While I was away at the conferences, I had the opportunity to go to a fringe event at the Labour party conference two weeks ago organised by Hacked Off, the media pressure group campaigning for a freer and more accountable media post-Leveson.
The panel made up of figures like Brian Cathcart, professor of journalism at Kingston University, Michelle Stanistreet (right), secretary general of the NUJ and Tom Watson MP, a member of the media, culture and sports parliamentary subcommittee and author of ‘Dial M for Murdoch’ discussed the future for the media industry and the reasons for it getting to this point in the first place.
One particularly interesting point raised by Stanistreet about the ‘bullying’ practice in the industry was partly the fault of the industry’s over dependent on unpaid interns.
She explained that in the past twenty years the expectation that new entrants will work for free for anywhere from three months to a year has lead to the suppression of wages and a sense of job insecurity as people who have finally secured their first paying jobs are too afraid to stand up for themselves.
She cited an example of a young woman who supplied evidence to her anonymously during the Leveson Inquiry who said she hated the atmosphere where she worked but was ‘barely making ends meet’ and could not afford to give up her job.
She pointed to the fact that many tabloids were still generating a small profit and the fact that the culture of free labour had to stop as it merely underwrote exploitation in the industry.
It’s certainly an interesting position to take. We’ve all heard before that it has priced many poorer or geographically undesirable people out of the industry, but not normally that it contributed more generally to the industry’s bad practice.
To have the support of the leader of the NUJ and her assurance that its a practice that negatively effects everyone, not just wannabe hacks at the bottom, suggests that something might actually start to be done about it.
After all, the NUJ have successfully helped several former interns sue their employers for the money they should have been paid but this has always seemed like locking the stable gate after the horse has bolted. If you can’t afford to work unpaid in the first place, it doesn’t really matter if you can force them to pay you after a court battle later.
And if your first job is still only minimum wage and you live in London, you would still be so desperate to make ends meet that your job security will not be much improved.
The unpaid intern phenomena goes far beyond journalism to industries that do not have any problems with their bottom lines. Therefore it is the exploitation of a culture of desperation that, save government intervention, is not going to go away any time soon.
However maybe this is a small step in the right direction. The acknowledgement that this is not just a problem for wannabes and a wider issue for every journalist working in the industry may make them more inclined to be fairer and more ethical post Leveson.
The new emphasis on ‘socially responsible capitalism’ in the business world after the financial crisis of 2008 has meant that more businesses and industries are now paying interns a decent wage rather than excusing themselves by blaming the labour market.
So can Leveson drag the journalistic labour market kicking and screaming into the new age alongside the destruction of the rest of its bad practice?
As a natural sceptic, I think there has to be more than just a few supportive words from the NUJ. I suppose it all depends on Leveson. For floating around the industry in various odd places the past few months I’ve heard rumours that the Lord Leveson is under intense pressure to ‘whitewash’ the inquiry which, for the moment, he appears to be resisting.
Even if he doesn’t, although Miliband and Cameron have promised to implement Leveson’s findings, whatever they may be- Nick Clegg shows us the value of a politician’s promise.
We could find that there is a lot of hand wringing and empty promises when nothing, apart from a possible end to phone hacking, will really change.
Image courtesy of the Drum