It seems there are freelancers in this country, and then there are “headline acts”. The freelancers can be bullied. The headline acts write their own rules.

This morning 3AW’s Neil Mitchell had a good yarn about Steve Vizard handing back his gong. It was an exclusive on the front page of News Limited’s Herald Sun.

Good luck to him. But hang on. Doesn’t Mitchell work for Fairfax Media, now the owner of 3AW? Indeed, there is speculation around town that if Age editor Andrew Jaspan gets the push in the next few months then Mitchell would replace him.

So how come Mitchell was allowed to scoop his employer in the rival news sheet?

Meanwhile Crikey has been contacted by Sydney-based Fairfax Media shareholders, who have noted that Steve Price uses his gig at Fairfax owned 2UE to continually promote stories from News Limited’s Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph, rather than from the mother ship’s Sydney Morning Herald. Price is also a News Limited columnist. He frequently interviews News Limited editors, and never or hardly ever those from Fairfax.

One shareholder commented: “Why is Fairfax Media management allowing this to happen? It’s all well and good to make out they are the ABC of print media, but part of the reason the shares are under-performing may be because they give free plugs to the opposition. Ridiculous.”

I don’t have a problem with all this. As a freelance journalist myself, I think it is a damn good thing in the new multi-platform linked-in online yadda yadda of the future for journalists to stand alone and be able to sell their wares to whoever will buy. After all, content is king and we are the content makers. (I can understand, though, why shareholders might take a different view.)

Indeed Fairfax’s comfort with its stars working for the opposition might be seen as an admirable commitment to media diversity — were it not for the fact Fairfax Media gets all jealous and possessive about most of its contributors.

Just last week Crikey reported on the new contracts being imposed on freelancers by Fairfax, under which anyone who writes more than three pieces for the organisation in six months is not allowed to sell to a long list of other media organisations, including all major rival newspapers, magazines, web sites and broadcasters.

So why doesn’t Fairfax Media have a problem with Mitchell, one of its star acts, working for the opposition?

Mitchell has a long term contract with the Herald-Sun that pre-dates the Fairfax takeover of Southern Cross radio. He told Crikey this morning that he had had no response from anybody within the Fairfax organisation other than “good story”.

“I told AW what I was doing because every other time I have done the same thing I have alerted them in advance. Much as I admire The Age I am contracted to write for the Herald Sun and have been for some time.”

Meanwhile his boss, 3AW program director Clark Forbes, said he wasn’t aware of the Fairfax Media freelance contracts, nor had anyone suggested that there was a problem with Mitchell writing exclusives for News Limited, something he has done several times before, and which increases the impact of the story.

Mitchell is a contractor at 3AW, not an employee. “Perhaps that makes a difference,” said Forbes.

But aren’t other freelancers also contractors? Well, said Clark, people such as Mitchell and Derryn Hinch are not just freelancers. “They are headline acts in Melbourne. They are not just banging out a couple of travel pieces for the back pages.” Nor would they take kindly to being told what they can and can’t do.

So there we have it. Headline acts own themselves. Foot soldiers are loved so much they want to own us.

Makes you feel all gooey.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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