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2 March 2018updated 28 Jun 2021 4:39am

Telling journalists to “follow your bliss” by writing for free is as anti-socialist as you can get

Changing the media requires helping more people get into it, and that requires fair wages.

By James Ball

The British left is divided on many issues, but one issue that has long united it is the idea that people who do work should be fairly compensated for it: this is surely one of the fundamental principles of left-wing politics.

Except, apparently, for writers or journalists – or so says Media Lens, an organisation whose mission is “describing how mainstream newspapers and broadcasters operate as a propaganda system for the elite interests”, which bizarrely came out against journalists working for fair pay in an online row this week.

The site’s Twitter account told would-be writers “don’t write for the ‘mainstream’. Don’t write for money. Don’t write for prestige. Just ‘follow your bliss’ by writing what you absolutely love to write to inspire and enlighten other people. Write what seems interesting, important and true, and give it away for free”. 

The mantra is about as wrong as it is possible for any statement to be. For one, it should be possible to write what seems “interesting, important and true” and get paid for it, especially if thousands or millions of readers find value in that – and that’s what many professional reporters and opinion writers try to do.

Writing for free is a luxury: it’s something only available to people who either don’t need to work, or who already have a comfortable income from another job which allows them to view writing as a hobby. At present, though, journalism provides a living for more than 73,000 people in the UK – and few would suggest other professions should become little more than hobbies, making thousands unemployed.

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This is before we start to think about how complex journalism is done: it is easy to look at lots of shoddy, lazy, or opinionated journalism and dismiss “mainstream” or “corporate” media, and only an idiot would deny the press has its flaws.

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But virtually all of the best journalism comes out of “corporate” or “mainstream” media: whether it was MPs’ expenses; exposure of offshore leaks; the revelations of the Iraq War Logs; revelation of grooming gangs; Libor rigging; or dozens of other major pieces of accountability stories – all of these came to the public through mainstream media.

Such stories take time and a lot of money, and also a lot of professional expertise: any fool can join a few dots and suggest there “may be something going on here”. Trying to prove it, make the story compelling, and do so without breaching libel laws, takes professionals. “Bliss” only gets you so far: eventually you need cash, too.

Uncomfortably for sites such as Media Lens, there are reasons for idealistic journalists to hold their noses and try out at least parts of the mainstream: if you want your writing to have impact, you need to find an audience. While the mainstream is by no means now the only show in town, newspaper websites have the biggest reach and audience they’ve ever had, and the BBC has a bigger audience still. If you want to reach people and reveal truths, or change minds, it helps to be where they are – even if writing for a few hundred people who already agree with you is more comforting.

Many people who dismiss “corporate” media do so without having ever worked in it: such theories often imagine proprietors dropping in and editing their reporters’ copy, or advertisers angrily demanding changes to stories.

Such things happen – and then get reported in rival outlets, often causing outrage – but are unusual. And many outlets described as corporate have no owners to interfere: you may love or loathe what is in the Guardian, for example, but the choices are made solely by its editors. They have no proprietor to step in and interfere.

Journalism salaries are lower than they should be, and it’s an industry that is difficult to get a start in without connections, and often without some family money to make it possible to work for free. That isn’t how it should be: the media is strongest when it reflects the full spectrum of the society it tries to cover.

To change the media requires helping more people get into it, and that requires fair wages – not treatises that writing for money, or trying to write somewhere with professional standards and mass audiences is “selling out”. The media will only change as the people within it do.

Ironically, the Media Lens outburst came in response to a chance to help make that change – an advert for the Anthony Howard fellowship, which offers under-27s who want to write politics a chance to do so for a year, at the Observer, the Times, and the New Statesman, paid.

It’s things like this – not outbursts from Media Lens – which have the real power to change the media for the better. Why not apply?

James Ball was paid to write this article. Sorry.