#HeartNUJ: Essential for all freelance media workers
14 February 2017
Francis Sedgemore, NUJ member and union rep
Like many freelance journalists, I came to the trade in later life. I was previously a research scientist and, as a result, had turned grey before my time. As a jobbing physicist I devoted considerable time and energy to popular science communication and public outreach, and through this developed a passion for writing about science and engineering.
In 2003 I left academia and devoted myself to journalism. I say "journalism" rather than science writing since I was fortunate to secure investigative journalism work in the business-to-business sector. B2B publishers were at the time hiring senior scientists and engineers capable of critically evaluating research results for industrialists and business angels looking for investment opportunities in emerging technologies.
As a new freelance journalist largely ignorant of the media industry and the trials of self-employment, I joined the NUJ, and before long I benefitted practically from my subscription.
The NUJ freelance office provided sound advice, and supported me when dealing with clients reluctant to honour their contractual obligations.
For a few years I was a passive consumer of union services, but I occasionally attended meetings of the London freelance branch (LFB). As a home-based worker, I particularly valued being part of the NUJ at local level and, once drawn into the warm if sometimes tetchy embrace of the wider union community, my level of activity increased. I eventually joined the LFB committee and later became secretary of this more than 4,000-strong megabranch. I was also active in trades councils in the London region.
Since fleeing the Great Wen I have become a member of Cambridge NUJ. Although much smaller than LFB, Cambridge branch, which serves a wide geographical area in the East of England, is active in the city and region and is tightly integrated with workplace NUJ chapels. Cambridge NUJ members meet regularly in a pub to conduct union business and, crucially, have a good natter. We are mostly harmless.
I have no formal role in Cambridge NUJ, but that is just as well since I am busy with union activities at national and international level, being vice-chair of the union's equality council, a member of the ethics council, freelance industrial council and the public relations and communications council.
Right now I am taking part in the NUJ’s work on behalf of persecuted journalists in Turkey, and for the ethics council I am helping draft reporting guidelines for stories involving sexual abuse. We are also organising a special conference on the political and ethical challenges of reporting on Brexit.
Journalism can be a hard life, and this is certainly true for freelance workers. Collective action and information sharing is vital when it comes to securing rights, defending interests and promoting professional standards – and these are the raisons d’être of the NUJ. Legal, training and other benefits provided to members are worth every penny of the subscription and I respectfully question the wisdom of any eligible communications worker who chooses not to join a trade union.
The NUJ exists to serve individual members and it does so in a professional manner that engages with political realities, but is not beholden to sectional interests.
As with any human collective, you will find within the NUJ people and situations that are utterly infuriating, but that is a small price to pay for the tangible rewards of union membership.