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

Related Topics

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

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Labour leader Ed Miliband unveils Labour's pledges carved into a stone plinth in Hastings  

Election 2015: Smash the two-party system! Smash the voting system!

Armando Iannucci
Tactical voting is a necessary evil of the current first-past-the-post system, where voters vote against what they do not want rather than in favour of what they do  

Election 2015: Voting tactically has become more fraught in new political order

Michael Ashcroft
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power