How Australia’s media giants put the squeeze on freelance journos

Freelancers are now beginning to register on the political radar. In his address to the Canberra Press Club last week, Insecure Work inquiry head and former deputy PM Brian Howe unloaded on the trend towards rampant casualisation, highlighting the massive 40% of the population in irregular employment.

In his submission to the inquiry, MEAA federal secretary Chris Warren highlighted the continuing problems faced by freelancers on pay, copyright, and moral rights, even though many work under direction from an editor in a manner eerily similar to that of a regular employee. As a contractor, neither the Fair Work Act nor the National Employment Standards apply and some freelancers are being forced to purchase their own public liability insurance to guard against defamation snafus.

In addition to changes to unfair clauses, the union is pushing for a raft of changes to the Competition and Consumer Act, including statutory minimums for certain commercial contracts, a proper definition of an unfair contract, a compulsion on publishers to negotiate and an enshrined right for freelancers to withdraw their labour to force the issue.

Stewart, while still an MEAA member, is critical of its approach, saying they have basically run dead on the issue.

I’ve thought several times over the past year that the MEAA should change its name to the Media Industry Alliance, for a more appropriate M.I.A. acronym,” she said.

I think that there’s a strong perception among freelancers in the MEAA that employed journos see us as the enemy, rather than as comrades-in-arms. Without a powerful ‘house’ committee like there is at Fairfax and ACP, I can’t see freelancers ever having much traction,” she said.

In recent months the MEAA has slowly begun to fight back, launching a website specifically for freelancers that includes a standard model contract shorn of all the nasties that freelancers should avoid in negotiations. An associated explainer makes the important point that where an extensive licence is granted to the publisher it should be reflected in an increased word rate or revenue chop out. All legal liability should be automatically assumed by the publisher.

A new national freelance committee comprising state-based delegates will meet for the first time in May and active online freelance support groups exist in Sydney and Melbourne.

Market conditions over the past two years have obviously created an extremely difficult environment for freelancers,” the MEAA spokesman Sean Brogan explained to Crikey. “We have had some success in obtaining an authority from the ACCC to collectively bargain on behalf of freelancers employed by the four big publishers, but we are pushing for further changes to the Competition and Consumer Act to create a fairer market situation for freelancers.”

And of course there’s always the other option of refusing to sign or returning contracts with red lines through it.

The former head of the Sydney Freelance Association, Rachael Jane Chin, told Crikey that “this issue goes beyond the welfare of current freelance journalists. What kind of future do aspiring journalists have when the number of employed positions are shrinking every year? We’ve got contracts out there that have become industry standard that say journalism is cheap and that journalists and the work of journalists are not to be treated with respect.”

She agrees the MEAA has been slow to act since the ACCC ruling was handed down.

I think they just kept putting it in the too-hard basket, but this issue is just so fundamentally important … for what it’s worth, you’ve just got to get the lawyers in.”

Freelancers have had some minor victories — PacMags’ notorious 2010 contract that granted the company rights to a freelancer’s work anywhere in the world forever and appeared to indemnify the company against defamation claims has been partially wound back — but the contributor is still liable unless they are the victim of an introduced error. Arguably, News’ contract is stronger in this regard, specifically ruling out defamation claims unless the contributor has been knowingly reckless.

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4 Responses

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  1. so, grab some subby crayon and redact yer own contracts …. ? Oh. (what are the subby’s up to nowadays ?)

    by izatso? on Apr 28, 2012 at 8:17 am

  2. Declining to sign a contract isn’t a good strategy since a court is likely to assume that any subsequent work was done in accordance with the unsigned contract. Signing the contract with changes is a reasonable strategy. However, if the publisher resends the original contract the freelancer should return it with the changes again. This leads to the ‘battle of the forms’ which the courts find difficult to untangle which they may resolve by referring to past practice between the parties or to industry practice.

    by Gavin Moodie on Apr 28, 2012 at 9:05 am

  3. MEAA, who has 1500 freelance members on its books or about 9% of its total membership base,” so, of the 15,000+ “journos” in their union, how many are PR flacks, for corps or government depts?
    As to HufPo-ism, the non sequitor cartoon in Thursday’s SMH put it perfectly; citizen journalism takes us back to the daze of the pseudonymous contributors to the Thunderer, and gossip about the bien pissants of the over privileged, a private income being essential.

    by AR on Apr 28, 2012 at 7:58 pm

  4. Hi Andrew,

    Nice story. Unfortunately you choose the wrong medium to have it published in.

    I am a freelance journalist in Sydney. My stories have been published in many places, sometimes with dubious contracts and limited pay, but always with pay.

    Criky, a publication I otherwise respect, has twice this year accepted stories of mine for publication. And twice your editors have attempted to get me to give (GIVE) you my work for free! FOR FREE!

    I’d be happy to do if — if we lived in a free world. Wouldn’t it be great if everything was free! School fees. The mortgage. Food. Holidays. That’s a great business model you have there. Unfortunately, it’s a scam because even Criky charges people to read their stories.

    Those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. ACP and all the others may pay very little, but at least they pay and put value on my work. Why can’t you guys do the same? Hey, maybe ACP or News would pay me to run a story about how Criky takes content off writers for free and then on-sells it to the public?

    by ian neubauer on May 26, 2012 at 9:41 am

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