Dear Dr Deadline 10-01-03



Dear Dr Deadline,

I’m sick to death of pitching feature suggestions, having them turned down and then finding suspiciously similar-looking pieces in the very same publication, written by staffers, several weeks later – usually to a standard considerably poorer than I would have turned in.

I know I’m not just being paranoid about this – it happens too often. Plus, I operate in quite a specialist field and my ideas often come from private conversations I have had with my contacts. Any suggestions?

An exasperated freelance


You may not be paranoid, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. Sadly, in the turbulent waters of commissioning, there are some sharks swimming. There are no anti-shark pills on the market, but there are a few measures that might help, despite that oft-chanted lawyer’s mantra that there is no copyright on ideas. One tactic could be to send an invoice for a "tip-off" or "ideas fee" for the piece in question – as long as you’re stone-cold certain no one else could have had the same idea (although in Dr Deadline’s experience, such situations are rather rare). If there is one persistent offender, a quiet word with their editor may make that particular fin submerge for a while. Failing that, the Doctor can only suggest going to swim in other waters for a while.


Dear Dr Deadline,

Am I breaking some law by taping conversations over the phone? Do I have to ask first?

Confused, London


Confused? You will be once you’ve started trying to understand the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, which this Doctor isn’t qualified to dare interpret. But broadly speaking, journalists can still tape phone calls using a conventional microphone – that is, not intercepting the actual signal – if they are calling from a work number and have implied or express authority to record the conversation. If you identify yourself as a journalist, that should usually be good enough. It’s more complex on your home phone or a mobile, so the Doctor suggests you seek more expert legal advice than he can dispense. As The Times lawyer Alastair Brett pointed out recently, the Jeffrey Archer and Ted Francis phone calls were used as evidence in a criminal trial. And if it’s good enough for The Times, it’s good enough for Dr D. One final piece of advice – make sure you take notes too. You never know when that tape machine is going to let you down.


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