Like this year’s British summer, it seems spring cleaning by The Sun’s new editor David Dinsmore of its editorial floor has finally arrived – better late than never.
David rang me at my Yorkshire home to tell me that the unethical and unprofessional practice of byline banditry had been ended in all of the newspaper’s editorial departments.
“The policy has gone,” he said. “I agreed with your piece, I’ve spoken to all the desk heads and they’ve agreed it [byline banditry] makes no sense and it won’t happen again.”
David has only held the keys to The Sun kingdom for a few of weeks but he’s given his new broom enough welly to impress Channel 4’s queens of clean Kim and Aggie.
His phone call followed a letter I sent him last week after a piece I penned for Press Gazette on 24 June about byline banditry, revealing how staff at the paper were putting their names on stories sourced, written and sold to them by freelances such as me.
For years, my fellow freelances and agencies have been fobbed off with lines such as “it is house style” or the boss insists a staff name goes on it. I finally snapped the third time it happened to me after a Sun staffer insisted she put her name first on a joint byline with me on a feature that I alone spent three weeks working on alone – gathering more than 20 photos and writing and checking copy. I refused and the story was pulled.
I was advised by close friends who have previously worked at senior levels for News International (now News UK) and other papers not to tell my story as they feared I would be blacklisted. Even Press Gazette editor Dominic Ponsford told me he thought my piece could be my 1,200 word career suicide letter – though only after he published it, naturally!
But I weighed up the matter. I decided I could not let it go as I had more to gain than I had to lose, and keeping quiet was akin to letting the byline bullies win. More importantly, the practice was unethical, unprofessional and quite simply wrong; it was intellectual property theft.
I did wonder what the outcome would be for me when the Press Gazette piece was published. But I am a worker, knew a good story would always sell and there were executives on other tabloids I have dealt with for nearly 20 years who have always played a straight bat with me.
The bottom line was that I didn’t care if I was blacklisted as I felt I simply could not hand over control of my work. I am a business, not a charity, and I aim to make the most money out of each story through resale and syndication.
The reaction to my piece was startling. I had emails, tweets and phone calls from journalists across the world. Many well-known UK writers told me how they’d experienced byline banditry on other UK papers which I had not. I am still laughing at one journalist’s anecdote about seeing a Kenya travel piece he submitted to The Times, only for it to appear with a staffer’s name on.
I received no negative feedback. The general message was “thanks for speaking out”.
But I felt flat when I saw The Sun’s initial response: a dismissive refusal to comment.
Timing was on my side, however. That week, old timers left The Sun and the new broom swept in. I was impressed to see David immediately show support for his beleaguered Sun staff, so I tweeted him my piece. He replied within hours, saying I had a very good point.
Emboldened, I wrote David a letter, asking for an end to the practice of byline banditry, explaining: “My byline is proof of my journalistic credibility. I always say I have stories to sell and you have pages to fill. It is a symbiotic relationship which should be treated with respect for both our benefits.”
I told him many freelances dare not speak out for fear of being blacklisted and in 2013 I found it sad that our industry had created this atmosphere. Just as important, I said that if the top line of a story – the byline – is false, it allows the readers to query the truth of the words which follow along with the paper’s integrity.
So when my phone rang on Friday afternoon, 5 July, I was pleasantly surprised to hear the new editor introduce himself, saying he had just received my letter.
He told me: “Some things that were right in the 1970s are not today. The policy has gone, there will be no resistance from me on this issue. It’s one of those things that’s been a historic custom and practice and the only logical reason I can see for it having happened in the past is if people wanted to ring in and ask for a named reporter.”
I asked about the newsdesk as I was told several months ago that it never used freelances’ names on stories, having unknowingly sold it an exclusive only to see a staffer’s exclusive byline on it the next day in the paper and online.
“It won’t happen again, the policy has ended,” David said. “We want to encourage people to come to us with stories but unless the staff person is adding value to a story, I can’t see any reason for their name to be added,” he said.
I explained that having my name on my work was not about ego but business practice, to which he replied: “No, but it’s nice to get a byline,” both agreeing we could recall our first ones.
“You won’t have any resistance from me now on this front. I’d rather my staff get their own stories rather than someone else’s,” he said.
When I pointed out that I would not have the brass neck to pass off someone else’s work as my own, he agreed, adding: “Some people are quite shameless about it.”
It is up to freelances everywhere now to ensure their own names are on their own work. David said if I faced any problems with the byline issue, and I hope I do not, to call him and let him know. In truth, I will feel better when I see his new policy in action for all freelances.
Over the past couple of weeks, friends and contacts of mine who know David Dinsmore have told me he is a decent and reasonable man. Early impressions show he has lived up to that reputation.
I still recall the thrill I felt when The Sun gave me my first national newspaper commission at 5pm at the end of my first day’s freelancing in 1996. Such good pals we became, they even offered me a job without my asking but I chose not to move down south.
I’ve enjoyed a long and happy relationship with the paper and have close friends who work there today. All relationships have their ups and downs. David laughed as I suggested now we have journalistically kissed and made up, the paper now might want to run the story which kicked all this off. He happily agreed.
So while new kid on the block David Dinsmore has grabbed his broom, cleaned the editorial floor and scrubbed his own professional doorstep, perhaps it’s time other newspaper editors should follow his lead?l
Follow Sheron Boyle on Twitter: @sheronboyle1