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The Media and Precariousness

Journalism has a reputation as a ‘glamorous’ career, but while the top of the industry is well paid, much of the profession is riddled with low pay and precarious working.

A survey by the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ), which organises the main qualification for print journalists, found that poverty pay remains a real problem.

The average salary for journalists has remained static at £27,500 for six years, while the number of hours worked continues to increase, especially at local newspaper level, as management squeezes budgets and piles more pressure on staff.

Employment figures released yesterday showing wage growth at 3.6 per cent mis-represent the extent that everyday people are struggling to make ends meet - as CLASS showed in our Labour Market Realities report - and this is true of journalism.

CLASS caught up with Joshua Neicho, a member of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), who used to work for the London Evening Standard, The Independent and other major publications. He said the media needed to be more welcoming to trade unions and to embrace greater diversity.

Over 60 per cent of journalists are freelance, with some working often unpredictable ‘shifts’ in newsrooms as casual labour, or submitting commissioned articles remotely. An NUJ survey found that 80 per cent of freelancers had not kept up with the cost of living due to difficulty in getting commissions and delays in receiving payment.

While being a freelancer is a choice for some – particularly subject specialists or experienced journalists who have built contacts during their years as a staff desk journalist – and those freelancers enjoy the flexibility this brings, many others desire the security and benefits of being an employee.

Yet being chosen as a salaried journalist remains a profession dominated by privilege, with over half of leading journalists and 80 per cent of editors being privately educated. The industry also over 90 per cent white despite the 2011 census showing that 17 per cent of British citizens were non-white, and most of the national print media being based in London, a capital city with a population that is over 40 per cent non-white.

Trainee journalists typically get a starting wage of just £17,000 or less, but an increase in the number of working journalists and the shrinking of the ‘traditional’ newspaper industry - at local, regional and national level – has meant that increasingly wannabe journalists are forced to work for free and expected to present a body of journalism such as a blog which they produce in their own time.

This presents a barrier to those from low-income backgrounds, who are frequently saddled with student debt and may have increased their financial burden by undertaking a post-degree professional qualification such as an NCTJ. If they do not have the backing of wealthy parents many are forced to abandon their dream of a career in journalism in order to earn a wage. Meanwhile, those from more privileged backgrounds are more likely to walk straight into a journalism job.

Some trace this imbalance in the structure of journalism back to the bitter battle that Rupert Murdoch fought with print unions at Wapping in east London in 1986. Police charged at strikers who were protesting about the imposed move of the printing operation for News International, which then owned The Sun, The Times, Sunday Times, and the News of the World.

While the move to digital printing was inevitable, the dispute came to represent an attempt to crush the power of trade unionism in the media, and Wapping ranks alongside the defeat of the coal miners by Margaret Thatcher in the same era. Murdoch’s victory heralded the age of the media baron.

Until recently, when top-shelf magazine merchant Richard Desmond sold the Daily Express and Daily Star, 80 per cent of Britain’s print media were owned by just five billionaires – Desmond, Murdoch, Viscount Rothermere (Daily Mail and stable), and the two Barclay Brothers (Daily and Sunday Telegraph). And just four companies own almost the entire local newspaper industry.

Their dominance has allowed the barons to give scant regard to issues like pay, working hours and redeployment when making cuts, and to resist pressure to make the industry reflect society. Until the NUJ and other media trade unions can increase their influence, the working life of everyday journalists remains precarious, overworked and underpaid.

Lester Holloway is Communications and Events Officer at CLASS