Rarely a day goes by on Twitter without some kind of large scale spat taking place, and amidst dodging the heavily manufactured uproar about Jack Whitehall being an aberration to society, or whatever it is the tabloids are claiming, something of actual importance was brought to light yesterday.
The escalating row about unpaid internships was highlighted by Guido Fawkes, who criticised left wing organisations Political Scrapbook and Left Foot Forward for preaching about fairness and justice – but refusing to pay their own workies. The Commentator also came under fire for the same crime – although they were quick to defend themselves on Twitter by saying they had never let an intern go unpaid – but these blogs just seem to be tiny drops in the ocean of intern exploitation.
Exploitation might seem like a strong word, but that’s what it is. When it comes to the media, or journalism specifically, there seem to be few rules or regulations about what you can be made to do for free. While outsiders might question why young journos fresh out of university sign up for this in the first place, the truth of the matter is that there really is no other option. In this industry, the choices are either forking out for an extra journalism degree (because the £30k you spent on getting an undergraduate one isn’t enough), or start working somewhere for free on the off chance that maybe, one day, they’ll offer you a few pennies for your trouble.
There are two major problems with this culture of working for free, the most pressing of which is, to my mind, the way it makes journalism an elitist industry. The average person comes out of university saddled with tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt, and can’t afford to keep working for nothing until they finally land a job they actually want. The only people who can afford to this – and these are largely the people who could also afford to go to university – are those who can rely on the bank of mum and dad to bail them out. Journalism is increasingly becoming a luxury career, one only available to the middle and upper classes, and this simply is not right. Privilege alone does not make a good writer, and newspapers and websites alike would do well to remember this. By refusing to pay interns, they are denying would be journalists no less talented than their richer peers the opportunity to succeed in their field. They are denying themselves the opportunity to publish some of the best up and coming writers in the country. And they are denying people the ability to dream big, because they are unabashedly promoting the mantra that money makes the world go round, and that anybody without it may as well not bother.
The second issue with the incessant debate, and then re-debate, about unpaid internships is that they never actually come from the mouths of babes. I cannot begin to express how disappointing I find it that the mainstream press occasionally opts to berate those who do not pay their interns – yet it is never the interns who get the chance to speak up on a national platform. It is the staffers at these publications who get to boost their own profile as apparent do-gooders and do what they’re paid to do, rather than those actually in the thick of the unethical process. If you want a real story, go to the heart of the source – not to unaffected observers. I studied philosophy as part of my degree (bear with me here), and an issue we often discussed was whether knowledge could ever really be complete without first-hand experience. For example, can Prince Charles ever really know how black slaves felt in colonial America? He might have read every history book on the planet, but surely no amount of literature can ever compensate for what it feels like to be the target of injustice. Similarly, although of course on a far lesser scale, nothing written by full time paid journalists can ever truly encapsulate what it feels like to slog your guts out for free and spend every penny you have pursuing a career dream that may ultimately come to nothing.
Since graduating with a 2:1 in an academic degree from a Redbrick university in summer 2012, I have had a few writing gigs that have cumulatively earned me around £1500. That’s £1500 in around seven months. I spent the last three of those in New York, again interning on a newspaper where I didn’t even have the luxury of reimbursed travel (this has also happened to me at nationals in England), let alone payment for the dozens of articles they happily churned out with my name on them. The way I see it, if I’m decent enough to be published, I should be getting paid for it. And yet, like so many others in my shoes, we continue desperately fighting each other for unpaid positions because, quite frankly, the only other option is giving up. I’m lucky to have parents who recognise how hard I have worked for eight years (yes, I had my first article published aged 13) and thus are just about holding off on forcing me into the job centre, but not everyone has this privilege, and publications hiring interns are intelligent enough to know this. The only way of restoring justice to this system is for newspapers and the like to fix up and start doing the right thing. People shouldn’t be punished for wanting to be journalists, they should be encouraged, and the current climate of unpaid labour is doing the exact opposite.