Help! I need somebody, not just anybody...
THE LONDON Freelance Branch meeting on 13 September was a question and answer session on union organising and assistance with our new Freelance Organisers, David Ayrton and Andy Smith. It was a crowded meeting - the Branch Chair opened by referring to fitting in all the business as "the battle between democracy and time".
Andy introduced himself as having been a member of the National Union of Journalists for many years. He started in the book sector; he has been a Branch official and has sat on the National Executive Council; and he has been President of the NUJ. Five years ago he became the union's newspaper organiser - and earlier this year transferred to organising freelances and members working in public relations, while still doing work on newspapers.
David told us how keen he is to be working with the colleagues here: "London Freelance Branch really is an outstanding branch with significant experience." He has worked for the NUJ for almost 20 years: since August 2002 to be precise. He has worked in every department of the union: newspapers, magazines and books, broadcasting... and he has been in the freelance sector for some time as what was then called an "assistant organiser" (now simply an "organiser"). He is now sharing the Senior Organiser responsibilities in the sector with Andy.
Andy described the "very varied caseload" of the Freelance Office. It is "very different from working with members who are employees and who are organised in large chapels that have access to other sources of advice". Members at the meeting "know better than I do how isolating freelancing can be" - though he does have some experience of freelancing. "Usually the Freelance Office is members' first port of call" when we have issues to deal with.
Many of the calls for help the Office gets are about non-payment - something that Andy had not previously had to deal with. (See "late and problem payments" in the Freelance Fees Guide and the London Freelance Branch interest & compensation calculator and Collect-o-Matic form.)
Others concern copyright: Andy finds the issues here fascinating and is "now getting head around" them. (See the very simple advice from the Freelance.)
And he had already heard that evening in the Zoom chat window of the meeting about issues of journalists' safety, and other matters that require legal assistance. He promised to come back to these.
Before he moved to the Freelance Office, most of Andy's work was about employment status. Newspapers are dependent on people who they insist on calling "casuals" - those working regularly but under contracts that attempt to define them as freelance. They are in reality neither one thing nor the other, and of course the point for the employer is to evade its responsibilities to these workers. (See "employment status" in the Freelance Fees Guide.)
And, Andy noted, "there is nothing to stop you being both employed and freelance." Sometimes the Freelance Office will refer members' queries to other organisers: "some issues, particularly for 'casuals', can best be dealt with by them or directly by chapels."
He concluded: "we're certainly not here to tell you what the right outcome is on any problem you have - we're here to find out what you want and how we can try to achieve that."
David clarified that the best way to contact the Organisers is through the Freelance Office email address. That way, their assistant Susan Kelly can keep records.
When is a legal issue is not (yet) an issue for lawyers
David recalled that "many issues that look like issues for lawyers can best be resolved by the office."
For example, getting members paid is the bread and butter of the union. Non-payment of a debt could often be grounds for legal action: but frequently the Freelance Office can get members paid money much sooner than they would be if they went to court.
It is essential that any members seeking advice on a legal matter contact the Freelance Office first. Members should use the emergency number provided for the NUJ by Thompsons Solicitors only in cases such as being arrested or facing an imminent police interview. (See "How to get legal assistance" from the Freelance.)
Andy added a plea to distinguish "between things that are urgent and things that are important". Many very important things are best dealt with in a couple of days.
Equally, David and Andy can often offer useful basic contract advice themselves, and can contact the client to try to get amendments. (See "commissions and contracts" in the Freelance Fees Guide.)
Many other cases concern copyright - and many of these are raised by photographers. (See the Freelance Fees Guide advice to photographers on copyright and the section for everyone, "rights and why they are important".)
And on the streets there "seems to be growing direct targeting of journalists" - some demonstrators see us as "agents of the state". We discussed this later in the meeting.
All these issues, David noted, "may need legal advice or even legal action - but that's not where we start, that's where we end up, if it comes to that. As in employment matters, you don't start with legal action: you start with negotiation or pressure on the employer."
‘A tremendous asset’
In David's work, he said, the London Freelance Branch website is a "tremendous asset - one which we use". It has come, he said, "from the knowledge and the understanding and the sheer hard work of Branch members. We particularly use the Freelance Fees Guide."
David and Andy are considering whether it would be possible to make use of that experience by recruiting volunteer representatives to help the Freelance Office deal with the load of personal cases: "these are our colleagues' livelihoods - what are we for, except to deal with them?"
The Chair asked when we may expect the Freelance Office to return to a 5-day week: since the start of the pandemic NUJ staff have been on 4 days. There is no concrete news: Andy hopes "that service to members hasn't been affected".
David contested that "no-one who has emailed the Freelance Office has not been dealt with." It was true that there had been problems with the phones - as he understands it all phones routed through Microsoft Outlook had been subject to an attack.
Jenny Vaughan asked: if the NUJ opens up membership to more people who are freelancing as well as doing other jobs, what will it mean for the Freelance Office?
Andy responded that in the Press & Public Relations sector the NUJ has a lot of isolated members. Many work in organisations where we have no other members, and probably no prospective members. Often their problems are not about traditional journalistic issues - they're often about workplace issues. There may be other unions in those workplaces - this is certainly true in local authorities, as it is for our members who are lecturers. He hopes many of these new members would hold joint membership with that other union, and that they would rely on the other union to "do the heavy lifting on workplace issues".
He added that if "you contact David or I, the conversation is in confidence if that's what you want. If you want a sounding board, or a second opinion on whether your initial take is reasonable - that's fine." Not every query will be something that the Freelance Office needs to deal with.
On the streets
Debora Hobson raised the issue of journalists - particularly photographers - facing problems with the police on the streets. David replied that "we have to be careful, and balanced." We do have "a history in which police have prevented our members from working and it is our absolute principle that our members must be able to work and report effectively. They have the right to do their jobs."
Over past two years the NUJ's emphasis has been on the UK Press Card Authority. Of course that card is the only one recognised by the national Police Chiefs' council. Only members who do news-gathering can get one.
"We've seen improvements." he reported. On 5 November police prevented newsgatherers from working at a protest. On 6 November the NUJ met the Metropolitan Police ("the Met") and "by midday we had a joint statement - and colleagues were reporting back from the frontline that they were now able to do their work."
The NUJ has had input to training for public order officers, for example producing a video in 2016 that was still in use in 2019. But the MO6 ("Met Operations 6") department of the Met has to draft in other officers - those with less public order training, and sometimes those from other police forces. The NUJ is working on training for these, David reported.
NUJ General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet sits on the National Committee for the Safety of Journalists.
"And let us not run away," David suggested, "with thinking that our problems are only with the police. We've seen people around the anti-vaccination movement targeting journalists at their homes and online and publishing personal information. We've seen intimidation on the street. A few weeks ago we saw intimidation of a female journalist in London's Oxford Street by anti-vaccination demonstrators." The severity and intensity of attacks from civilians have been very worrying.
We've got new joint written guidance for Met officers out in the last few months.
There is, still, "a lot more to do in terms of the inculcation of the importance of the freedom to report in police officers. We need to hold the police to account on their absolute responsibility to protect journalists from intimidation."
Ainhoa Paredes Penades added that, doing TV, "the only place I feel safe is in Downing Street" and asked for advice on how to defuse tension when, for example, someone circling around your live interview. "My cameraman has been bitten... I haven't, yet." She asked whether the Branch could organise a workshop to share experiences of how members have defused such situations. She had reported this case to the Foreign Press Association but not, until now, to the NUJ.
David noted that he had dealt with a case in which "police stood by while a journalist was harassed - though not physically assaulted. He'd approached the Met, which "says it is reviewing that," and assures David that "it will protect our people".
Vudi Xhymshiti does not see police improving their behaviour and described being assaulted." He recounted several incidents. For example, he was sitting in a bar taking pictures of protesters being arrested and the police asked him to leave. "I refused and said 'I have the right to be here'." The police went to the manager, who declined to expel him - and then "the police dragged me out".
More recently, after photographing a protest against the Defence and Security Equipment International 2021 arms fair (DSEI) at the Excel Centre in East London, he was sat in a restaurant filing photos online. Police asked to search his bags and he refused. "They asked 'how did you know this would happen?' and insisted that I should be searched or taken into detention. I said 'go ahead, handcuff me - you have no reason to search a journalist doing their job'."
A member asked what the NUJ can do for members about defamation - whether you've been libelled or slandered on Twitter or elsewhere. Andy responded that the NUJ doesn't (generally) get involved in defamation cases. It does offer a Professional Indemnity Insurance package that can cover your defence of a defamation claim.
The same member has managed to register for the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow from 31 October to 12 November. But for how long should a journalist stay at such a long event? And can anyone help her to book a hotel, when the city seems to be full?
Andy responded that if an organisation is actively making your life a nightmare with registration, get in touch. Often the Freelance Office can contact the event organisers and sort it out. On other matters "we'd be likely to refer you to the Branch" - or in this case to Glasgow Branch...
And when might the Branch resume meeting face-to-face? These questions would have been so much easier to ask on the edge of a real meeting... Matt Salusbury responded that we hoped that the December social event would be in person.