"Media Elite"?: The Poverty Wages of UK Journalism
Journalists should be supporting the RMT strikes - and taking a leaf out of their book.
Members of the Rail Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) Union are on strike for three days this week to demand a payrise in line with inflation and the rising cost of living.
Just a little bit of journalistic digging will reveal that, despite what the government and certain pundits would have you believe, those striking aren’t the train drivers whose pay is almost £60k per year. They’re the attendants, maintenance crew, and other staff whose median pay is £33k per year—plus the RMT’s reported 10,000 cleaners, who make significantly less, but whose salaries are not included in ONS figures.
For many other workers across the country, £33k is a wildly enviable salary. Those same certain pundits are banking on the engagement of that envy as they stoke fires—fire stoking is, after all, a pillar of 21st century news’ commercial model.
This week, I published a policy briefing, written for the Media Reform Coalition, on funding and workplace issues across the UK’s journalism sector. In a section titled “Elite Jobs” it says:
Data gathered by Journo Resources shows that, across the board, salaries for journalists rarely meet the UK average (~£31,772 at time of writing) until they reach mid- to late-career editor positions. Outside London, especially in rural areas, salaries are universally low and, in the context of an entry level job for a single parent, would mean living near the poverty line.
The caricature of the “metropolitan elite” journalist is not without merit for this very reason; only the wealthy intern is going to survive in London on £18k a year and, so, you get these class and race statistics.
But elsewhere around the country, £18k is a standard salary for a reporter.
At the National Union of Journalists’ 2021 conference, it was reported that a survey of journalists at Newsquest, the UK’s biggest publisher (mainly of local papers around the country):
showed that the majority of members exist on less than £22,000 as senior journalists and that the company is willing to have its reporting capability propped up by excellent but exploited apprentices paid as little as £7,500 a year. [Emphasis mine]
One fifth of survey respondents also revealed “they had second jobs on top of their exacting day jobs”. A couple of years back, a reporter friend of mine (let’s call him Tarquin) went for a job at the Telegraph, a company that saw continued growth and millions in profit even throughout the pandemic; the most they would offer him after negotiation was £26k.
In addition to the peddling of the ‘woke fop journo gallavanting around the capital’ stereotype by the culture war crews (I, personally, gallavant elsewhere) there is also frequent commentary on the salaries of high profile columnists, broadcast presenters, and top editors; which are wildly out of step with the average reporter’s pay. It’s true there are over-paid (and well-paid) journalists in this country, but it’s no wonder public perception is out of touch.
And this is before we get to the executives and shareholders. Jim Mullen, CEO of the UK’s largest newspaper publisher by size, Reach plc., personally took home £4 million in 2021, during which time the company increased their digital revenue by 25%, reporting a “healthy year”. The company’s journalists did not get a raise or bonuses, but instead an “accelerating personal development” trial that measures how many clicks their articles get.
If Mullen took home an extravagant £200k, the company could fund up to 100 more journalists on a healthy £38k—still not enough to comfortably support a large family, but not bad.
Employers, and even some workers, frame low pay as an acceptable trade-off for the ‘luxury’ of securing ‘creative’ work. According to labour reporter Sarah Jaffe:
[T]he “love what you do” principle supports the exploitation and devaluation of labour, as well as cutting back on social protection and welfare guarantees. [...] Instead of journalism, for instance, being considered a public service – that is, every town has a newspaper, and local journalists are going to be from that town, and they’re going to report on it, and they’re going to write about national politics through the lens of their local paper – it’s now people like me working in magazines, which are essentially luxury products.
Mick Lynch, General Secretary of the RMT, has been making the rounds with those very-well-paid, high profile journalists we see each day, and doing an excellent job of unpicking the bullshit behind their lines of questioning.
He also has plenty to say when a journalist asks him if RMT workers earning £33k consider themselves “special”:
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As a result of the cost of living crisis, those earning a range of five-figure salaries are feeling the pinch. Regardless, when executives are earning millions (sometimes billions), resistance is welcome from any source, in many forms.
An NUJ strike would be more complicated, because of the long game our work plays in making tangible change (and because so many journalists are required to write the chaff and fluff whose loss would, frankly, be a cause for celebration).
Even so, no matter what we’re earning, we should confidently stand in solidarity with the £33k-ers. They’re demonstrating their union power, providing inspiration for all workers—inspiration that I hope, in the near future, delivers tangible results for those able to organise around it.