There’s a scene in Joe Dunthorne’s 2018 novel The Adulterants where Ray, a freelance tech journalist, sits down at his laptop one morning to begin work: ‘My computer played a bugle call. That was my new mail sound. I had chosen it to remind myself that my joyless work had valour; historically, a free lance was a mercenary employed to wield rough justice among the lower orders.’
Whether or not your own freelance work has any joy or valour, Ray’s jingle should give pause. The greatest benefit of freelance work is being able to pick and choose your clients, but in 2019, should we still be operating as guns-for-hire, happy to work for the highest bidder?
This question has particular implications for journalists who essentially deal in matters of truth. If you’re a comment writer, your job is to say ‘This is what I believe is right’; if you’re a news journalist, you say ‘This happened’. So, is it ever right to accept paid work for a publication you disagree with on moral or political grounds?
This is difficult to quantify, and as such there is little relevant statistical research. But one useful report has been published by The Involvement and Participation Association (IPA) and the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self Employed (IPSE), titled ‘Working Well for Yourself: What makes for good self-employment?’. Here, they identified that ‘Being able to be more selective with the projects/clients I take on’ was one of the most important measures of career progression for the self-employed.
However, the report makes no mention of political outlook, and instead presents the key issue for bad freelancer-client relations as being ‘control over how work is done, when it is done and where it is done’. In particular, IPA and IPSE identify issues of ‘extra unpaid hours of work’ and too much ‘supervision, direction and control’, rather than the client’s political ideology.
But in speaking to freelance journalists, it is clear that a client’s moral and political outlook is in fact a key concern. Freelance writer and editor Tina Nielsen, who has regularly contributed to the Guardian, tells me: ‘I just don’t feel comfortable being associated with publications that stand for something I feel strongly is wrong. I understand that I am not personally setting the editorial standards, but I would find it very hard to engage in morally-questionable practices – like door-stepping people and exposing their problems for entertainment value.’ Although ‘morally-questionable’ as Nielsen rightly calls them, those actions are perfectly legal.
‘There are certain publications I would find it difficult to work with because their behaviour in the past has been reprehensible, whether that is phone hacking or using people’s tragedy to sell papers.’
Similarly, Holly Patrick, who graduated in BA Journalism in July 2018, says: ‘I don’t want my by-lines to be tarnished by working for a publication that spouts discriminatory rhetoric and perpetuates stereotypes, so I steer clear and find alternative sources of income, regardless of how well-known the publication is. They can abide by media law and still be incredibly harmful, so I couldn’t align myself with something like that.’
But Tom Chivers, who has previously been a science writer for Buzzfeed UK and a comment and features writer for the Daily Telegraph, thinks differently. He tells me: ‘if someone feels confident enough to turn down work early in their career, I suppose well done, but if I had been offered my first job at the Daily Mail or The Sun right when I was beginning, I don’t think I would have been able to turn it down. Because how often do you get these chances?
‘It is really easy to be critical from the outside, and if someone comes to London and has the option of working in a bar or working for the Mail, where they would be earning probably three times the amount they’d be getting at the bar as well as getting a foot on the career ladder, I couldn’t criticise them for making that choice.’
Writing for a publication you disagree with might even be a good thing, as Chivers recounts of his time at the Telegraph, having joined in 2007: ‘I worked there for seven years, when I was younger and much more confident in my left-wing views. I wrote a lot of things as a comment writer there which if they had been published on the Guardian website would not have turned any heads.
‘I feel like from the point of view of actually wanting to achieve things – especially as a comment writer – then you want to be working in places where you don’t agree with the politics, because then you have the at least theoretical possibility of changing their mind.’
This last point about widening debate is an interesting one, and is shared by Victoria Harper, features director at the Daily Telegraph. She explains: ‘The Telegraph is a national newspaper and a broad church which is host to many different opinions and viewpoints.
‘It is much more interesting to try and reach a new audience with your ideas, rather than always preaching to the converted and writing for those who are simply going to agree with you or confirm your world view. Increasingly, people are living in an echo chamber and I find that a great shame. It’s only by working with those who don’t agree with you that you get to really interrogate your ideas and avoid falling into the trap of “lazy thinking”.
‘If a freelancer doesn’t want to work for us that’s entirely up to them; we publish fantastic award-winning writers and work with an array of freelancers who readily work with us, whether they agree with the newspaper’s politics or not.
‘I think it is a very narrow-minded view to pick and choose the publications you are writing for on the basis of whether you agree with their politics or not. It is also a luxury that few, I imagine, can afford.’
This last point corresponds with the IPA-IPSE report, which states that: ‘For those on lower incomes, or just starting out in self-employment, most of their hopes and plans were simply centred on ensuring the “survival” of their businesses (and for some this ‘survival’ period could be open-ended and continuous). For those who had established themselves, however, there were a range of options open to them for seeking a greater sense of purpose, achievement and fulfilment in their work.’
But whilst it may well be true that turning down paid opportunities is a luxury, there is a serious argument to be made in favour of being selective with your clients. On 18 October 2017, the Daily Mail published an article about the rapper Solo 45, with the original headline: ‘Boy Better Know star who worked with Stormzy is accused of 29 rapes’. The same day, a now-deleted tweet from Stormzy implicated everyone at the paper, not just the editor responsible: ‘Everyone at the Daily Mail can suck their mum’s as well from the CEO to the receptionist’.
A YouGov poll taken in March 2017 found that: ‘the Daily Mail is seen as Britain’s most right-wing newspaper.’ It was ‘described by 44% of Brits as “very right-wing”, far ahead of any other paper. In total, 81% considered the paper to be right-wing to one degree or another.’
The Mail headline quoted above was quickly changed, but it is perhaps difficult to be surprised that young, progressive freelancers feel increasingly unable to begin their careers at certain publications, even Britain’s most-read newspaper. As Imogen Hector, a postgraduate student at SOAS and freelance journalist, says: ‘It is hard to argue against the point that turning down work is luxury. However, the actual luxury is being able to dissociate yourself from the racism, Islamophobia and sexism that certain newspapers incite, and to work for them without worrying about the repercussions.’
But what are journalists-in-training taught to do? Patrick, who graduated last summer, tells me of her degree course: ‘we did receive formal training on media law and ethics as part of our modules – on things like defamation law, professional codes and privacy issues, but the moral implications of working for certain publications was never discussed. The closest we came was during talks with former students who now work for such publications, but nothing more than that.’
This is perhaps because the question of morals is a slippery one. It is easy for us to see when someone has broken the law or when an editor has gone against IPSO’s Editors’ Code of Practice, but moral and political questions are, necessarily, subjective.
And what advice does the National Union of Journalists give to their members? Pamela Morton, NUJ freelance national organiser, clarifies their position: ‘Many journalists, especially when they start off in their career, may have to work for publications which they do not agree with politically. A major problem is the lack of media plurality in the UK.
‘The NUJ represents journalists who work for media organisations across the political spectrum. Our members are expected to adhere to the NUJ code of conduct which says they must be accurate and fair, do nothing to intrude into anybody’s private life causing grief or distress, unless justified by the public interest, or produce material likely to lead to hatred or discrimination.
‘The NUJ can help members who believe they are made to act unethically. Ultimately it is up to the journalist’s conscience where they work, but it helps to be in a union which offers support and fights for ethical journalism.’
Since the EU referendum and the US Presidential Election in 2016, it seems we can’t go a day without someone bringing-up ‘fake news’ or media bias. But ethics and bad practice have been a key issue affecting the British media for almost a decade, most notably since the Leveson Inquiry in 2011-2012.
One such newspaper that came under scrutiny at that inquiry was The Sun. However, as freelance journalist Felicity Hannah explains, ‘many are doing great work even at publications that others might disagree with. For example, The Sun has a brilliant campaign calling for Universal Credit to be fixed.’ The Make Universal Credit Work campaign launched in December 2018 and reports the negative experiences of claimants alongside advice for those currently in debt. Clearly, such a campaign complicates any defined moral binary. As Hannah says, ‘The writers working on that are excellent and doing vital journalism.’
But there is an underlined and enduring distrust in Britain’s mainstream media. Press Gazette reported in May 2018 that the UK news media has ‘the worst rate for trustworthiness in western Europe… Only 48 per cent of UK adults surveyed said the UK was doing a good job of “getting the facts right.”’
It’s perhaps not surprising, then, given such a lack of confidence in the mainstream media, that young freelancers might look elsewhere for work. As Patrick tells me, ‘In light of fake news, I think it’s all the more important that journalists consider who they’re working for. I guess if editors really want a particular angle out there, someone will write it for them – someone who wants their bills paid.’
This last comment identifies what is perhaps the root cause of this question: the sheer number of freelance workers within the journalism industry. It seems that certain publications have endless potential freelancers on tap, and are therefore unaffected by any individual boycotts and unafraid to change their ways.
And this saturation of freelancers within the labour market also affects the wider media industry, not just journalism. As graphic designer and illustrator Will Francis explains: ‘It means that basically everyone will get representation from an illustrator or journalist should they need it, whether you like it or not. In my opinion, by not taking work from someone you shouldn’t be trying to silence the client, you should just be doing it because you personally don’t want to be affiliated with them.
Francis continues: ‘Although I think people need to be careful who they produce work for, I think there is some hypocrisy in the expectation that if you produce something deemed traditionally “creative” that you also need to be ethically sound in everything you do.
‘No-one puts builders under scrutiny for who they work for and what they work on. However graphic design, illustration and art are normally a more personal craft, and having something so personal affiliated with someone or something that one might deem as unethical or unjust could be problematic.
‘Personally I know that there is a point where I would be unhappy producing work for a client I disagreed with. However, I don’t think we should be too tough on freelancers. Ultimately jobs are hard to get, the economic climate is tough and visual artists provide a service just like any other industry. I think “creatives” are under too much pressure to be sublime.’
But being selective with your clients might also benefit you in the long run. As Deborah Talbot explains: ‘I definitely have turned down work for a client because I didn’t agree with it, and I’ve never written for certain publications. One’s writing career is a pathway: your choices define who you are, and what kind of journalist you are is a choice. I’ve rarely been short of work, notwithstanding my self-imposed limits.
‘I don’t think freelancers should be guns for hire – I actually don’t think it’s good for your career to be seen as having no moral capacity at all. Even business places a lot of emphasis on integrity these days, and integrity means making moral choices.’
This final point is interesting, and one that is often left out of the discussion. As a freelancer, you are your product, and by carefully curating your list of clients and maintaining clear lines that are not to be crossed, you can demonstrate personal integrity and your own set of core values. For some, that’s worth a lot more than a paycheck.