Bill Armstrong

“We are trying to rewrite a narrative”

Speech given by WGGB TV Chair Bill Armstrong, proposing a Free is NOT an Option motion, passed on 15 September 2015 at TUC Congress

Low pay/no pay is a problem that blights us all across every sector of the UK economy. And it doesn’t stop when you put your feet up to watch telly. In recent years writers, performers, musicians and others in the UK creative industries have seen a dramatic increase in the amount of work they are expected to do for free. The problem is particularly acute for screenwriters, the people without whom there would be no television drama, no comedy shows and no children’s television. And yet, as writers are being asked to work for free, the independent television sector is now worth more than £3 billion, four times its value nine years ago.

Our film and television industries are increasingly concentrated in the hands of multinational media conglomerates. Once truly independent production companies – now subsidiaries of these conglomerates – find their budgets and their profit margins squeezed. And, as ever, the brunt of the cuts falls on the weakest. Writers and other creative workers are pressured into doing more and more work for free in every corner of the creative industries. And as the expectation that writers will work for free becomes increasingly acceptable, even our publicly funded broadcasters now justify the practice on the grounds that it is the ‘industry standard’.

And yet, at the same time, they scratch their heads and wonder about the lack of diversity on our screens, and why they can’t seem to find genuine working class voices. Well, there may be a connection.

If the only people who can afford to get a start in the creative industries – or sustain a career – are those who enjoy an unlimited overdraft facility from the bank of mum and dad, then the only stories that find their way onto our television screens, the only voices we will ever hear will be those of the independently wealthy.

The Free is NOT an Option campaign is the WGGB’s challenge to the idea that it is acceptable or sustainable to expect writers to do so much of critical development work for free – development work without which no script or television programme would ever exist. And the expectation that we should work for free doesn’t stop with development. It increasingly extends further and further into every facet of our work. And into every facet of the work of so many others in the creative industries.

Our first and most crucial task is to educate and convince our members and those writers who are not yet members, that – when they are asked to work for free – they must say no. But this is not easy. Writers are highly isolated, vulnerable workers. And their income is precarious at the best of times.

So we are also negotiating with a range of broadcasters and independent producers, many of whom do invest responsibly in their creative resources and resent being undercut by those too myopic to see the damage they are doing to the industry. Or simply too greedy to care.

We are under no illusion about the scale of the challenge facing us. We are trying to rewrite a narrative that has held sway for decades. But fair and responsible investment in the human resources that have made and continue to make our creative industries the envy of the world is NOT an unaffordable extravagance. It is fundamental to the success of a sustainable, healthy industry. AND it is in everyone’s interests.

Rewriting narratives is something that writers do best. But we are a very small union and we need your support. We ask you to support this motion and our Free is NOT an Option campaign.