Staffer Privilege, Discrimination against Freelancers, and Learning from Black Lives Matter
— words and photos by Christopher Johnson —
Four years ago, a client hired me to photograph the Peace Games, part of a grass-roots movement to build community and overcome violence in south Chicago and other urban areas. NBA legends such as Isiah Thomas, filmmaker Spike Lee, the family of Martin Luther King, father Mike Pfleger of Saint Sabina church, and other community leaders brought together members of rival Chicago gangs to play basketball and open back-channels for conflict resolution. Photographing Black Lives Matter marches and events in the streets, churches, schools and gyms of Chicago and later south central Los Angeles, I was inspired by their emphasis on unity, compassion and open communication. They taught me to see various subtle yet pernicious forms of discrimination around me, especially within the media industry.
I also saw how we could follow the lead of Black Lives Matter and try to defend our turf and build up our community spirit in the news industry, which has been declining due to in-fighting, reckless disregard for journalism ethics and principles, and discrimination within our own “tribe” of journalists, especially against freelancers, minorities and interns.
I have to check my privilege too. Yes, I’ll always be a white male who will never face a lifetime of systemic racism endured by people in many societies. But I can play a small part within a greater human movement toward justice. Perhaps because my mother was an orphan and my father couldn’t finish high school, they taught us to stand up, think on our feet, and fight back against the injustice and violence around us in the greater Detroit-Windsor area, where my uncle was shot in the head, my father and older brother were nearly beaten to death outside our home, and more than a thousand people were murdered annually when I was a kid. I was fortunate to be able to work as a janitor, window-cleaner, factory worker and treeplanter in order to pay my way though journalism school and begin a career as a journalist working around the world. After more than three decades as a full-time freelancer who has also held staff positions in newsrooms, I’d like to open a conversation about the system of “staffer privilege”, a form of discrimination impacting millions of writers, photographers, editors, actors, musicians, designers, and others in the gig economy.
It’s also time to “Do the Right Thing”, as Spike Lee says. Journalists have a sacred duty to defend democracy and freedom of speech, not censor or block those who might disagree. We have to regain our role as the fifth estate, and return to basic fundamental journalism based on verifiable evidence and neutrality, not self-promoting opinion, dogmatism and agendas. Instead of selling our soul to inflammatory click-bait, we have to re-occupy the higher moral ground in order to regain the respect of the public, who attack us online and in the streets, where American police have reportedly shot more than 100 journalists covering protests. We have to stop this shark-tank mentality of cut-throat competition, and treat each other with respect and dignity. People at the Peace Games in south Chicago and south-central Los Angeles are doing that. We can too.
It starts with having an honest, open conversation about the racism, sexism, ageism, privilege and class divisions within our own ranks. Even though freelancers often take greater risks and generate more content than staffers, the full-time employees of organizations somehow retain more power and income security than us. While many staffers generously use their positions to help freelancers, others abuse it.
I often hear stories like this from friends and colleagues. A newcomer gets a job in a music publishing firm and suddenly turfs out a musician who’s been writing and singing songs for the company for decades. A new marketing director or assignment editor takes over and suddenly dozens of writers, photographers and designers lose their income. The freelancers, who lack benefits and bargaining power in this archaic system, are not supposed to fight back against workplace discrimination that often goes alongside prejudice based on race, gender and age. We’re supposed to be grateful that the staffers give us any money at all for our work, because many don’t even do that.
Others are more qualified to talk about discrimination based on race, gender, age and other things. In my case, I can talk about being a freelancer in the media business, my main source of income since graduating from Carleton University’s School of Journalism in Ottawa in 1987.
To understand the lopsided newsroom power dynamic between staffers and freelancers, I’ve learned from the case of Amy Cooper, the white woman walking her dog in New York who misused her privilege against a black man. As comedian Trevor Noah says, Cooper blatantly knew how to “weaponize” the “power of her whiteness” to threaten a black man, because she expected that the black man would fear interacting with police who might presume his guilt based on his skin color.
In the media industry, the Staffer has the power to act like Cooper, while the Freelancer is like the black man. The Staffer knows that they have a superior position in the newsroom hierarchy which allows them to threaten the income, job or career of the freelancer in a weaker, more unstable position. Instead of resolving a dispute based on equality and transparency, the staffers can circle the wagons and dance us outside. They can ghost or block us on social media, and ignore emails demanding publication and payment. They can kill a story and refuse to pay for it, because they think the Freelancer can’t fight back.
They have time on their side, and weaponize it against us. The Staffer gets paid for their time. The Freelancer doesn’t. The Staffer can string out the dispute over days, weeks or even months or years, knowing they’ll get paid while the Freelancer does not. The Staffer can effectively torture the Freelancer, who wakes up every morning wondering if they’ll get paid or commissioned again.
The Staffer knows that, ultimately, the Freelancer’s only viable recourse is legal action, which they would have to pay for out of pocket. They know that the Freelancer is not likely to spend 5000 dollars on a lawyer just to file a case in court to collect payment of $5000, or in many cases, even 50 dollars. Like the police officers accused of mistreating people in the streets of America, the hostile Staffer thinks they can abuse the Freelancer with impunity. They do it, because they can.
As a result, I have tried as much as possible to cultivate positive relationships with editors and producers. I’m grateful for editors who have commissioned my work and put in extra efforts to make it shine. Scot Donaldson, my former editor at The Nation newspaper in Bangkok, has been guiding my career and caring about my safety since the early 1990s, when the Thai military roughed him up during their crackdown on protesters and journalists in 1992. When I was covering the military dictatorship in Yangon, Myanmar in the mid-90s, Scot gave me pen names to protect the identities of sources and myself. He never used his staffer privilege against me. He used it to ensure I got published and paid.
Longtime Japan Times editor Andrew Kershaw, a kind-hearted expat from northwestern England, nurtured the career of many writers, including the late environmentalist and writer C. W. Nicol. Kershaw used to snail-mail me copies of my articles, with handwritten notes about what he liked. He encouraged me to go beyond my strict journalism training and write on a more personal and emotional level in order to connect deeper with readers. I looked up to him as a mentor, and often called him for advice about life in general.
I felt the same way about Amelia Newcombe at the Christian Science Monitor, which published my work from hotspots for about a decade. In 2008, she protected me when I was the only western journalist in Lhasa during the Tibetan uprising and one of a handful of western reporters in Myanmar covering the devastation of Cyclone Nargis. She arranged more freelance work for NPR, Comcast and others. She’s now the managing editor at CSM, one of a generation of successful women who have broken through the glass ceiling.
Toronto Star editor Martin Regg Cohen, whom I first met in East Timor in 1999, and my producers at CTV, DW Germany and France 24, among others, also shepherded me through various war and disaster zones. Though they lived somewhat normal lives in Bangkok, Tokyo, Boston, Washington, Toronto, Paris or Berlin, these compassionate newsroom leaders could recognize that many frontline journalists suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic anxiety, agoraphobia and other occupational hazards. They didn’t use that against us. They helped us channel that into impactful journalism.
Sadly, many great media organizations became death stars due to toxic newsroom cultures, abuse of freelance contributors, and a disregard for journalism based on science, logic and intelligence. They promoted attention-seeking blowhards and weasels, without degrees or formal training in journalism, who desired to become the story instead of reporting it. They forgot that schooling in journalism, and its role in democracy, is as important as a lawyer being schooled in law, or a doctor being schooled in medicine.
Many journalists share horror stories about the decline of the industry. In my case, I have tried to overcome the loss of a major client almost every year or two due to the demise of the organizations or conflicts with staffers, often white males, who didn’t have formal training or education in basic fundamental journalism and couldn’t appreciate the challenges of reporting from foreign countries, revolutions or disaster zones.
In 2008, David Clark Scott, a white male foreign editor at the Boston-based Christian Science Monitor, which was one of the most respected newspapers at that time, began power-tripping on me while I was deep within the cyclone devastation of Myanmar in areas without electricity, internet and basic supplies. I delivered stories about the hardships of people around me. It was the only way I could report in those horrid conditions. The military dictatorship didn’t hold press conferences for foreign media. In fact, we were banned from entering the country, and I only got a visa because of embassy connections through musicians in Myanmar. I had been going to Myanmar for 20 years and saw a local reality different than the mythology in western newsrooms. I refused to “sex up” or spin-doctor reports to fit the Bush administration’s narrative. Scott pulled the plug on me, as it turned out, during a power outage in Yangon. CSM never published me again. Scott, who hasn’t been a field reporter in at least 20 years, is now the “audience engagement” editor there. CSM lost me as a reporter, and also as a reader.
Another white male, Philippe Devos, then deputy foreign editor of the Globe and Mail, wanted me to “match” a dubious report in the Guardian about Japan’s “face recognition billboards”.
Devos wanted me to talk to engineers at NEC and explain how the technology works. It sounded like a public relations tie-in. But I tried my best to serve Devos, who was sincerely trying to build up one of Canada’s last surviving foreign news sections. My research found no verifiable evidence to support the salacious Guardian report, which cited the movies Blade Runner and Minority Report. I wasn’t going to add to the canon of western tropes about Japan. Instead, I talked to various people and delivered a story about something we could see in the real world.
“You did not meet the requirements of the face recognition assignment,” Devos wrote me on Nov. 20, 2010. “As a result, you will not be paid. This decision is final.” I replied that I wasn’t going to fabricate a story about something that didn’t exist, just because the Guardian faked it. I demanded to be paid for my time and efforts, like every other person in a country where slavery is illegal. Incensed, Devos called me in Tokyo after I had been working — all day and night without pay — to curse at me and remove me from the roster, after 15 years of loyal service.
At least Devos had the courage to tell me things that many privileged staffers conceal in the dark. “Regarding the 5 a.m. phone call, it was seconds after receiving an e-mail from you, so I knew you were awake,” he wrote. “I will not apologize for giving my unvarnished opinions. I did say that I will not work with you again, and that remains true. After our phone conversation, I sent an e-mail to Tom Maloney, Dave Leeder, Natasha Hassan, Guy Nicholson and Mark Heinzl, stating that I had decided to no longer work with you, but that my decision should not affect their relationship with you.”
Of course it changed their opinion of a freelancer they never met. Those editors, who had been commissioning my work for years, never did buy my work again, ending a relationship dating back to the 1990s. Devos later left the news business for work in academia and public relations. His actions ultimately harmed both of us.
I wasn’t the only freelancer treated this way. A Canadian court ordered the Globe to pay freelancers $11 million dollars for bullying us and reselling our works without our consent. The court tried to send a warning: stop mistreating freelancers. But the trend continued.
I was very stoked to join France 24 TV network on the ground floor in 2007. Noting my training, experience and composure reporting on live TV, excellent and global-minded producers in Paris relied on me for live coverage from Japan, China, Myanmar, and the Battle of Bangkok, as seen in this documentary:
After a tsunami hit Japan on March 11, 2011, I reported for France 24 from inside the disaster zone several times per day and also, without pay, helped their Bangkok-based staffer Cyril Payen with logistics getting around Japan. My reward for five years of devoted service? Renee Kaplan, a newsroom manager with a Harvard law degree but no journalism school training, took advantage of her powers to throw me off the France 24 team. Why? Gavin Blair, an untrained, unethical hack with a history of propagating unverifiable claims by Tokyo-based fiction writer Jake Adelstein, told Kaplan malicious and defamatory lies about me. Kaplan never bothered to check. She gave my gig to Blair. A decade later, Blair did the same trick to steal my gig and ruin my rep with editors at the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, my client for more than 20 years.
While many of my excellent producers have left the news business, France 24 still uses Blair, and often cites the “expertise” of Blair’s buddy Adelstein, whose own high school classmates and former co-workers in Tokyo outed him in the New Yorker as “Jake the Fake”. Kaplan parted ways with France 24 months later and became, like CSM’s Scott, editor of “Audience Engagement” at the Financial Times. France 24 lost me as a reporter, and a viewer.
When I was studying Japanese in Osaka in 1989, the Japan Times had six pages of job ads for foreigners. Almost every foreigner I knew in Japan read the newspaper. I was honored to become a contributor for the Japan Times in 1994, and I also sometimes worked on desk there. But a pugnacious white male British editor, Ben Stubbings, who had been arrested in 2005 for allegedly attacking a Japanese bar owner and kicking a sign at 4 am near Yokohama, had an ongoing turf war with staffers who assigned me freelance stories. So, he took it out on me — a person he never met. In 2012, he used anonymous sock puppet accounts on Twitter for ad hominem attacks against me and my “gaijin gulag” story in The Economist about Japan’s secretive detention of thousands of foreigners.
Then he found a better way to take revenge on the freelancer. Later in 2012, he agreed to my pitch about a British Member of Parliament David Anderson accusing Japanese diplomats, KLM airline officials, and the UK’s Foreign Office of lying to him and covering up the case of British citizen Simon Robertson, who claimed he was detained, robbed and tortured at Narita airport outside Tokyo. Robertson said this led to the suicides of his fiancee and two female employees, and he sent me evidence and photos to prove it.
Though my report focussed on verifiable public and private statements by British MP Anderson and other officials about Robertson’s case, I also spent more than a year communicating with Robertson to verify every detail in his story. For six months, Stubbings bugged the bereaved Robertson (who was banned from entering Japan and recovering his possessions) to reveal the names, addresses and family member contact details of the three deceased women — an extraordinarily rude thing to do in Japan. Despite overwhelming verifiable evidence supporting the story, Stubbings decided to kill it, and he convinced his superiors to cancel my other stories scheduled for publication in 2013. The newspaper has blacklisted me ever since. They recently promoted Stubbings to web editor.
At the same time, they gave Adelstein a regular column, giving him free reign to fabricate or quote anonymous sources and libel or smear people without verifiable evidence — his stock in trade.
I also had a long relationship with excellent producers at German state broadcaster DW, based in Berlin. I did hundreds of live TV reports for them, and they ran my written or photo features from various wars, revolutions or disaster zones. They also had the courage to run my report about a court decision confirming that Japanese officials murdered Ghanaian expat Abubakar Suraj at Narita airport. (https://www.dw.com/en/court-rules-japan-officials-killed-deportee-at-narita/a-17527619)
But in late 2014, an executive producer at DW, trying to make her mark, decided to push me over a cliff while I was risking my life covering the US bombing of ISIS in Kobani, Syria. She wanted to send a staffer to replace me, and demanded I give them all my contacts and logistical information — the brunt of a frontline reporter’s work. At first, the supportive producers took my live reports and ran my photo feature, which was deleted from their site a few years later.
While remaining supportive of me in private, these producers could no longer buy my work, fearing the wrath of their boss. A British white male in an executive position sided against the veteran contributor (with more than a decade of service) in favor of a dashing young white British woman who had done an unverifiable “story” in VICE about eating ice cream with an ISIS member in Syria.
I could blather on and on about cruelty and injustice at news organizations, including the suicide of Toronto Star reporter Raveena Alauk, a victim of the kind of sexual harassment and power harassment rife in newsrooms. But they get away with it by claiming to “promote women, minorities and youth” (often meaning attractive younger women of color) while turfing out older, experienced women, especially those appearing on camera.
Companies also use their own internal “logic” and legal technicalities to try to rip off freelancers. The BBC has never paid me for their usage of exclusive videos from Lhasa, Tibet in 2008. (They said an armored personnel carrier is not a tank, therefore they don’t have to pay for the only available footage at that time showing China’s crackdown on Tibetan protesters). The Economist never paid for the Gaijin Gulag story, which had the most comments on their site in January 2012. The Sunday Herald in Scotland never paid for my work from the typhoon Haiyan disaster zone in Guiuan, Philippines. AP, Reuters, AFP and many others owe me money.
In almost every case, relations turned bad when a newly-promoted editor or executive producer on a power trip tried to bully the faceless freelancer who had been serving the company for years. My longtime friends and contacts in those organizations couldn’t stick their necks out to save me, and many of them also lost their jobs. The abusive Staffer simply thought the Freelancer couldn’t fight back. They were often right.
That is why I must write about disturbing recent developments at my beloved South China Morning Post, one of the world’s greatest newspapers, which has published dozens of my stories from China, Japan, Philippines, Iraq, Europe, North America and around the world since I was based in Shanghai for them between 2000 and 2002.
Dave Besseling, a former India-based freelancer who in June 2019 became the “long reads editor” for SCMP Magazine, commissioned and published my feature from Japan about the Diamond Princess cruise ship, where more than 700 passengers and crew tested positive for COVID-19 in February. He assigned me 8000 words and ran a 5800-word version without giving me the chance to correct factual errors made by editors. I couldn’t complain, because I didn’t have staffer privilege. I also felt compassion for editors cooped up in tiny apartments in Hong Kong during the lengthy coronavirus lockdown.
In early April, Besseling commissioned a second story, “On the Road with Patient Zero: a journey into central China at the dawn of the Great Covid Pandemic”. As shown in the notes below, I worked more than 40 days and nights while self-isolating in a room in Japan filling work orders from Besseling and veteran SCMP editor Mark Footer, who thoroughly checked every fact and line of the 5700-word investigative story built to defeat SCMP’s worldwide competition.
(please see the full, unpublished story with links and evidence here: https://globalitemagazine.com/2020/05/17/on-the-road-with-patient-zero/)
To achieve this work of basic fundamental journalism based on direct observations and multiple primary sources, I had to arrange my own journalism visa for China last year, and I paid thousands of dollars in expenses for my reporting trips in China while authorities were expelling foreign workers including reporters for the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. Since I had a rare insight into conditions in central China at a crucial moment of history, SCMP editors Besseling and Footer agreed I should tell readers what I saw first-hand, and I should use my knowledge of China to put together many of the most important pieces of the coronavirus origin puzzle, which Besseling called one of the great mysteries of our times.
But in mid-May, with the story ready for publication, Besseling suddenly decided he wouldn’t use the version which Footer and I had hammered out during an exhaustive editing process. Contradicting his earlier instructions, he demanded I throw out half the story and go back to the drawing board. This meant that, after 40 days of drafts and revisions, I would have to do several more days or weeks of work in order to receive less compensation, since SCMP pays me 2.5 Hong Kong dollars per printed word. I told him this was unfair. A freelancer shouldn’t have to do 2 or 3 months of work, at their own expense, for a payment of about 2000 dollars. I told Besseling and other staffers that I should get paid for my time and energy, just like they do. They didn’t like that.
In my view, Besseling made arguments against the story that I found illogical, irrelevant and based on activism, opinion, distorted thinking and hasty conclusions, not solid fundamental journalism with verifiable evidence. I defended my reporting, and said I would not accept censorship nor a kill fee, which would not even cover my expenses.
According to social media accounts, Besseling grew up in a large house in Peterborough, Ontario (near the hometown of Neil Young) and studied design, not journalism, at Fanshawe College from 1997 to 2000. A colleague on Linkedin called Dave’s father Jules Besseling, born in Holland, a “pioneer in the Canadian nuclear industry” who has worked on the Candu reactor and with SNC Lavalin, a controversial engineering giant involved in the biggest scandal to hit the Justin Trudeau government. Jules, who has been married to Laney Shaughnessy since 1973, often tweets about his expertise in nuclear technology while railing against wind and solar power. His son, who doesn’t seem to follow his father on Twitter, takes more extreme left wing positions online in contrast to his privileged upbringing.
Besseling, who brags about skipping his college graduation to go backpacking, has a history of courting attention through controversy. He told News18.com that he once wrote about living with “international drug smugglers”, and he found India to be “rude and obtuse”. He said his favorite character is an “underage transvestite” prostitute in Laos, and his future book is about a “missing paranoid schizophrenic.”
Reviewers have perhaps unfairly slammed his book “Laid in India” for glorifying a Mumbai pick-up artist who dupes and rapes women. (I was actually looking forward to reading his book and reviewing it, since I try my best to support my fellow Canadian writers and artists.)
In almost every article about him, Besseling boasts about drugs, alcohol, debauchery, prostitution and street fights. “The one that comes to mind is getting ratarsed pissed on Absinthe in Barcelona, and before I made it out of the alley onto La Rambla, a guy jumped out with a knife and tried to mug me,” he told News18.com. “But I was too pissed to just hand over my hard-earned drinking money, so I reared back my right fist. I was going to — in that swervy state — try and knock him out.”
Besseling seems to crave a reputation as a kind of Bukowski or Hunter S. Thompson going gonzo on sex-and-drug binges in Asia, according to the Guardian, who quoted his writing.
“Our brains have three distinct physical layers that more or less coincide with paradigm shifts in human evolution. There’s the lizard brain, the lowest or oldest bit which is the fight or flight, fuck or fill instinct. This is wrapped around Palaeolithic instincts for reproduction and parenting; all the basic emotions for human connectivity — kindness, sympathy caring as well as jealousy and hatred. And then the third layer which is so far been proven to be unique to humans, the ability to think in abstract and plan ahead.”
As per the Guardian, Besseling says alcohol allows us to go deeper into the “lizard state” and view all three levels of this subconsciousness. “Besseling’s method of staying on a binge for a few days to view the world goggle-eyed eventually leads him to India, once Japan and Amsterdam stop offering answers.”
Many have attacked Besseling online, causing him to lock some of his accounts for privacy. The Daily Mail posted an article accusing Besseling of belligerence and provoking disputes with profane language.
Besseling defended himself in a blog post about “the torrent of all-caps abuse coming my way on Twitter” after “I’d pulled no punches with any of my celebrity subjects.”
When he was supposed to be publishing my completed, edited story in mid-May, he was busy joining lynch mobs on Twitter denouncing white people including Canadian music icon Bryan Adams over an angry remark that Adams, who has employed hundreds of people for his tours across Asia, later apologized for.
Factually correct or not, Besseling’s recent comments online are part of the hateful and libelous “cancel culture” bent on taking down popular figures and revising history (especially anything penned by dead white males) to fit contemporary ideology. I thus wondered if Besseling was discriminating against me, and my story, because I’m a white male Canadian expat who therefore should have no right to write about Asians, even though I’ve been speaking and reading Thai, Japanese and Mandarin while living in Asia for three decades.
“Stylistically, there are points we get dangerously close to a noble-savage narcissism,” Besseling wrote in explaining his decision to withhold my story. “Multiple repetitions of how polluted (rural central China) is, how bad the food is, how poor it is, how filthy it is, while true, read at times with a post-colonial white-saviour arrogance that doesn’t do our theory, even as it is, any favours. It’s just going to make you look out of touch and unlikeable.”
Instead of my “On the Road with Patient Zero” story, SCMP’s Long Reads section ran June Shih’s account of flying between the US and Shanghai during the pandemic.
Though the article reads like a self-centered Facebook post with no research or sources, SCMP ran it verbatim from its original publication in a website connected to Arizona State University. But SCMP neglected to mention that this “American mother”, praising China over America, was a state department official under Barack Obama, and a former presidential speechwriter for Bill and Hilary Clinton. SCMP also didn’t mention if June Shih, a fierce critic of US President Donald Trump, is related to Washington Post reporter Gerry Shih, who was expelled from China.
For whatever reason, Besseling turned against me and my work, and used his position of authority to intimidate a freelancer. Though Besseling has expressed outrage online about fascism and discrimination in Montreal, Hong Kong, India and Berlin, he used police language to threaten me: “You are not cooperating,” he said. He forced me to defend myself in an email explaining, on journalistic grounds, why I was standing behind my solid, neutral, objective and comprehensive reporting of facts which, I believe, will stand the test of time, regardless of spin doctoring from Beijing or Washington. (As Bob Woodward once said of investigative reporting: we are chronicling history based on the truth that we can prove at the time.)
I also reminded Besseling that I have skin in the game at SCMP, since I’ve been creating content for the company for two decades while many staffers have come and gone. I told him that I’m trying to have compassion for editors in Hong Kong, who’ve endured a year of violent street battles there and the tremendous stress of the Great Lockdown of 2020. Besseling, who faced at least 14-days mandatory quarantine in Hong Kong after flying back from a February vacation in Kenya, perhaps didn’t read my story carefully. Or he perhaps confused it with a quixotic story about pandemics in Chinese history by a contributor who apparently didn’t quote primary sources nor visit China first-hand for what reads more like an academic dissertation than a piece of journalism. Besseling perhaps also felt pressure from above to kill my story, since staffers can also bully and discriminate against other staffers, not only freelancers.
The problem is much bigger than Besseling or the SCMP staffers who repeatedly steal my story ideas, write inflammatory and inaccurate headlines, twist my words or facts without my consent to fit their own narratives, and try to cheat me out of payments. This problem is worldwide throughout the industry, and I’m only noticing it at SCMP because they’ve been generous enough lately to hire freelancers while many publications ditch them or try to use them for free.
The problem is the system in which a Staffer, in their first year at an organization, has disproportionate power over a trained pro journalist who has been creating quality content for the organization for years. Even though I have helped to build up the company for 20 years, the Staffer can suddenly treat me like an outsider with zero rights. We are like untouchables in India, or burakumin in Japan, or illegal alien workers in Thailand, Europe or America. We don’t exist, unless they need some cheap labor from us.
If I go on social media and politely remind the Staffer to publish my story, the Staffer can twist this as a form of “harassment”, block me, ghost me, censor me and blacklist me, while refusing payment. The Staffer has the power to mischaracterize my emails seeking publication and payment as a “threat” to their authority, and further “evidence” of the Freelancer’s “insubordination” or “refusal to cooperate.”
For the Freelancer, it’s like a news industry version of how white police mistreat black suspects. The cops presume the black man is guilty. They cuff his arms behind his back. He struggles and tries to declare his innocence. “This isn’t fair!” The police weaponize his defiance against him. “You are not cooperating!” They believe this gives them justification to put a knee or a chokehold on the detainee. “You have the right to remain silent!” they tell him, as the person is dying in their arms.
While staffers at SCMP and other organizations aren’t killing us, they are effectively killing our relationships with institutions, and slowly deleting our passion for journalism. This is happening across our declining industry. Out of about 400 people who studied journalism while I was at Carleton, about a dozen still work as journalists. Many of my favorite colleagues in the frontlines around the world have also left the business over the years — staffers and freelancers both.
I believe that the culture of staff privilege, not “the internet”, is truly the root of massive losses and lay-offs in the industry. Not long after my problems with staffers at The Nation, CSM, Japan Times and others, those companies became shells of their former selves. Everybody lost — including the staffers who lost their jobs.
It’s ironic that the Bangkok Post, where my friend was a staff editor for years, then cheated him out of payment years later, when he was a freelancer, for a story about military abuse of detainees during Black May 1992. As he says, they simply have grown accustomed to mistreating freelancers with impunity, and they might not even realize it. They also cheated me over my exclusive features from the Baghdad war zone in 2003. Should I buy an online subscription now?
These harmful practices are souring relationships, fostering bad karma, and turning organizations into death stars headed for bankruptcy. It’s heart-breaking to see freelancers, who were the biggest fans of an organization, turn into their most outspoken critics. They tell their friends about these abuses, and the virus spreads through “community transmission” until consumers also rebel against the brand.
We can learn a lot from communities who have come together to bury the hatchet and fight for their own survival. It’s clear that we have to stop shooting ourselves in the foot and discriminating against our own people. We should all check our privileges. I’m guilty of it too. When I was a staff editor or reporter at The Nation in Bangkok, or Shanghai Daily, or NHK, or the Vancouver Sun or the Japan Times, I probably didn’t think enough about the plight of freelancers. I also have to think more about the plight of staffers such as Besseling, who is perhaps dealing with reduced budgets and bullying from people using their own staff privilege against him.
Black Lives Matter and the people of south Chicago and south central Los Angeles taught me about the power of unity and communication. If the Peace Games can bring together members of rival gangs, then staffers and freelancers can talk openly about discrimination and unfair power dynamics in the business. We need to work together, not against each other, because freelancers matter, journalism matters, and democracy matters.
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(photo images copyright Christopher Johnson Globalite Media all rights reserved)