My Beeb: a precarious memoir

Working at the BBC is no guarantee of a career in journalism. An ex-employee recounts their journey from the news desk to claiming unemployment benefits. 

Joey Cotton
27 April 2015

F̶O̶L̶L̶O̶W̶ ̶Y̶O̶U̶R̶ ̶D̶R̶E̶A̶M̶S̶ (aka chimney sweep) by Banksy. Image Flickr/ Chris Devers:

What would Freddie Lyons, the fictional character from the BBC's Television series 'The Hour' do if alive and aspiring in 21 century Britain? I don't know. Unlike Freddie, I never went to Grammar school. But like Freddie, I was also an outsider of little means, who excelled. I was the first person in my family to go to university, and I graduated as a prize-winning student with a first class BA Hons degree. Also, like Freddie, I once worked for BBC News.

Where would Freddie be today faced with so many precarious contracts? My original BBC contract was for four months. My wages were £12k per annum. Not many chances to network in the BBC club on that. I tried though. I had to rely on tax credits to afford to work there. Anyone who is on a precarious contract will tell you the stress and uncertainty this can cause, let alone the hassle of dealing with the geniuses at HMRC telling you do not qualify for tax credits, then that you do, then that you don’t, then that you do, until two years later you receive a cheque with a letter stating you were underpaid all along.

Just to put this in context:

Two-thirds of all senior managers who left the BBC between 1 April 2005 and 31 March 2013 received a severance payment at a cost, after adjusting for inflation, of £60 million (National Audit Office, BBC Trust)

I worked hard. It was noticed: my contract was renewed twice, taking me up to 11 months... one more month and I would've been the genuine Freddie with a permanent contract. Alas, this was a time of mass redundancies and, as later revealed, massive pay offs to senior staff, some of whom were then re-hired. By contrast people with disabilities who are employed via the BBC’s Extend scheme are not allowed to work for the BBC via that scheme again. It is not much of a career ladder when a 5.5% recruitment target cannot be met.

During my time in News, I discovered that to be employed as a BBC News Broadcast Journalist, a postgrad qualification had become a must have. But it costs £9000 to do an M.A. at City University, which fast tracks you for a BBC News work placement. How would Freddie find the time or money to do it, whilst caring for his disabled father, in addition to navigating the bedroom tax, and the Work Capability Assessment? Most likely, in today’s world, both Freddie and his father would have been sanctioned and using a foodbank.

The careers of people who I worked with at the BBC went onwards and upwards. Fair play to them, they had talent, worked hard and epitomised ‘professional’. I was very fortunate to work with and learn from them. I liked them. I wanted to be as professional as they were. I undertook every News training course possible, and all the internal free online training courses during my lunch breaks and long after everyone had gone home. 

When I left the BBC one month short of a contract for life, I stupidly thought after achieving so much, and what with the BBC wanting to reflect its audience, I had a half decent chance of getting back in. So I applied, and re-applied... and re-applied. I lost count of the BBC jobs I applied for well within my skills range. I also applied for hundreds of other jobs across an industry that I had clearly proven to have excelled in. 

Did I have what it takes to be a broadcast journalist during my time with the BBC? No. But did I have the potential? Yes. I believe so. 

Since leaving the BBC, I’ve had the odd bit of journalism published. At the time though, I was too busy trying to prove myself to my employer, my team mates and coming to terms with a different culture. I made the best I could of it though. No one is entitled to become a BBC Journo or a BBC employee. I get that. It’s just I discovered the BBC seemed to employ a fair few entitled people who would find ways of pointing out social status.

Throughout my first shoot a presenter on one of the shows I was working on dubbed me "reflector bitch". No, I was not working on Top Gear and yes I’ve been called worse. Upon meeting new non-team staffers I sometimes found myself facing questions like "How did you end up working there?" or "You work in news?". These were not isolated incidents. The rest are for my book. Add precarious contracts to this culture and it’s easy to see why people are concerned that the BBC will end up with a workforce based on bank balance, and not talent. Privilege is the other side of the precarious coin. Yet we all pay for the BBC via the licence fee. 

When I read John Humphries recent comments telling aspiring precarious young journalists "not to do it", I thought it must make the BBC proud to rely on a pensioner as its most cited example of outsider come staffer done good. I doubt a young Mr Humphries was ever asked to purchase a large hamper from Fortnum and Masons – on his own credit card.

I can imagine Freddie’s response:   

Who am I buying it for? James Bond? Ian Fleming? Or do we have one of those nice government ministers coming in to give us some helpful advice regarding our editorial policies?

When the hamper incident occurred, and I couldn’t buy it, I felt I was letting the team down. I was reminded of my poverty, and my rent.

I had a quiet word with a team member who quickly resolved the problem. The second time, with a different team, was worse. During a meeting I was told I would be travelling abroad to work on shoot. Yay! I just had to buy myself ticket, and put it on my credit card to claim back. I had to declare to the whole team I possessed neither a credit card nor the funds. These are numerical facts if you’re precariously employed. The team’s response was great and supportive. Buttons went abroad. The incident was as uncomfortable for the team as it was for me.   

Why was this a problem? Perhaps because the precarious existence of the Freddies of the world means they are not actually meant to exist at the BBC on a precarious contract at all - except in fiction. In an ultra competitive globalised media world maybe familiarity breeds security.

My career went from being at the BBC to being an unemployed claimant at A4E. Precarious contracts and precarious existences are interchangeable. What would Freddie have done when told by A4E staff, at an event, to go over to a stall to find out about advice for single parents, to fill in the paper work whilst providing a photo op? I had no children, and I made this clear. It did not stop me being manhandled towards the said stall, my objection to which saw me sanctioned. Still, at least I was ahead of the sanctions curve. Over 900,000 people were victims last year.

It surprises me however - given my training in BBC News editorial guidelines - that stories on benefit sanctions are filed under the Business news section on the BBC website

Politics anyone? Could this be because anyone who understands what a sanction actually means for people has been pushed out of the BBC door by a precarious contract? So, yes I feel aggrieved that in my capacity as an anti-poverty campaigner I have received emails from BBC staff, requesting a contact list of 'normal people' for BBC shows. Was Freddie normal? Am I the only person to do the BBC’s online diversity training module? Someone missed the Lenny Henry memo. 

If I had to do my precarious time at the BBC all over again, I would. I’d tell anyone: don’t listen to John Humphries – go for it. The point of my BBC memoir? Would be journalists of modest or no resources, are not only faced with a globalised jobs market, they are also faced with complex behemoths like universal credit, internships, sanctions, workfare schemes, and zero-hour contracts. For many aspiring journos it is a privilege to have any kind of paid work full stop, let alone the massive, and increasingly distant privilege to work for the BBC.

As such, surely it is in everybody’s democratic interests - especially the BBCs - that the privilege to be had by employing people like Freddie is recognised as exactly that; a privilege. Precarious contracts make this less, not more likely. By the way, I’m open to job offers, so please do get in touch.   

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