I have been a freelance writer since 1996 and before that spent eight years on regional papers honing my skills. From my office in my Yorkshire home, I supply all the national papers with news stories, double page features, diary pieces, and the occasional tip-off that has led to a splash.
I specialise in human interest features, mainly writing for the tabloids simply because they pay best. Most of the time, I find my own work, gather the pictures and sign the interviewee to my business. Occasionally, I am commissioned to write a feature but I don’t mind finding my own work as it allows me to manage my working week.
One-time newsdesk assistants I worked with years ago now hold lofty executive positions and in the 17 years I have been self-employed I have only really had one serious run-in with a staffer.
But last week, I had a second, with the same paper and over the same issue: byline banditry.
The first incident occurred in 2007. I know the exact date because I’ve just looked up the story on the internet and saw the bandit’s name staring from the screen at me.
I sold that feature to The Sun after finding the story myself, as usual. The paper deemed it strong enough to run as its centre-page spread.
I only found this out when the next morning I switched on my TV to see the staffer I had dealt with parking her backside on GMTV’s sofa, holding aloft the paper open at my story.
She happily chatted away about the person in the feature, even though she’d never spoken to her, and brazenly passed off the story as her own. The staffer had put her own photo byline on the story while my name was nowhere to be seen.
Six years on, look on the internet and you will see this woman as the author of my story. But she is not. What she did was fraudulent and tantamount to property theft – or as I call it, byline banditry.
I emailed the staffer, asking why she did this without agreeing it with me. She brazenly wrote back that I should not assume a byline. I told her that I did not agree with what she did and it was shoddy practice.
There was little I could do but I learned to always check that my name would be on my work and I am happy to say that it has never been an issue since, though I never dealt with that Sun staffer again.
I understand, to a degree, that news agencies cannot be given bylines on every court, council and crime report. However, spreads and exclusives should have the author’s name on them.
Earlier this month, I pitched a good feature idea to The Sun which was commissioned.
They asked for 1,200 words. I supplied them with 1,600, based on my experience of them asking further questions and knowing that I could scale it back if asked. I emailed asking that it be my exclusive byline, only to be told: “It will be a joint byline. You have probably experienced that before because the subs can take it off, not a personal thing, but we keep staffers bylines as a house style. I always request a joint byline as I appreciate the work that has gone in. I spent three and a half years at an agency before here so I understand the importance of bylines.”
I told her I didn’t understand that but reluctantly agreed to a joint byline. It took three weeks to gather 20-plus collect pictures and ensure all was fine with the copy. I emailed the copy putting my byline first and the staffer’s second, with a request to subs asking to keep them in that order.
Then I got another email:
“As we discussed before I am very happy to push for a joint byline and make sure this is kept in for you but after having a quick look, I will need to edit the copy this end. As you can appreciate that I will be working on it, my byline will appear first. However as I said I am very happy to fight for the joint, rather than having an additional reporting byline at the bottom of the copy as we usually do.”
No, I couldn’t appreciate that because you can edit 300 words in no more than half an hour – and it was not her work. So I replied, trying to be diplomatic:
“I understand where you are coming from but on this story I disagree with you. I found the story, chased her up, done all the work re words and pics. I must insist my byline appears first. If you cannot agree to this, then I am happy to speak with your immediate boss or can email xx (naming a senior exec).”
The staffer sent me her boss’s name and added: “Many thanks for sending this over but on this occasion we will leave it.”
A few days later I emailed her boss asking if she was “aware of/supported XX’s decision to pull this story purely due to byline issues?”
I never heard back.
This incident raises so many issues for journalism. Interestingly, two of my close pals who are highly respected freelance journalists advised me not to write this piece in case I was blacklisted. I don’t care if I am, too long in the tooth for that. But I also believe a good story will always sell.
So who gains from this? The paper has lost a decent spread, I have lost money (though I had already decided to pull the piece if she did not agree) and the readers have lost a chance to see a good story.
Readers don’t care who writes a story or takes a picture, I bet no one outside of our industry knows who took the infamous Nigella pics. They may buy a paper to read a columnist, but that’s a different type of journalism.
I personally cannot understand how a journalist can sit with their colleagues and attempt to pass off a piece of work as their own, when everyone knows it isn’t their’s.
People say: “It’s the byline on the cheque that matters.” But I’ve earned that, just as I have on the one that should be in the paper and on the internet.
I had a TV company making a crime documentary interview me recently on a subject I’d written about in 1999. They found me through cuts.
This is not about ego, it’s about protecting my business or brand (whatever the latest phrase to call it is).
So I ask newspaper bosses, respect your freelancers and the hard graft they put into to provide you in London with great stories.
I don’t know an industry like ours where pay has decreased so much in the past decade.
So give us the respect we deserve – our names are our livelihood.
The Sun declined to comment on this article.