record, Sunday Mail, etc), another seeming act of generosity – this time, a profit-sharing scheme – appears to be backfiring. Unfortunately, the profit share earmarked for printers is more than that to be set aside for journalists and advertising staff, in the order of £500 versus £100. The timing is strange: there’s a vote by journalists on industrial action taking place next week, following the rejection of a pay offer of 2.5 per cent.

They say lots of other things about money: that it’s the root of all evil, etc, etc. Maybe, when all is said and done, we’re all a little too bashful about what we earn and whether we are worth more. Maybe people should be more prepared to put their head above the parapet, declaring what they earn and why they deserve it. No doubt, some will lose out from such honesty – they will patently be undeserving of what they coin in – but the majority are likely to deserve more. And, maybe, just maybe, they will receive it.

Management say that a 13 per cent cut in the number of ‘content and output’ jobs at BBC Scotland is necessary to free up resources for future investment in programming. The unions, meanwhile, are saying the cuts are so savage, some programming may be near impossible to produce – even if, for instance, reporters are given a video camera and told to do two jobs.

The management may have a point. The BBC isn’t faced by the intensity of competition that newspapers are, and so maybe, periodically, job numbers require to be visited. And the BBC hasn’t undertaken such an exercise for some years. But the unions are also right to be flabbergasted. What does it say about the art of management that it requires such brutality to recalibrate the direction of the ship? One view within the NUJ is that the cuts are being driven by an agenda that has nothing to do with programme-making at all: a belief within government that, if the civil service is being asked to take a hit in its numbers, so should the BBC.

And what does it say about the professionalism of the likes of newsreader Sally McNair who, without any show of emotion, found herself reporting the cuts while knowing that her husband – network editor, Phil Taylor – was among those on the hit list?

And finally, yesterday was meant to see the launch of the latest addition to the local newspaper scene in Scotland. But it has been delayed thanks to a hatful of sackings and resignations. However, there was at least one person who should have predicted the shambles engulfing Shetland Weekly.

Among various departures, including editor, Richard Whitaker, and chairman, Malcolm Younger, is managing director, Mike Sage, plus his partner, Marion Sage, a trainee reporter.

It is understood that Ms Sage previously wrote the Madame Morgana astrology column in the Shetland Post newspaper. Surely, she should have seen the chaos coming.

Mike Wilson is a director of the media website, www.allmediascotland.com.


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