Mad Monbiot

George Monbiot

Geroge Monbiot, hosted on The Guardian

Guardian ecology columnist George Monbiot has listed his earnings and savings and said all journalists should do the same. I am not sure if he is just showing off about how much he earns – more than £60,000 from the Guardian – but he cannot be serious.

Journalists should feel no more compunction to reveal their earnings and savings than anyone else. And it would be a mountain of work for the many of us who are freelance and such scrambled data would prove meaningless. I’ll have a go at explaining why.

Monbiot’s money

Monbiot listed that he was paid £62,007 by The Guardian and £40,000 by Penguin for a book. He said he received £5,400 in rent from two lodgers and has two savings accounts – £12,971 with Smile, and £1,200 in Santander.

So we can only assume he has no pension because his website states: “I have no shareholdings or investment in any other company. Apart from the house in which I live, I have no other properties.” He specifically does not give his costs and net income.

My money

I don’t see why I should do this but here’s my best attempt at it (and, I accept, at equal risk of showing off).

Wheal Associates is run by my wife and me. Last year (to Jan 2011) the company accounts, filed at Companies House, show roughly a turnover of £130,000, costs of £60,000 and a pre-tax profit of £70,000. After tax profit was £55,000. The directors’ salaries totalled £12,000.

All of this could be scrutinised in detail at Companies House. That is easy. Now comes the difficult part – how much did I get and from whom?

The company sent about 120 invoices – an average of ten a month – to 20 different clients. The list of clients or how much we got from each is not in the accounts. I guess I could calculate it, but I don’t have the time.

Personal income

I also cannot say with any certainty how much was for me and not my wife. For some individual invoices it would be possible to identify which of the two of us did the work, but many include collaborative projects where we both worked on the same document, for example.

The point is that this exercise is fine if you get £60,000 from one client and not much else – in fact, I’d expect the HMRC to redefine Monbiot as a Guardian employee and insist he be taxed at source.

Compared with most freelances, we are lucky to work on large projects where we bill infrequently for big sums – though like most freelances, we have a few invoices in every year for relatively small sums.

Many freelances will be sending invoices for less than £500, often less than £200 and some for less than £100. They will take small chunks of work from umpteen clients. My wife and I both started that way. It is also how you pick up new clients that you hope might grow.

It is not only complex and time-consuming to list all these, it is easy to see that it might be embarrassing. There are many journalists who don’t earn £16,000, let alone £60,000. Why should they have to reveal that in public?

Hospitality

And I love the arrogance with which Monbiot says he will list all the hospitality he receives. I wish I had received hospitality worth listing. I spent money trying to get work. I took people out for lunch, bought the drinks in pubs and so on. And those expenses are not tax deductable.

Although it’s frankly none of your business (or anyone’s) my wife and I had no savings but we both paid in to pensions, which, post-crash were worth less than they were two years earlier. We had – still have – a mortgage and no rental income.

I’m not opposed to Monbiot’s silly idea because I have something to hide but precisely because it is silly. It is bureaucratic and ill thought out. It will be difficult for freelance journalists to comply and the public will find it difficult to make head or tail of the information anyway.

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13 Responses to Mad Monbiot

  1. whealie says:

    There isn’t a magic wand fix.

    And money is often the last thing that motivates a journalist – they would not have gone into the job if money were the motivator. Unfortunately Monbiot’s figures will make people think that if a lousy columnist, writing why oh why pieces from his Oxfordshire Gazebo, earns that much the proper journalists on the front line must earn more. Most Guardian journos earn significantly less. Most Guardian freelances work for tiny sums.

    Why does Monbiot write partisan articles based on researching only one side of an argument? It has nothing to do with money. He’s not paid by the green movement to be their spokesman. He just wants to be, believes in what he writes or simply writes what he knows will sell papers.

    If the industry should publish what it pays, it needs to be the publishers that do that.

  2. PJ White says:

    I’m insisting on picking on journalists, as you put it, because of the low levels of trust and respect they attract. That’s bad for civil society, democracy. We need a real, dynamic, free and open media. We need to beat the drum and say what an essential and society-enhancing profession journalism is.

    In case you hadn’t noticed, most of the public are cynical, jaundiced and dismissive of journalistic content and motives. Some of the contempt hacks are held in is deserved. Most of it is misplaced and unfair. Monbiot’s idea is one that could gain trust and respect. It would involve a major change, far more than we have discussed here. 

    You don’t like it. Fair enough. But do you have a plan B for restoring public confidence in journalism? 

    Note to readers: I don’t think Chris has anything to hide. I like to tease him about it, because he sets himself up for it and he would do the same to others. And because I love it when he goes all self-righteous.

    PJ 

  3. whealie says:

    I’m not in the office, so no I cannot do that because I do not have access to my accounts. I’ll hazard a guess to show you that I have nothing to hide – despite your continued unfounded allegations.

    I’d imagine that AOL was possibly the single biggest customer in that year, possibly Newsquest next – but Newsquest was a mix of stuff that my wife and I both did and splitting that down to how much was for my work would be difficult – it would mean reading every single invoice to see what was billed. And actually the HFMA might have been worth more than Newsquest in total, I am not sure how many special reports we did for them as I was only marginally involved.

    I should also point out that Newsquest ended my early morning news contract in late 2010 – you might like to erroneously speculate that that has caused me bitterness and resentment. I don’t think I have worked for Allianz since then either but I have no less respect for that firm now they are not paying me for any services.

    I have nothing to hide, but like most people, I am a bit uncomfortable about this. Why should I tell you? What help is it other than titillation. Why are you still insisting on picking on journalists and not the media organisations?

    I have always been ethical. I have been sacked from several jobs for standing up on a point of principle. It is disingenuous to suggest otherwise. I know you want to spark a debate.

    Here’s a serious point: what about the journalists who are not allowed to tell others what they earn? Some contracts of employment state that, and freelance contracts and are business contracts often with confidentiality clauses.

  4. PJ White says:

    Do you write this special pleading stuff with a straight face? It’s very impressive if you do. 
    To see how comical it is, just imagine if someone you were interviewing, asking about their financial backers, replied: “it’s all in the accounts at Companies House, not that it will do you any good because it doesn’t really tell you anything, and it would take far, far too long to say in words you could understand what it really means… and by the way if we did tell you that would set a precedent that could in fact be jolly embarrassing for some us because sometimes we don’t actually earn very much and letting people know that could actually hurt our feelings quite a lot….”

    What tosh. 
    I was thinking earlier about Roger Scruton and his deal with a tobacco company. Monbiot mentions him in his piece in today’s paper. That was egregious. But how much of that same sort of thing is going on now? How many of those writing today applauding the merits of an 80mph speed limit have a personal financial interest in that outcome? If it were any other professionals you’d be demanding transparency. Because it’s journalists you go all feeble, secretive and fudgy.

    So no, you haven’t been open. You haven’t told us, in a clear explanatory way, relevant and understandable, the way you would tell a general reader of an article about a subject, where Wheal Associates money comes from. No reason why you should. But I just don’t believe you can’t say off the top of your head what are the broad proportions of your major clients’ contribution to your income. You got something to hide beneath all this bluster? 

    PJ 

  5. whealie says:

    @PJ are you still on the Aldi wine? You seem to have gone incoherent. My company accounts are published. I have listed the clients. I can find out – though it is not a quick job, how much each paid. But that tells you nothing about the influence any of them might have had.

    I also do not see why I should have to do any of this or why anyone else should. I am doing so to show that I am not trying to hide anything but that the information is useless. All it would be is titillating for the viewers and embarrassing for the journalists. As @Anne Wollenberg pointed out, there would be times when freelances were having to list the fact that they had no income – just so people could laugh at them.

    You are picking on the wrong target. When Newsquest sacked me as editor of Insurance Times because I was too tough on an advertiser, (as reported in Private eye – new window), whose income influenced that the most? A list of who paid me or who even paid the MD would have been irrelevant.

  6. PJ White says:

    Chris, you’re drowning in petty detail and losing sight of the goal. Where will it all end? Where can you possibly draw the line? This is not reasoning. It’s just outward manifestations of your brain trying to pick an argument with Monbiot. Unsuccessfully, as Kimpatsu says.

    It’s not rocket salad and it doesn’t take long to say in plain English who you work for and where the bulk of your money comes from. That’s what Monbiot did. You, a trained and experienced journalist, can summarise your main sources of income easy enough. “Since [date] I’ve been cranking out churnalism about finance for a US-owned communications company in return for around [rough amount] a year. I also have these major clients and some minor ones in the field of X too small to bother listing individually.” Nothing onerous about that. The important thing is that it is accurate. Precision is good, too, but not if it’s disproportionate to the effort and the value.

    As to family ties, well yes. It’s a big area. You know enough so that when you read a particular journalist you might think – I know why they didn’t mention a word about xxxx. It’s because they’re married to so & so who’s senior exec at xxxx. You can do that, but ordinary readers cannot.

    I think you should declare the work done by you as a legal entity. If you’re a sole trader, declare what you personally earn.  If you’re a limited company, declare what the company earns. Whether it’s you personally, a co-director or an employee actually delivering the work is irrelevant.

    James Doherty might be right. Large parts of the journalistic world may have been corrupted beyond recovery. If a working journalist can write the sentence “there is a fine line between PR copy and editorial” then it probably has. I’d just say concentrate on increasing the transparancy, openness and honesty of what isn’t entirely corrupt and hope to expose the rest as worthless as it truly is. And when an editor is looking for a good writer for a piece, and finds that all have been forced by the market into corporate work incompatible with integrity, then they’ll realise that quality, independent editorial is something that has to be properly paid for. But at the moment, the system’s broken and it won’t be mended by ignoring the need to establish trust and good faith with readers.

    Incidentally, spare a thought for Mr Monbiot. His Guardian contract runs out today. He doesn’t seem to have another one. Commiserations. 

    PJ 

  7. whealie says:

    @PJ

    You initially said

    It isn’t about the amount of money. It’s about where it comes from.

    So I listed them. Now you say:

    Your list would be improved if it were in order – in order of amounts earned and length of relationship.

    It would take two lists to do that -one for amount and one for length of relationship. It would take ages to compile and it would be hugely out of date very quickly. It might not tell you much. @Kimpatsu This is for you too.

    Would one project for £10,000 be more influential than a weekly drip feed that amounted to more? And would the influence change if a client ceased (would I start to be negative suddenly having been gushing before) – and how would you know from such a list which of us ended the relationship and why?

    How frequently should I have to keep all you nosey buggers up-to-date with how much I am earning and from whom? Monthly? Weekly? Daily?

    But, as I explained, any such list would also be income to the company not necessarily for work I personally had done.

    This raises an interesting point: Would I only be influenced (and it is is a huge negative assumption to assume that journalists are influenced in this way) by income on projects I had worked on or by income my wife had brought in too? In fact what about the rest of my family?

    And not just income – what about gifts of other benefits. For example, my son plays cricket. His kit is sponsored – do I need to declare that (I don’t actually know who the sponsor is but we are benefiting by not having to pay for the shirt)? Brit insurance invited me to the Oval the other day. I declined, but the company very kindly sent my son a bag of cricketing goodies. Might I be influenced by that?

    If so, then we need to know the income of Monbiot’s family too, surely? And we need to intrude into every journalist’s life in this gratuitous way. How much do you earn, does your wife earn, your parents? your kids? Have any of them had an freebies recently?

    I work on the premise that most journalists are not corrupt, able to put aside all sorts of influences financial and otherwise (they actually often bite the hands that feed) and would declare any possible conflict of interest to the relevant editor or readers.

    The problem of corrupt and biased journalists is a pretty small one. This does not help in any way to solve that. It is simply a huge intrusion into journalists lives. Most don’t deserve that. Deal with the bad eggs – don’t tarnish the reputation of hard working honest journalists.

  8. James Doherty says:

    This debate has made me angry, quite frankly. Freelances have been continually squeezed for the last 20 years. NUJ members sign up to a code of conduct, which includes all of the issues which are discussed above. Does accepting a commission mean that you are doing anything more than the news editor (commissioning editor or corporate) is asking? No, of course it doesn’t.

    There is a fine line between PR copy and editorial and, it is as a result of the wholesale destruction of quality journalism that PR copy is worked up, submitted and then passed off as ‘objective’ editorial. The question is not how much a freelance has been paid for editorial, it is a question of who will accept the editorial and whether there is a nod and a wink to the agenda being set.

    This is an age-old debate, where, given the prevalence of new communication channels and the withering of the old – and the associated checks and balances – which leads to a blurring of the lines.

    I used to work selling prams and nappies at Mothercare, but it has never influenced my work. If Mothercare asked me to work for them, writing copy or even advertorial, why on earth should that matter if I was ever asked write a freelance feature on parenting skills for a national newspaper??? Please. There is not a brown envelope culture in UK press and broadcasting – the oldest rule in the book is that the truth will out.

    Come off it – if a journalist is obviously in the pockets of their paymaster, then their credibility would soon be found out. If a publication cannot tell the difference, then that’s indicative of they destruction of quality journalism. To ask hard-pressed freelances (and trust me, not only in London, but many other places, you will be hard-pressed to find many making more than an employee of McDonalds) to publish how much they earn and from whom, is tantamount to scapegoating decent journalists and subjecting an already discredited profession to even more ridicule.

    Where do you stop? In Scotland, there were recently calls to force SPL referees to declare their football allegiances, as if they couldn’t possibly conduct themselves with integrity without doing so. Of course, this was dismissed as ludicrous. Similarly, just because I was once paid by so-and-so, or had an allegiance to such-and-such – or, woe betide, may actually still be in the employ of one of them, does not mean I would have to list them as vested interests. 

    Independently regulate the fourth estate, enshrine the NUJ’s Code of Conduct in what we do and stop scapegoating those who are tasked with reporting. Opinion can be bought, but reporting facts cannot.

    Please, also remember, that very, very few freelances would ever be VAT registered, let alone have accounts listed at Companies House.  How dare anyone ask that, even if they are, they disclose who pays what and when. Journalists are not elected to public office, but asking them to disclose interests in the same way as politicians and public servants, risks allowing on the affluent few to ask questions of their privileged friends.

  9. Hmm. There’s a difference between declaring who is paying you, and how much. Freelancers live or die by reputation and if someone is having a quiet patch, broadcasting this fact isn’t going to help (I know that when I’ve looked for writers to commission I have been discouraged if I know they can’t get work). I’d happily declare who pays me, but how much? None of your beeswax. As to listing where your bank accounts are, that’s just madness, what is Monbiot thinking?

  10. Kimpatsu says:

    Now all you have to do, Chris, is place the amounts received beside each of those companies, and you will have complied with Monbiot’s call.

  11. PJ White says:

    Seems that your madness and mad Monbiot’s aren’t far apart. You agree that journalists should declare their interests.

    Your list would be improved if it were in order – in order of amounts earned and length of relationship. No one can tell if a client is a £500 one-off or a 20k a year regular. It matters. It would also be helpful to know who they are. Most readers are not experts in companies, who owns whom, and the various interconnections. You could make that more explicit and convey more than the simple name or abbreviation.

    To me, declaring an interest tends to be something to be done to editors. They ask you to write a feature, you say ok but you should know I did some work recently for such & such. They say fine, thanks for telling me and I can’t see a problem. Letting readers know about that isn’t, in my experience, on the agenda.

    I take your point about the vested interests of the companies. But it’s defeatist to accept therefore that transparency about freelance journalists’ income isn’t worth working towards. Any step in the right direction is worth taking.

    Cheers
    PJ
    [this comment was made possible by pinot noir and claret bought from Aldi at £3.99 and £3.69 a bottle.]

  12. whealie says:

    PJ,

    No problem with the list of clients – I dropped it for space.  The 20 clients were (in no particular order):

    • AOL
    • XRV
    • NUJ Training
    • HFMA
    • Newsquest
    • IHM
    • McMullen
    • CIPFA
    • LGC (EMAP)
    • Grist
    • UCLU
    • Press Gazette (the slowest payer of them all)
    • AIS
    • Allianz
    • The Independent
    • Square Meal
    • Used Car Expert
    • VRL
    • Anchor Trust
    • UBM

    For some of these clients we are told not to write certain things (well we can write them but they will not be published) about certain companies that pay for advertising or other services. So the register of the journalist’s interests is a sideline compared with the corporation’s vested interests.

    I think journalists should declare any interest. I do so, I encourage people who I commission to do so. But should I declare my pants are BHS and my socks M&S any more than my insurance provide or bank?

    And most journalists barely make ends meet (which you accuse me of not understanding but I think I made clear in the original piece) and they are told what they can and cannot write and who they should or should not speak to by the company commissioning them.

    The enemy is not the foot soldier but the generals giving the orders. Hope that helps.

  13. PJ White says:

    Congratulations, Chris. I know you’re a worldclass grandmaster at missing the point. But this time you’ve excelled your own high standards. Spectacular stuff.

    It isn’t about the amount of money. It’s about where it comes from.

    I grant you that Mr Monbiot has unhelpfully misled you by his attention to the detail of his earnings and savings. But he is clear that’s not the focus. The point is – as he says – “who pays?”

    George is telling us that he isn’t being paid by Shell or BNFL. He doesn’t have shares in Blackwater Security. He doesn’t squirrel away cash in a Swiss bank account. That’s good to know.

    Amounts from the Graun are irrelevant and his savings mere curiosity. 

    Who pays you? You spread your opinions & arguments around the place about all kinds of stuff. Are they merely an articulation of your own considered foolishness, paid for only by the bozos who’ve published them? Or have they been influenced in some way by another customer, someone you’re quietly freelancing for?

    I’d argue that matters. So would Monbiot. It’s not new. I recall Michael Cross doing something similar. I suspect not many people followed but I admired him for his stance. I did it on my youthmoney site. I wanted people to know I was independent, and when I did take money from a government source or a bank I wanted to reveal it.

    It doesn’t matter that much for Monbiot, because he isn’t doing much freelancing. But, as you know better than I do, not many freelance journalists are earning a living solely from recognisable, independent news organisations. They’re doing corporate work to pay the bills. I think readers are entitled to know that’s what’s happening. Just as, as M argues, elected politicians declare their interests in a register, so should the press.

    Sorry to go on. But well done for pursuing it. I’d urge you to forget your dismissal of the irrelevant bit of Monbiot’s position & just start listing your customers. We don’t need to know the amounts of your invoices. Just in broad terms, whose hired lackey are you?

    Three small points:

    1. Registry sounds daft. Register would have been better.

    2. Compunction doesn’t mean what you think it means.

    3. Neither you nor Monbiot seem to have much awareness about what a vast amount you earn compared with ordinary households. Some acknowledgment of that would make you seem more normal.

    PJ 

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