Tom Hodgkinson: 'Respect don't pay the rent'

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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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