A Freelancer Locked Down - But Not Out

By James Taylor, Viva La PD Co-Administrator

In television, pretty much the whole world is our stage. We’re not restricted to a particular theatre or studio. In normal times, the locations we use are really only limited by budgets. But at the moment, what is usually our place of work is effectively closed. That’s why freelancers like me need help.

I’ve been championing the cause of freelancers since the lockdown began, doing what I can through our grassroots collective, Viva La PD, to press politicians to help all the hard-working people excluded from Government income support.

But I’ve decided it’s time to tell my own story. I’ve wanted to do so for a while, and it’s been quite a struggle. While I’m comfortable discussing the difficulties facing other people, it has been much more challenging for me to talk about – or even, dare I say it, admit – my own.

The author, in more normal times.

And why now? Well, mainly because Monday was a bit of a milestone for me. It was four months to the day since I last worked on Friday 6th March.

I originally had a job lined up to start a few weeks later, a quite normal pattern of work in TV. I hoped to pick up a little filler job for a few weeks to plug the gap – again, nothing unusual there. Sometimes you find a filler and can relax a bit financially, and when you don’t, you tighten your belt. (There I go again, writing in the third person, trying to depersonalise a way of working that can, at times, take an extremely personal toll.)

But when lockdown came late March, TV production pretty much shut down overnight. To me, that was a completely inevitable consequence, as was the knock-on effect of work instantly drying up for freelancers. But almost four months on, it seems the Government still doesn’t understand how our industry actually works.

What lockdown has made painfully clear is that making TV is all about people. Whether that’s the people in front of the camera whose stories we tell, or the many more people behind the camera who bring these stories to life for viewers around the country, and indeed the world. Ours is a people-focused industry. It relies on close collaboration by tight-knit teams of professionals. Without people, it’s nothing – it’s virtually impossible to make programmes.

Another fundamental thing about TV that lockdown has highlighted for me – prompted by the announcement this week of the government’s £1.5 billion support package for the culture, arts and heritage sector – is that in normal times, we go anywhere and everywhere for the backdrops to our productions. Within the Cultural Industries I think that’s unique.

Take theatre, for example. It’s a sector that is built around buildings and institutions, and it’s not difficult to understand how it is impacted by the pandemic: opening theatres fully would put at risk the people who work there, and the audiences who come to watch, so theatres have had to remain closed for an extended period. As we’ve seen this week, the government has a relatively straightforward way of offering support to help theatres stay afloat. That support is, essentially, directed at buildings and institutions, and it extends to the staff who would normally work in them, because they can’t go to work.

However, in television – and this is going to sound a bit melodramatic, but bear with me – pretty much the whole world is our stage. We’re not restricted to a particular theatre or studio. In normal times, the locations we used are really only limited by budgets.

Doing my job involves going all over the country to tell people’s stories. I’ve lost count of the number of people’s houses I’ve filmed in. Schools, places of work, pubs – these are all locations we shoot in. But the pandemic has stopped that. We need to protect the health of both ourselves, and the people we would be filming with. Therefore, what is usually our place of work is effectively closed.

So that little filler job I was hoping for? Didn’t materialise. That job I had lined up in April and May? Indefinitely postponed. Any other work I would have had after that into the summer? Nothing. That’s why I haven’t earned a penny in four months. Sadly, I’m not the only one.

At Viva La PD, the voice of the UK’s freelance TV producers and directors, we’ve done a couple of surveys during lockdown, not just covering PDs, but the wider freelance community too. The overall message has been loud and clear – most freelancers haven’t worked at all during lockdown. And the majority don’t expect anything until at least September. That’s half a year of lost earnings. Even if you’re over the £50,000 earning cap of the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme, how are you supposed to live off that?

Many people in TV are also partnered-up with someone else in the industry (myself included), so if both of you are in the same situation, that’s potentially one whole annual salary gone between you both.

Even if you’re in government, and slightly removed from the reality of everyday life, surely it’s not hard to see how much of an impact the lockdown would have for freelancers working in TV production – and not just the human struggle being experienced by households, but the wider impact on our sector and the economy as a whole.

In our household, we have stopped spending on pretty much anything but food and essential bills. How do you expect to stage an economic recovery if thousands, or even millions, of people can barely make ends meet? Because that is the reality of being excluded, however much policymakers can’t see it, or don’t want to because it’s too complicated.

And that brings me on to being “#excluded”. I am a “#forgottenfreelancer”. One of the 3 million people who have “fallen through the gaps”. How does that feel? My overriding feeling is one of acute unfairness – something I felt quite viscerally while watching the Chancellor’s summer statement.

I’ve spent the last three months representing people in TV facing the same struggles as me, pushing for fairness in the government’s response to coronavirus. If you’d have told me at the start of the year that in a matter of months, I’d be on text-message terms with MPs, having meetings with government departments and industry bodies like Bectu, PACT, the DCMS, and appearing on the Ten O’Clock News, I’d never have believed it. So here we are, and here I am. I will not be happy until everyone who needs support gets it.

Onto my next point. TV freelancers like me pay our taxes and our National Insurance. I’ve been paying both since I was 16 and doing a weekend job at M&S. I thought the whole point of an insurance policy was that you paid into it in normal times, and when you needed help, it would pay back out to you. An essential social contract between the individual and the state.

For all those people on furlough, and who have been helped by the self-employed scheme, the system is working. I am genuinely delighted that the government saw fit to put in place such ambitious schemes to help everyone. And that’s an important word here. It really should have been “everyone”. But for some reason, a decision was taken to specifically exclude certain groups of people from support. This exclusion has particularly affected freelancers, like those of us in TV.

So if you’re self-employed and earning above £50,000, the government had decided that you don’t deserve help. That you’re capable of getting by on your own. Sink or swim – it’s down to you alone. Similarly, if you operate a PSC and pay yourself in dividends, you don’t deserve help. If you went self-employed too recently, you don’t deserve help. If you work a mixture of PAYE and self-employment, well, you’re too confusing, and you don’t deserve help. Or perhaps you’re self-employed and had the temerity to get a long-term illness, or bring another human into the world? Well, your earnings were lower that year, so if we help you at all, we’ll include that year when you earned hardly anything in the average when calculating how much you should get.

These are just some of the examples that I am aware of through the survey research on TV freelancers that I and colleagues at Viva La PD have done. There are many more reasons why people have been deemed ineligible.

The thing that really riles me is that someone sat down and wrote these rules – and I’d love to have been a fly on the wall in that meeting. Whether they actively decided to exclude these groups of people, or overlooked their needs because they didn’t understand how the industry really worked, it’s simply not fair and has created two classes of taxpaying worker: the worthy and the unworthy.

And to me, it just doesn’t make sense, especially for a government determined to “level up” the country and the economy. In the grand scheme of things, including the excluded wouldn’t make much of a difference to overall government spending. If anything, it would help get the economy back on track when it’s needed – right now – and we’ll all pay for it later, just like we always have done.

One excuse being wheeled out by the government to not help those excluded is the risk of fraud. That is just offensive, on so many levels. Here are just two reasons why. First of all, it implies that those of us who require help are fraudsters. We are not. Secondly, it says that those with a genuine need shouldn’t be granted help because a few people might exploit the system. In which case, why not put procedures in place to minimise the risk? It certainly isn’t beyond the realms of possibility. Yes, it might be more complicated, but surely the implications of Brexit are infinitely more difficult, and yet that happened. Not helping families who need it is an active decision, and in my opinion, worthy of an inquiry.

Before I finish, I have a side-question for the industry as a whole – and particularly the broadcasters, as many Indies are struggling as much as us freelancers: where have you been? You rely on highly-skilled, creative freelancers to make your programmes. You decided you wanted the industry to operate like this, and it overwhelmingly benefits you. You minimise your over-heads by not having production teams on your staff payroll. All I’ll say is that your lack of overall support has been noted by very many of us.

If the pandemic has done one thing, it’s made thousands of freelancers see – and feel – the precariousness of their chosen career. Another thing our surveys highlighted was the desire to leave the industry, to change careers. 60% of freelancers said at the start of June they were taking steps to leave. We’re a month down the line now, and I know that figure has only increased. As an industry we need to look again at the freelancer deal. If we don’t, we’re going to lose a seriously talented, and highly-skilled generation of programme makers.

I started out saying I was going to write about my own situation, but as you’ll have noted, I’ve ended up writing mostly about everyone else. But actually, perhaps that’s the point. I am one of many. Just one example of the army of people who have, it seems, been written off as undeserving of help in our hour of need. Well today was the Chancellor’s chance to right that wrong. To put things right.

Sadly, it was a missed opportunity, and thousands of freelancers like myself are in the same position we were this morning. There were big announcements for others, but the excluded like myself seem to have become the permanently forgotten.

This has been a trying time for many of us, with lots of uncertainty. But one thing I can say for certain is that I’ll continue to do whatever I can to make sure they do remember us. We aren’t going away any time soon.

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