Putting the ‘free’ into freelance…

WHATEVER you think of Michael Gove – and feel free to tick the box marked ‘not a lot’ – he is said to earn £150,000 a year for eight hours a week moonlighting at the Times.

I read that in Private Eye on the same day as Press Gazette, the online magazine for journalists, reported that one in three freelance journalists are on state benefits. This information comes from a survey carried out by the National Council for the Training of Journalists, which questioned 621 freelance journalists, “of whom 526 answered questions about their earnings”.

The survey reckons that freelance journalists typically earn around £20,000 a year. That isn’t a lot, but it is a lot more than I managed while attempting to subsist on freelance earnings alone.

The survey follows data from the Labour Force Survey which showed a rise in the number of freelance journalists in the UK to 34,000 in 2016 from 18,000 a year earlier.

What explains this surge? A newspaper industry in deep shit and laying people off would be my best guess. I had been a fulltime, salaried journalist for all my working life until May 2015. When I was made redundant, I added ‘freelance’ to my job title and carried on, although what I carried on with at first was a foolish fantasy of how nice it would be to earn a good living from being a freelance.

I did earn money, but not a lot.

Two respondents to the survey said they earned more than £100,000 a year from journalism, while 73 earned less than £5,000. My freelance earnings fell between those two extremes, but were much closer to the lower figure than the higher.

“Around a third of those questioned said they also did other work outside journalism,” according to the Press Gazette. You certainly need other work if you are not Michael Gove. That’s why I combine a bit of freelance writing with working for the Press Association two days a week and being a visiting journalism lecturer at Leeds Trinity University.

It’s not as lucrative as my old job – which was hardly a money-spinner – but it is interesting to combine different jobs. This week I have taught on two days, written a freelance feature on another, and will be working on Friday and Saturday in my other job.

In the Press Gazette report, there was a link to an item from 2008 when Quentin Letts, described as “possibly Britain’s most prolific freelance journalist”, said that journalists needed to diversify and not count on making a living only from newspapers.

“I think we’re probably the last generation that’s going to make a living out of newspapers,” Letts told the Independent on Sunday at a time when that newspaper still existed. “I suspect in 10 years’ time it’s going to be much harder to turn a shilling.”

I hadn’t realised that Letts was a freelance or that being rude about people in the Daily Mail could turn quite so many shillings. Perhaps I should have been ruder and posher and less morally squeamish. “That conscience don’t earn you no shilling,” as no one has ever said until just now.

I bought a copy of Private Eye because next Monday morning I want to talk to my magazine students about the importance of satire, with the Eye reporting record sales. Over in the US, Saturday Night Live is having a moment too with its Trump parodies. Alec Baldwin does a top Trump, pouting lips and all, while Melissa McCarthy is blinding as Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer.

We certainly need satire now, as I shall be saying on Monday.

Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye, provided me with a quote, which was decent of him. Not all editors and columnists answer my emails for quotes to pass on to students. Tim Dowling in the Guardian’s Weekend magazine was an honourable exception – as, too, was the editor of that supplement.

The Eye item about Gove points out that the Times ran a piece listing former high-profile ministers who were now “out of office but not out of pocket” – and quite forgot to mention Gove the Grovel (did you see that Trump interview? Dear God…).

Top of the money pile are George Osborne, now coining it in working for Black Rock investments, and David Bloody Cameron, accepting thousands to speak about Brexit to a private breakfast of hedge-fund managers.

Run that by me again. Cameron basically causes all this Brexit chaos, and then goes around earning a fortune talking about it. The pink-faced cheek of that man is beyond belief.

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