Two-thirds of media workers have suffered financially because of the pandemic

  • 11 May 2020

As many as 66 per cent of UK media workers have suffered financially because of the pandemic and lockdown, with freelances feeling unsupported by the government’s financial aid package.

Two-thirds of UK media workers have suffered financially because of the pandemic and lockdown, with freelances being hit especially hard and feeling unsupported by the government's financial aid package.

The decrease in household income varied across the more than 1,200 members of the NUJ who responded to the union's survey, but when the figures were broken down between staff and self-employed, a third of freelances said their work had dried up completely and a further third said it had decreased sharply. The overall figure for members losing 80-100 per cent of their income was 18 per cent.

NUJ members are also braced for further economic shockwaves, with 84 per cent fearing the crisis will lead to redundancies at their workplace. The survey also revealed that freelances fear the impact on their livelihoods will be felt keenly for many months to come – a third said they did not think their income would improve until 2021; 39 per cent said they did not expect work opportunities to improve for three to six months whilst 16 per cent said they do not expect to make a living at all following the pandemic.

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said:

"This survey reveals how NUJ members are suffering severe hardship and anxiety as a result of cancelled work and deferred commissions, furloughs and pay cuts. For many, however, it feels like the eye of the storm, with more pain to come unless meaningful and urgent intervention is secured to support our industry and the journalists and media workers carrying out a vital public service. This crisis has underlined the critical role that quality journalism and news provision plays in our communities – its survival cannot be left to the vagaries of the market, in an already broken business model – it's now time to support public interest news and create a vibrant and genuinely pluralistic sector for the future."

The NUJ's News Recovery Plan, From Health Crisis to Good News, sets out a range of short-term measures to help media workers and the industry get through the present crisis and longer-term measures to reinvigorate the industry into a reimagined future:

COVER: From Health Crisis to Good News
From Health Crisis to Good News

A recovery plan for the news industry by the NUJ.

16 April 2020

At the time the survey was taken*, 45 per cent said their employer had furloughed editorial staff; figures from HMRC showed that a quarter of UK employers overall were covered by the scheme. Of those furloughed, more than a half (52 per cent) had not had their pay topped up by their employer. A fifth (22 per cent) said their employers made up the full 20 per cent difference between the amount paid by the government.

Freelances on the PAYE system are eligible to be furloughed alongside their staff colleagues, but only 5.5 per cent said their employer was doing so.

Of those working, 42 per cent had their pay cut (23 per cent on a sliding scale depending on their salary and 19 per cent across the board). A quarter said they were also covering work of colleagues on furlough. Those surveyed reported very little consultation or explanation of why certain people were furloughed. There have been a number of cases when the union has had to intervene because companies have furloughed women because they were pregnant.

Almost half (48 per cent) of those on a furlough feared they were at greater risk of being made redundant at the end of the scheme.

Journalists also reported finding it difficult to get information because press officers have been furloughed or fewer were taking on the same work, causing delays in responding to requests from reporters. This has caused concern because public organisations, including councils, hospitals and government are not being put under the same scrutiny at a time when it is vital the consequences of Covid-19 are covered. Comments also referenced challenges in access, and included:

  • "Struggling to source quotes for articles, especially from individual people and smaller organisations without dedicated press offices and even bigger organisations seem unable to provide quotes for non-Covid-19-related stories (most claim they are too busy with Covid-19 issues to comment on anything else)."
  • "NHS comms teams are not enabling interviews with healthcare staff."
  • "Council has stopped holding all meetings and has been slower than other local authorities in setting up "virtual" meetings."
  • "Access to information about events, NHS interaction is non-existent. Police have been reluctant to 'interpret government statements' and give answers for lockdown exemptions and the local council is slow to answer queries."
  • "Press offices extremely slow to respond and often just don't respond at all."

A third of members said they were having to juggle family and work life, with 44 per cent of them, particularly those with young children, finding it difficult. Comments included:

  • "I can work about three hours per day because of having to supervise and teach two children aged 9 and 11. It's incredibly frustrating, stressful and exhausting."
  • "Managing but having to home school 8.30-4.00 and work a full day afterwards."
  • "It's hard to educate two primary age children and focus on finding work at the same time. It's also a worry that when lockdown ends grandparents will be unable to help as they're in the vulnerable group and will likely still be shielding."

Virtually everyone (97 per cent) said Covid-19 had led changes in work-practices at their workplace. Two-thirds of respondents said the changes imposed had not been agreed or negotiated with their trade union.

Many specialist journalists have not been able to work because there is no sport, arts, travel or other events and activities they normally cover. Some have been ill or are shielding. Photographers are not being commissioned or have been put on furloughs. Although at a national level negotiations with the polices have been useful and protocols agreed, some photographers have had problems with individual officers, but more often they have faced hostility from members of the public who do not understand their key worker status.

Of those working from home, most (79 per cent) said they had the necessary equipment to work remotely, although more than a half reported experiencing internet connection/speed problems at some time. There are plenty examples of broadcasters working from their sheds and interviewing by Zoom or Skype, but for many others this has been a frustrating experience.

Many members who have been office-based throughout the lockdown raised concerns over the levels of care being taken by employers to guarantee safe working, including social distancing and improved cleanliness. A third of respondents said social distancing was not always being observed and two-thirds said they were not confident adequate cleaning is taking place in their workplace, posing questions about how media companies will ensure any return to office-based working will meet the threshold of being "Covid-secure".

Comments included:

  • "We sit too close opposite each other; office is not set up for social distancing."
  • "Often logging on at multiple machines, some colleagues coming within two metres."
  • "We are still continuing to sit in our same desks. The software we use is only on the computers at our desk, so we have no other choice to sit there."
  • "Colleagues are very lax over social distancing and working in studios/production areas, it's virtually impossible to always maintain two metres from others."
  • "People are expected to share the same car."

Originally payments under the Self-employed Income Support Scheme were not expected to reach freelances until June and 39 per cent said they strongly or somewhat agreed this would lead to financial difficulty. The scheme has since been brought slightly forward and the first payments are expected to reach bank accounts by Monday 25 May, or six working days after the claim is made.

The News Recovery Plans short-term measures include:

  1. A windfall tax of 6 per cent on the tech giants, using the Digital Services Tax, towards funding a News Recovery Plan.
  2. Tax credits and interest free loans to support journalist jobs, for frontline reporters covering the Covid-19 crisis and recovery.
  3. No public money for firms making redundancies, cutting pay, giving executive bonuses or blocking trade union organisation.
  4. Strategic investment in government advertising, including the hyperlocal sector, involving central and local governments and public bodies.
  5. Further funding by NESTA's Future News Fund of innovative, public interest journalism and a similar scheme in Ireland
  6. Free vouchers for online or print subscriptions to all 18-and-19-year olds and tax credits for households with subscriptions

* The survey of all members was carried out by SurveyMonkey from 24 April-10 May 2020.

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