The journalists’ union has written to the country’s top newspaper and magazine publishers demanding greater transparency on the “inequitable, capricious and unjust” pay rates for freelance writers.

The push is inspired by last week’s scathing email from Monthly editor John van Tiggelen to Good Weekend rival Ben Naparstek alleging wild discrepancies between freelance pay rates at the Fairfax magazine insert.

The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance wants media outlets to collate and publish the amount they pay freelancers — as well as gender breakdowns to show whether concerns about the underpayment of female writers are accurate.

In a letter sent to publishers yesterday afternoon — and obtained by Crikey — MEAA media director Paul Murphy writes:

“The spat between editors at The Monthly and Fairfax Media’s Good Weekend has revealed to the public what the Media Alliance and its members have long known: that the setting of freelance pay rates is opaque, inequitable, capricious and unjust. This can lead to grossly unfair and potentially discriminatory outcomes.

“We believe openness about freelance rates of pay and how they are struck will go a long way to preserve quality and ensure fairness in the market — particularly as publishers are increasingly turning to freelancers to provide high-quality journalism.

“It is time you and other publishers across the industry come clean on what you pay freelancers.”

The letter has been sent to Fairfax’s metro media editorial director Garry Linnell, News Limited editorial director Campbell Reid, Bauer Media publishing director Gerry Reynolds and Pacific Magazines CEO Nick Chan. None have responded to Crikey‘s request for comment, but the request to publish such information is unlikely to be greeted with much enthusiasm among media outlets.

A different version of the letter was sent to Morry Schwartz, who publishes The Monthly and Quarterly Essay.

In his email to Naparstek, van Tiggelen claimed pay rates at Good Weekend can vary from 70 cents a word to $2.50 and that men appeared to be on higher pay rates. Although some contributors insist there is no clear gender divide at the magazine, Good Weekend regular Lisa Pryor has already vowed not to write for the magazine again unless Naparstek increases her $1 a word rate.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission ruled in 2010 that the MEAA can collectively bargain on behalf of freelancers, but the union’s attempts to meet with publishers about the issue have so far been rebuffed.

As well as unequal pay rates, the union is also concerned about freelance writers being stripped of their intellectual property rights and a growing tendency for journalists to be asked to work for free.

Earlier this week, US magazine The Atlantic apologised to veteran foreign correspondent Nate Thayer after asking whether the magazine could republish a trimmed-down version of a lengthy story about North Korea on its website for free. Thayer told The Atlantic‘s global editor in an email exchange he later published on his blog:

“I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children.”