Our next chapter
Nick Yapp tells the next chapter of our history – a decade which saw a global digital revolution and unprecedented cuts and threats to arts and culture in the UK
"Take the Guild by the scruff of the neck and move it forward." Former Treasurer Andrew S. Walsh
On 13 May 2009 16 writers, and the General Secretary and Deputy General Secretary of WGGB, met for lunch to celebrate the union’s 50th anniversary. Among those present were five Presidents, five Chairs, two Treasurers, four long-serving members of the union, and the author of The Write Stuff, the newly published official history of those packed 50 years. For half a century, the Writers’ Guild had served as a trade union whose sole purpose was to provide happy endings to every dispute or negotiation, to every initiative, to every project involving its members and, indeed, all professional writers. After the lunch, after this gentle pat on the back, the union got back to work.
There was, as ever, much that needed to be done, some of it desperately. In the immediate aftermath of the national economic crisis of 2008, WGGB was financially in perhaps its worst position ever. This was untimely. The digital revolution had made great advances for writers, who could now send a script or a rewrite or a treatment or a brilliant idea round the world at the tap of a key. But laptops make poor negotiators. Commissioning editors, managers, trustees, publishers and producers still needed to be helped face-to-face to recognise great writing and great problems. They had to appreciate that it was in their interests, as well as those of writers, to work together, and that the best way to do this was for ‘us and them’ to meet. All this work took time and cost money.
And, even in these tough years, the union had expanded its coverage. It had been some time since the Writers’ Guild incorporated a new discipline (theatre Writers in 1997). Led by Andrew Walsh, a group of videogames writers worked to establish a new craft committee. Walsh saw this new development as not changing the heart of the union, but in his words “changing the paint”.
Fortune (well, perhaps a small version of fortune) smiled on WGGB, largely thanks to the General Secretary, Bernie Corbett. The union’s office was at that time in Britannia Street, London. The landlords wished to terminate the union’s lease early. Corbett cut a deal whereby the landlords agreed to pay WGGB £80,000 for this early termination. Such rare payments were all well and good, but they didn’t solve the nagging year-on-year problem that WGGB’s regular income was declining. The Blair Years had not been good for trade unions, who came under attack from politicians (many of whom should have known better), and from most of the press and other media. All trade unions were working against a background of an economy in recession. This was the year in which Andy Burnham, Culture Secretary in the Blair Labour Government, warned the arts sector that it wouldn’t be immune from pressures on public spending.
It was also the year that Rupert Creed made his first Treasurer’s report to the union’s AGM. Subscriptions were down £40,000 on those of 2008. Tougher supervision was needed. The Writers’ Guild had to increase income and cut expenditure, but in the words of Creed’s report “not to cut too deep and kill the patient”. Andrew Walsh (on his way to becoming Treasurer) remembers this time as when “lots of people wanted to take the union by the scruff of the neck and move it forward… It was in a storm, at sea, and on fire”. Katharine Way, Chair at the time, saw this period as perhaps the worst in the union’s history. In the days leading up to the 2009 AGM, at which she was going to resign, Way could be forgiven for clinging to the thought that “If nothing happens, I’m going to be free”.
And yet… Creed’s report contained some good news. The Finance Committee had secured surpluses in all the union’s main accounts. The Writers’ Guild would survive.
“The most vital thing that the Guild had to do was to keep and improve its collective agreements.” Bernie Corbett, General Secretary (2000-2016)
The 2010 AGM was held less than a month after the country’s General Election, the outcome of which had grave implications for all trade unions. Although the creative industries played a steadily increasing role in the national economy, it didn’t take long for the incoming Coalition Government to inaugurate a round of savage cuts affecting writers. The UK Film Council was abolished. The very existence of S4C and the Public Lending Right were threatened. It didn’t make sense. The Government was biting the hand that supplied much of its feed. In an article in WGGB’s quarterly newsletter UK Writer for Autumn 2010, one member of the Union’s Executive Council, Julian Friedmann, regarded “firing highly-paid quango execs in order to save money” as “a knee-jerk reaction, especially when they had delivered what was asked of them”. Tom Green, Editor of UK Writer, predicted in his editorial that the worst was yet to come: “The knock-on effects, with local government also affected, are likely to last for several years”. In his President’s report to the Union AGM, David Edgar expected “the next 12 months to prove as, if not more, challenging than the last”.
Robert Taylor, newly appointed Chair, having in his words “been passed the hot potato”, listed the union’s priorities: to highlight poor working practices; to acquire the best possible terms in the new arenas of digital downloads and internet TV; to revive the Radio Committee; and to complete negotiations with the BBC and the Personal Managers’ Association – the series of meetings to accomplish this aim had been running for considerably longer than most television series.
WGGB General Secretary Bernie Corbett wanted to ensure that the Writers’ Guild was taken seriously: “The most vital thing that the Guild had to do was to keep and improve its collective agreements”. In her report to the 2010 AGM, Chair Gail Renard succinctly outlined the work to be done, much of it harking back to earlier days in the Writers’ Guild’s existence. In Renard’s words it was a matter of “Once more unto the breach, dear friends…”
Technology was playing an increasing role in union matters. The online ebulletin replaced the hard copy UK Writer, speeding the communication with members with weekly rather than quarterly news of all aspects of the union’s progress. The WGGB website enhanced communication too. Corbett used his blog to let fly at the BBC’s six-year Licence-fee freeze, a real term cut of 16% in the BBC’s budget: “A settlement that would normally be subject to exhaustive public debate has been stitched-up behind closed doors in a matter of hours… I suspect the BBC and the British public, will repent at leisure”. What especially enraged Corbett was that the Licence-fee freezing had been a secret deal, with Mark Thompson, Director General of the BBC, capitulating to the Government over a single weekend.
The cuts came thick and fast. Writers faced the axing of long-running and popular TV and radio series. BBC Radio 4 abandoned the Friday-afternoon drama. ITV’s The Bill came to an end after running for 27 years, with an audience of 18 million at its peak. In an article for UK Writer Autumn 2010, union member Gregory Evans described meeting J C Wilsher (a former Deputy Chair of the union) at The Bill wrap party: “We talked about how historic we felt this to be… like the end of an era… no, it was bigger than that, the end of an epoch”.
But in the summer of 2010 a milestone agreement was signed between WGGB and ITV. A deal in principle had been agreed in 2007 but it had taken three years to complete negotiations on the detail and the precise wording of the agreement: a minimum £11,500 per hour for original teleplays, £9,000 per hour for series or serials, and £3,000 for half-hour long-running series such as Coronation Street and Emmerdale. Coupled with this was the establishment of a forum composed of representatives from WGGB, the Personal Managers’ Association and ITV, which was to meet quarterly.
"You wouldn’t say to a miner, ‘Come on, dig us a ton of coal as a favour…’” WGGB Chair Gail Renard, TUC Congress 2011, on writers working for free
In the words of the WGGB annual report this was to be “A year of big plans, big changes and big hopes’, though the year had begun with the usual mixture of gains, losses, and some no-score draws. It was also the year in which the first full-scale review of the BBC began under the newly-created BBC Trust. This had been set up in 2007 to replace the Board of Governors (a title that had echoes of the years when the Elizabethan Poor Laws and, later, the Victorian Workhouse, established systems for the maintenance of ‘impotent, aged and needy persons).
The union submitted its suggestions and kept working. Corbett reported on the establishment of “a ground-breaking new system that will enable the BBC to open up its archives either free as a public service, or behind a pay-wall to generate much needed revenue to finance new projects.” There was welcome news of a planned increase in comedy programming for BBC Radio 4, and that the key rate of a radio feature was to rise by 1.26% to £292.18 for seven minutes or less. Another piece of good news was of a Minimum Terms Agreement with the Theatrical Managers Association (now UK Theatre) that established a 4.1% cost-of-living rise in the rates paid to playwrights. There was relief that most theatres presenting new writing were to keep most of their Arts Council funding, though the decision, that there was to be no change in any grant, represented a cut in real terms. In his President’s report for 2011, David Edgar warned that the overall picture for playwrights was “of a sector that is being severely squeezed”.
These few but precious steps forward, were made possible by teams of the union’s negotiators. They were made, however, at a time when trade unions were back on familiar demo-marching ground to protest against the extent and level of cuts, a combination that provoked the union into supporting the Lost Arts campaign, discussed at TUC Congress held in September that year. Rationed to only one delegate, the Executive Council selected Gail Renard, then Chair of the TV Committee. It proved to be an excellent choice. Renard told conference that the biggest industrial sectors in the British economy were financial services and the creative industries: “The difference,” she pointed out, “is that we’re prettier, and actually pay a dividend on your investment. Cutting arts funding makes no economic sense. The Arts Council’s theatre budget for 2008 was £54 million. In return, theatre paid back £76 million in VAT in London alone, a 40% dividend which even the greediest bankers should envy”. Renard attacked the cuts made or threatened by the BBC. “We all want to save money but you don’t save on heating by burning down your house. The present Government is doing just that with the BBC…” Renard praised the decision to build a new BBC Media Centre in Salford, “which is great,” she said, “unless there are no shows to make.”
Perhaps Renard’s most telling words were those in seconding a motion by the Musicians’ Union. Musicians, like writers, had been appalled at the rise in the amount of work expected for no monetary reward, a mispractice that was later to lead to the Free is NOT an Option campaign, led by WGGB TV Committee Chair at the time Bill Armstrong. “You wouldn’t ask anyone else to work for free,” said Renard. “You wouldn’t say to a miner, ‘Come on, dig us a ton of coal as a favour…’”
“A choice between paid-well and treated like dirt, and being poorly paid but treated well…” Katharine Way, former Chair of the WGGB Radio Committee
This was the year when the UK Government debt rose above £1,000,000,000,000 for the first time; when the economy continued to shrink: when unemployment reached 2.7 million; when the BBC had a succession of three Director-Generals in four months; when both the ITV and the BBC were under investigation, ITV for showing Phillip Schofield handing Prime Minister David Cameron an internet-generated list of suspects in a child abuse case; and when the BBC dropped a Newsnight transmission of a report on the Jimmy Savile child abuse scandal shortly before it was due to go out.
At the union’s AGM, Gail Renard reported how fast the TV industry was changing. WGGB had been on the brink of signing agreements with the industry, but “the rug keeps being pulled out from under us”. Nevertheless, persistence paid off. After four years of tough negotiation, the team of Corbett, Deputy Chair Ming Ho, Deputy General Secretary Anne Hogben, Gail Renard, Robert Taylor and J C Wilsher nailed an agreement by which writers were to receive substantial payments when the BBC opened its huge archive collection online. It was a game-changing agreement which Corbett believed “safeguarded the interests of writers in the digital age, and future-proofed our industry-leading collective agreements for at least another generation”.
Other good news was the resurgence of the union’s Radio Committee, with Katharine Way as Chair. She saw that there was an image problem for BBC radio, seen by some as ‘a fuddy-duddy backwater’.The way to put an end to this was by aiming high. Tony Hall, soon to become yet another Director General of the BBC, had said that he ‘loved’ Radio Drama. In her report, Way posed the question: “So why doesn’t he put more money into it?” She also had a question for those who ran radio drama, a question that could well be asked on behalf of all writers: “Why should there have to be a choice between being well-paid and treated like dirt, and being poorly paid but treated well?”
One great achievement in 2012 was the completion of the Digital Rights Agreement with the BBC. In the past there had been long negotiations with many other institutions, but few if any matched the struggle to establish digital rights and payment for use of material online. For the union, it was a great coup. No other writers across the globe were being paid for online transmissions, though their work was being watched millions of times. J C Wilsher, one of the union team negotiating with the BBC, remembered these sessions as being “like painting the Forth Bridge or nailing jelly to the wall”. Interviewed in December 2017, Wilsher could not recall exactly how long the negotiations took, “but it felt like 14 years”. Six years later, in another interview, Ming Ho described it as an epic story, five years in production, largely because it was a totally new version of an old game. These were the early days of BBC Three and BBC Four. The iPlayer existed, but there was no way of measuring how many people were watching. Digital use had never been considered before. “Negotiators,” said Ming Ho, “didn’t know what ‘other uses’ might mean.”
“The All-Hands-On-Deck approach..." WGGB General Secretary Ellie Peers
Joining the union as Assistant General Secretary in February 2013, Ellie Peers (who would become General Secretary in 2017) was struck by what she called the “All-Hands-On-Deck approach”. Peers was immediately involved in a series of negotiations with the BBC, and a successful campaign to fight off threatened cuts to the Arts Council budget. In December 2012, Fin Kennedy had been among a union delegation at the Performers’ Alliance All-Party Parliamentary Group reception in the Houses of Parliament, co-hosted by the WGGB, Equity and the Musicians’ Union. At the reception, Ed Vaizey, then Culture Minister in the Coalition Government, assured Kennedy that “Arts Council cuts are having no effect on the development of new work for the stage”. Kennedy knew this was nonsense. He collected and published (via a blog) evidence to prove it.
This was the year in which David Edgar received the Writers’ Guild Award for Outstanding Contribution to Writing, regarded by Edgar as the high spot of his many years in the union. Edgar, with Michael Frayn, Tom Stoppard and Caryl Churchill joined union members in launching the In Battalions campaign. Its 20,000-word report was covered by the broadsheet press. Questions were tabled in Parliament. And so, a year after the 2012 reception in the Houses of Parliament, the same Culture Minister stood before Fin Kennedy and others at the same All-Party Parliamentary Group reception. To be fair to Vaizey, he credited In Battalions with having influenced Chancellor George Osborne’s decision to grant tax breaks for new plays and for companies making regional tours.
What became known as the Bonfire of the Quangos had also threatened the Public Lending Right. PLR survived, but lost its independence when it was taken over by the British Library. Corbett’s response was scathing. The affair had been “an unnecessary charade, wasting time and resources of authors’ organisations to achieve a purely cosmetic change and a saving too small to be measurable”. Corbett pointed out that the Government had done nothing to extend PLR to ebooks or audio books. Rubbing salt into the wound, one year later the Government proposed cuts to the budget of Birmingham’s new £188-million library, cuts that would result in the loss of 100 jobs.
There was no shortage of work for the union.
“The first duty of a trade union is to make sure its members are fairly paid for their work.” Bill Armstrong, former Television Chair
Two issues threatened the security of writers in 2014. In the long run-up to the renewal of the BBC charter, due in 2016, the union had pledged to defend the Licence Fee, and public funding of the broadcaster, as a top priority. It would later go on to join other entertainment unions in the BBC Love It Or Lose It campaign.
The second campaign was Free is NOT an Option. The union had conducted a survey into how much hard graft commissioners and producers expected from writers free of charge. The survey revealed it was a great deal: 87% of writers had been asked to give not only the ‘spec’ or idea, but also a treatment, character notes, plot script, rewrites and a whole lot more, all for nothing.
Campaign followed campaign. Creating without Conflict was a joint project of the WGGB, the National Union of Journalists, BECTU, the Musicians’ Union and Equity. It took a year of negotiations by these five unions with the BBC (helped by the Jimmy Savile revelations) for agreement to be reached giving freelancers the same protection as directly employed BBC staff against gross misconduct, bullying and harassment.
And there were more issues with the BBC that needed attention. Following earlier cuts, the BBC Trust announced a reduction in the amount of original comedy on Radio 2 and new drama on Radio 3, two crucial outlets for writers. There was a strong reaction from WGGB members, communicated to the BBC by Corbett: “There is a glorious roll-call of comedy writers, who have been successful in TV, film and other media, who cut their teeth on Radio 2 topical shows”. He added, “This is not far short of cutting Radio 3 drama in half, although this is the only station that still supplies a platform for the most challenging and innovative ideas of a type that has long since vanished from Radio 4… The money saved is buttons, but the damage is colossal.”
"The greatest danger to freedom of speech is... in self-censorship... anxiety not to offend, not to upset." WGGB President Olivia Hetreed, Writers' Guild Awards 2015
The dark financial days of 2008 and its immediate aftermath were over, for now. WGGB could afford to show its energy and determination. The Writers’ Guild annual awards had been revived, largely thanks to the work, enthusiasm and determination of President Olivia Hetreed. At the 2015 ceremony, the union took proud stock of its principles and its achievements. Introducing the evening, writer, comedian, actor and presenter Sandi Toksvig set the tone: “Writers are too often the unsung heroes of all forms of entertainment”.
Writer, actor and director Kay Mellor, who received the Outstanding Contribution to Writing Award, described progress made in the recognition of writers since her early days in the TV industry. On her first day on a TV set, Mellor was told to “sit in the corner and not talk to the actors”. But, she said, “writers have come out of the corner, and there is a realisation that we are not people to be frightened of. Our passion can be infectious and cause brilliance.”
And Hetreed sounded a call to arms to protect freedom of speech, the greatest danger to which was not the then recent Charlie Hebdo killings, nor the knee-jerk reaction of some to that horror. In Hetreed’s words, the real danger lay in writers’ “self-censorship… anxiety not to offend, not to upset…”
At the union’s AGM that year, Sioned Wiliam, the newly appointed Commissioning Editor for BBC Radio 4 Comedy, confessed that “without writers, we are nothing”, a mighty step forward. At the same time, however, Corbett warned members of the threat that lay at the heart of the Government’s Trade Union Bill: “Our credibility as a strong negotiator for writers depends to a large degree on our membership of the trade union movement and affiliation to the TUC. If unions are further weakened, that will make the task harder for us. An attack on all unions is an attack on us as well”. At the TUC Congress in Brighton, union delegates were deeply moved by hearing the same message in more emotional surroundings.
A year seldom passes without something for the Writers’ Guild to celebrate. In 2015 there was news that the previous year’s campaign to stop cuts to the Library of Birmingham had been successful in gaining an extension to opening hours, and that, working with the Personal Managers’ Association, the union had negotiated a 5% increase in writers’ payments from ITV. And to cap it all, WGGB signed a historic, revenue-sharing ‘locked box‘ deal with the BFI meaning film writers would get an equal share (with directors and producers) of money being held for development.
“We aren’t proposing to kick men out of the room, we just want to open the door a little wider so that women can get in too.” General Secretary Ellie Peers
Another era in the union’s history was about to come to an end. Bernie Corbett stepped down from his role as General Secretary in May 2016, staying on for a year as Business and Finance Manager to ensure a smooth transition. Those who had faced Corbett across the negotiating table might well have been relieved to see him go, but they were the only ones. Corbett was highly regarded throughout Europe and beyond, by Ministers, MEPs, European Commissioners and the European Writers’ Council, by the Society of Authors, and by the International Authors Forum. His service to the union had been immeasurable. At the 2016 AGM, Gail Renard paid tribute to him: “Bernie steps down leaving the union in a strong position, both nationally and internationally.”
It was the Writers’ Guild’s good fortune to have another highly skilled and determined replacement close to hand. Ellie Peers was immediately appointed Acting General Secretary (she would become General Secretary the following year). As Corbett’s Assistant she had served a mightily testing three years’ apprenticeship. There had been much to learn, from the long list of acronyms of the union’s allies and enemies, to what to do when you don’t understand what’s going on at an important meeting. Peers’ technique when faced by the latter was to ask whoever was talking to “explain this to me as if I was a five-year-old”. Surprisingly often, others present at such meetings admitted they had been similarly bewildered.
It was six years since the union had embarked on an investigation into gender inequality in the screen industries. It had organised a public discussion on comedy writing with an all-female panel. A special sub-committee of the TV Committee had been formed to investigate the employment and career prospects in British TV for women writers, and in 2014 a delegation of members attended the World Conference of Screenwriters in Warsaw where they learned that writing teams in Scandinavian TV drama were composed of 50% female and 50% male writers. When the BBC announced its latest round of drama commissions, Emma Reeves, Chair of the TV Committee, responded by pointing out that all but one of them had been given to male writers. BBC drama was not alone in creating such imbalances. “Women writers are under-represented as a whole,” blogged Reeves, “and the higher the budget and the prestige of the show, the less likely it is to be written by a woman.” The union hoped that a new initiative, Project Diamond, would put things right. An industry-wide diversity monitoring system, it was being created by BBC, Channel 4, ITV and Sky, and supported by Pact and Creative Skillset, through the Creative Diversity Network. Hopes foundered the following year when WGGB joined the NUJ and BECTU in a boycott of Project Diamond after its refusal to release programme-level data.
Speaking at the AGM that year, Peers picked up the theme of gender equality, citing appalling statistics in film, TV and theatre, and issuing a siren call for change: “We aren’t proposing to kick men out of the room,” she added, “we just want to open the door a little wider so that women can get in too.”
In May, the Government published a white paper on the future of the BBC. Among those not happy with it were the Shadow Culture Secretary (Maria Eagle), the Director General of the BBC (Lord Hall), and Ellie Peers, who said: “There is still the elephant in the room, which is that by 2020 the BBC will lose approximately 20% in funding when the Government stops paying for free television licences for the over 75s and this burden falls on the BBC… It is difficult to see how the BBC will be able to fill the hole left by this funding cut, and at the same time continue to offer the same level of quality services across television, radio and online.”
On the credit side, 2016 was the year in which the union secured a whacking 75% increase in rates for writers working under its Pact agreement. £1 million was also paid out to writers under the Writers Digital Payments scheme, launched by WGGB and the Personal Managers’ Assocation the previous April and which ensured writers were paid digital royalties whenever their work was show on BBC iPlayer or ITV Player.
“We’ve been to Westminster so much, they could charge us rent.” Gail Renard, WGGB Chair
A number of projects reached satisfactory conclusion in 2017. An agreement with the BBC (the Script Agreement for Television and Online) brought together rights enshrined in earlier agreements, closed longstanding loopholes and anomalies and added significant new rights, for example pension rights for animation writers. In April, the Independent Theatre Council agreed to a 2.43% pay increase for playwrights.That same month, the National Theatre, the Royal Court Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company agreed a new minimum rate for playwrights of £12,554 for a full-length play.
A few weeks later, the Writers Digital Payments Scheme distributed payments amounting to £750,000 to BBC screenwriters. In October, the union negotiated a 2% rise in fees paid to ITV writers, following another deal with ITV that guaranteed payments to writers of video-on-demand series via Writers Digital Payments. The year was rounded off with 2% pay rises for UK Theatre playwrights, and a 1.5% increase for BBC TV writers. The previous year had also seen a 2% rates rise for BBC radio writers. It was said that the Age of Austerity had come to an end, but much of what was on offer to those working in the creative industries looked like austerity, sounded like austerity and certainly felt like austerity when it came to home economics. Yet despite this, WGGB continued to better the rates and rights of writers.
The union was also kept busy by other changes, among them Brexit, after the surprise result of the referendum the previous year. The British economy increasingly depended on the creative industries, estimated at the time to be worth £92 billion annually. Money aside, particular issues that would affect writers included access to European funding, freedom of movement and intellectual property rights. Anticipating problems ahead, the union did what it always did and sprang into action. There were frequent meetings of representatives of WGGB, the Musicians’ Union and Equity with MPs and members of the House of Lords. “We’ve been to Westminster so much,” reported Renard, “that they could charge us rent.”
"Sometimes, it takes a collective to say ‘this isn’t fair’, and it’s not. It’s time things changed.” Writer, actor and director Kay Mellor, on the launch of Equality Writes
In 2018, Peers reckoned that the union was involved in more negotiations with more buyers of writers’ work than ever before. And that ‘everything’ was ceaselessly growing, particularly with the explosion of streaming video on demand (SVOD) and the rise of giants like Netflix and Amazon, presenting new challenges for writers and their union, which also had the proposed European Copyright Directive to grapple with.
The legislation presented an opportune moment to swing the pendulum back in favour of creators, vitally important with the growth of digital services and the potential to rob authors of their intellectual property and other rights. WGGB members were among the thousands who wrote to their MEPs in the autumn of 2018 and, despite fierce lobbying by the tech industry, their efforts were successful. The European Parliament voted by a solid majority to support the directive and bring a fair deal for writers in the digital age a step closer. While there is still work to be done before the final votes get cast in 2019, it marked a major victory for creators.
The union had launched two new Writers’ Guild Awards categories earlier in the year, Best First Novel and Best Online Comedy, reflecting the growing strength and activity of its books and comedy lay members. It would go on to add a Musical Theatre Bookwriting category for the 2019 awards, and launch a Musical Theatre Kit that same year.
And the issue of equality and diversity wasn’t going away, or not if WGGB had anything to do with it. In May 2018, WGGB launched an independent report it had commissioned into gender inequality in the screen industries. Funded by the Authors’ Licensing and Collection Society, it gathered data from over a decade and made explosive reading. Among many other findings, it found that only 16% of film screenwriters in the UK were women, and only 14% of prime-time TV was female written. The Radio Times said the report, “blew the lid open on the UK TV industry”, while Head of Diversity for ITV Commissioning Ade Rawcliffe later admitted: “I don’t think any of us came out smelling of roses.”
On its launch day, WGGB Chair Gail Renard was interviewed on Sky News She gave a brief run through of the terrifying inequality that the WGGB report had exposed. Around 90% of screenwriters were men. Most women TV writers were confined to working in children’s TV, or morning TV. All well and good. Women could certainly handle that, but the implication was that men were superior when it came to prime-time prestige TV drama or big-budget films. Women writers faced institutional bias. And yet, said Renard to her interviewer, the work of women screenwriters garnered bigger box office receipts and critical reception.
The WGGB Equality Writes campaign, which launched off the back of the report, demanded the release of programme-level TV equality monitoring data and called on public funders to pledge a 50/50 split between male and female-written films by 2020. Publicly demonstrating her support for the campaign, writer, actor and director Kay Mellor said: “No woman has got through without a struggle, and it’s criminal that I can count on one hand how many women signature writers are on TV right now. Sometimes, it takes a collective to say ‘this isn’t fair’, and it’s not. It’s time things changed.”
The 2018 Annual General Meeting of the union was held in June in the impressive Library of Birmingham, the library at the centre of the campaign four years earlier, in which WGGB took part. This was the first time in its history that an AGM had been held outside London and it proved a landmark success, attended by twice as many members as previous meetings held in London.
General Secretary Ellie Peers gave details of the union’s work in stamping out bullying and harassment in the creative industries (in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal), and the vital work that still needed to be done in terms of equality for all writers, whether they be women writers, BAME writers, writers with disabilities, LGBT+ writers or working-class writers.
As usual there were lively debates about proposed changes to union rules, but at the heart of the meeting were the reports from the union’s elected lay members – democracy in action, as it always had been for six whole decades.
Since its inception, members of the Writers’ Guild have offered their unpaid services to sit on the Executive Council, to organise committees, to join negotiating teams, to march and to campaign, to do whatever is needed to make their union more effective and to advance its cause. Not a year goes by without the loss of some of these heroes.The Roll of Honour over the past 10 years includes many of the best in the business – writers of fame, and some of the hardest working union members: David Nobbs, Hazel Adair, Denis Norden, Rosemary Anne Sisson, Jimmy Perry, Jill Hyem, Ray Galton and many, many more, all of whom simply followed late writer and former WGGB President Alan Plater’s call to arms when he said that: “Writers must never be afraid of ‘the suits’.”