Freelancers in danger

In the past 15 years, freelance footage rates in this country have dropped from £700 per month to £250. Many have been forced to give up the game and turn to more lucrative professions.

Meanwhile the freelances that survive are seen increasingly as opportunists looking to make a quick buck rather than committed individuals prepared to risk their lives for their work.

Yet some of the great television operators out there are freelance, and freelances have filmed some of the best news material of the past two decades.

Martin Adler was a case in point. One of the best freelances I knew, he was shot and killed on the morning of 23 June this year while covering an otherwise peaceful rally in Mogadishu.

Martin was an accomplished photo-journalist as well as a video freelance. He specialised in independent reporting from the world's most troubled countries and was enormously experienced.

He prided himself on covering stories that many of the major broadcasters had written off as too dangerous or simply forgotten about.

Martin's death has reignited the debate about freelances, their safety and the responsibility that broadcasters have for them.

It also brought into sharp focus long-standing freelance complaints about the lack of commitment to them by news organisations, the absence of affordable insurance, and poor returns for their footage.

On the part of the broadcasters there has been a degree of handwringing.

Some have even talked piously of a responsibility not to take footage from news independents that is acquired in dangerous circumstances.

This is, of course, nonsense and runs counter both to the news organisations' interests and those of the freelance.

The notion that freelances are somehow less responsible and more foolhardy than other journalists is largely untrue.

While young and inexperienced freelances are certainly a vulnerable group, experienced freelances are likely to be among the safest operators in the industry.

Martin, for example, was a regular instructor on the AKE hazardous environments course, the first industry safety course that freelances helped set up in 1993. These courses are now industry standard.

Far from helping freelances, if editors refuse to use their footage because it is high-risk, they are merely taking away one of the few remaining avenues freelances have to participate in.

The answer has surely got to be not to increasingly restrict freelances, but to help, respect and nurture them.

The only British broadcaster that has sought to make space for freelances is Channel 4 News with its independence fund, now 15 years old. Much of the refreshing and less commodified feel of its news programme comes from this association.

Other broadcasters have been far less supportive, pushing freelances to the margins. When they do use their footage they prefer to disguise it as their own.

The television news industry as a whole has been poor at understanding safety, because it cannot reconcile itself to the reality that risk is an inherent part of newsgathering.

If we report conflicts, reporters will be killed. The idea that no story is worth the life of a journalist is outdated and nonsensical. It is also disrespectful to those who have given their lives in the field.

Instead of accepting risk as part of its world, the television news industry has all too frequently buried its head in the sand.

Broadcasters use short out-sourced safety courses rather than regular in-house training supported by a structure of safety qualifications.

Former special forces soldiers are hired to "protect" and organise journalists, but little encouragement is given to promote practical field skills to the journalists and operators themselves.

The result is poor — a sort of safety correctness where broadcasters promote superficial understanding and expect freelances to subscribe.

Meanwhile the requirements of freelances are totally ignored.

All we need is access to structured safety courses, affordable insurance, fair rates and credit when we come up with top work.

When that happens, freelances will have the conditions to thrive.

And when a journalist as good as Martin Adler is killed in the field, we in the television industry should do him the honour of elevating him to a pantheon of respected war reporters who paid the ultimate price in the service of the truth.

We should praise his courage and integrity and honour his contribution, and not allow less adventurous people to tarnish his name with mutterings of how reckless and imprudent freelances are.

The issues raised in this article were due to be debated at the Frontline Club on Thursday 7 September at 7.30pm.Visit www.frontlineclub.com for more information.

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