In these difficult times for mainstream media, freelance journalists have often been first to suffer, as covered recently in several stories in Crikey and on my blog. Publishers including ACP Magazines and Fairfax Media have tried to impose extraordinarily oppressive contracts that prevent freelancers from offering their work elsewhere, and require them to give up all copyright and moral rights.

As reported previously,  the freelancers have been annoyed with the journos’ union, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, for being tardy in taking action, specifically in getting an authorisation from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to allow collective bargaining on behalf of freelancers over the contracts.

The Alliance finally got its application in December last year. Yesterday, the ACCC released a draft determination in which, despite the objections of the publishers, it anticipates allowing  the Alliance to “collectively negotiate the terms of engagement of freelance journalists with Fairfax Media Limited, ACP Magazines Ltd, News Limited and Pacific Magazines”.

It is a qualified victory for the Alliance, although submissions are still being sought on the draft determination.

Organising freelancers to sign up to any collective negotiations may be difficult, however. And indeed freelancers generally are a difficult group for the union. Trying to get underpaid and isolated freelancers to take any kind of collective action can be rather like herding cats. Almost by definition, they are not joiners. Many work in isolation.

Nevertheless, as the industrialised media declines as an employer of large numbers of journalists, pay and conditions in freelance contracts will become increasingly important to the future of journalism.

So it looks as though the battle will be under way soon. If the bulk of freelancers who fill the trade press and the sections of our major newspapers get involved, it could change the face of a good deal of the media.

Watch this space.

Peter Fray

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