False start: unpaid work experience damages ‘interns’ and the publishers that exploit them

This is a written up version of a speech that I gave to the Association of Journalism Educators’ annual conference on 13 June 2014, at Liverpool John Mores University.

When Keri Hudson was 21, she took on an unpaid internship producing editorial content for a website called ‘My Village’.  She worked full time, but without any kind of contract.  Her bosses thought she was good – so much so, that within a couple of weeks she was given the job of training up other unpaid interns who arrived to generate content at the office.  There was a change of management, and Keri was promised a full-time job.  The weeks passed and neither contract, nor pay packet appeared.

So far, I suspect that this story is one that might be true of hundreds of the journalism students that you have all known over the past few years.  Nearly 10,000 a year graduate with first degrees in journalism, but there are precious few jobs around.  Little wonder, you might think, that unpaid experience seems like a way to keep alive their hopes of a media career?

Where Keri’s story differs from the norm, is that in May 2010, with help from the NUJ, she took TPG Web Publishing Limited to an Employment Tribunal.  It found that because she was, in a legal sense ‘working’ she was due the minimum wage.  It awarded her £1,024.98.  Better news still, days afterwards she was headhunted, and started a proper job a week later.

My point in telling you this story, is to try and persuade you of two things.  First, that long, unstructured internships – say lasting more than a month – are profoundly wrong, and secondly that you, as educators of the next generation of journalists and media workers, can do something to improve this situation.

University-level study should, at its most fundamental, teach people two things: how to use their brain as an adaptable tool that can be repurposed throughout their lives; and that a well-trained mind is capable of undertaking enormously valuable work.  I don’t necessarily mean monetarily valuable work – although if you have paid several tens of thousands of pounds for your education, achieving a decent level of earnings is important.

Whatever success you as educators have with your students, however, I believe that your work is largely negated by the long, post-graduation internships that have become such a feature of media careers.   

Keri Hudson came to the NUJ during a campaign that we ran around the slogan ‘Cashback For Interns’.  A ruling obtained by a sister union had shown that interns could obtain remedy at Employment Tribunals.  We canvassed workplaces where we knew there were a lot of interns and used other contacts to encourage young people to share with us their intern experiences. 

The results were depressing.  There were people who had worked unpaid for over a year.  Some went through several unpaid internships with different ‘employers’ breaking successive promises about future salaried work (another survey suggested that this nearly half of all interns had a similar experience).  And lots of young people fell by the wayside – when the cost of travelling into London daily go too much, when their parents’ willingness to support them finally ran out, and when economics forced them to abandon the dreams to which they had been working for several years.

It was a self-selecting, and anecdotal survey, of course, but hard facts about interns is hard to obtain.  CIPD figures suggest that there are between 50,000 and 70,000 interns currently at work in the UK.  Some suggest that as many as a fifth of these are in media industries.

We all react to personal stories of suffering and exploitation, but this situation is not just pitiful, it is wrong for a host of reasons.  Free labour depresses wages across our industry.  It is socially exclusive – only the children of the wealthy can work for nothing.  And unpaid workers have no money to put back into the economy.

Much more important, though, is the moral damage that working for long periods for nothing does to young people.  It teaches them that the skills they have spent so much time and money acquiring are worthless.  It teaches them that exploitation is endemic in the industry they are seeking to join.  And in many cases it provides a vivid demonstration that in the key to getting started in the media, is not what you know, but who your parents know.  Once they have internalised that lesson the really are going to feel bitter about the years they will spend repaying their course fees.

I fear that a year in unpaid work is sufficient to negate much of a graduate’s self confidence, self-esteem and sense of personal worth – qualities that you have all spent so much time trying to build up.

Happily, tide is turning. The economy is clearly improving.  It may be a little while before that decisively feeds into media employment, but it surely will.  The ONS released figures recently suggesting that the number of journalists working in the UK had risen over the past year.

Keri Hudson’s victory – and those of a handful of others supported by different unions – has woken up at least some of the worst-offending ‘intern’ employers. The TUC has backed a campaign for fairer internships, as has the Government. There is even a government-backed Pay and Work Rights Helpline that interns can call to check it they are getting a reasonable deal.

The next step in turning the tide on internships is down to you – the educators of the next generation of journalists.  You need to weave appreciating the value of their own work into the very fabric of what you teach.  Future graduates should be leaving university with deeply etched ‘red lines’ to help them recognise the difference between acquiring useful skills and contacts on the one hand, and being exploited on the other.

How you deliver that message might take many forms – all of them better left to professional pedagogs.  At a basic level, however, it should involve explicitly talking about the way that work creates value.   Those who enter employment must understand that all workers deserve a living wage, commensurate with their skills.  And if new entrants to our trade work on a freelance basis, then they need the confidence to price that work in way that makes it economically sustainable to produce. 

You might even want to mention to them that it is when journalists come together as trades unionists that they stand the best chance of improving their pay and safeguarding a socially responsible media.

If you play your part, then my pledge, on behalf of the NUJ, is that we will continue to support those young people who are willing to challenge unpaid internships.

By working together, as educators and trades unionists, I am certain that we can get to a point where unpaid internships are the exception not the rule.  By doing that, we will have made out industry a better place and taken an important step towards ensuring that entrants to our trade are properly rewarded and more fulfilled in their careers.



The picture shows LJM’s smaller broadcasting studio