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News agency rebels over Sun and Times freelance rates unchanged in 40 years

The Sun pays from £10 for a picture used online and £20 for a print news in brief.

By Bron Maher

The trade association representing Britain’s independent press agencies has warned of a “mass rebellion” against the publisher of The Sun and The Times over what it calls its “tyrannical” treatment of freelances.

The National Association of Press Agencies (NAPA) says rates of pay imposed on agencies by News UK have not increased in up to 40 years due to a decades-old self-billing system.

And it claims that unless the publisher urgently reviews its relationship with agencies, their news and picture suppliers could seek legal redress and move to their own invoicing business models to secure better payment.

‘Unsung heroes’ of the news industry argue they have been ‘tied in’ to decades-old payment terms

Press agencies provide consumer news brands with content to supplement the work of their own journalists. Times editor Tony Gallagher described them as the “unsung heroes” of the news industry for the volume of content they anonymously contribute, when he spoke at the NAPA awards in 2017.

Under self-billing agreements publications pay agencies and freelancers using a rate card calculated by the publications themselves, some of which the agencies say were drawn up as long ago as the early 1980s. It means agencies are payed after publication at pre-agreed rates for whatever content is used.

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The self-billing system should reduce paperwork and speed up payments. However, NAPA chairman Jon Harris told Press Gazette the system has been used to “tie in” agencies to rate cards and so freeze pay rates for decades.

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Earlier this month Harris, who runs Manchester-based Cavendish Press, took The Sun publisher News Group Newspapers to the small claims court after the paper’s picture desk “enraged” him by refusing to pay a £390 bill in unpaid balances for eight pictures supplied by Cavendish.

Harris said News UK told him any pictures submitted to The Sun but taken three days before publication would be treated as “stock” and paid at a rate of just £30 each. According to Harris, this would “effectively include any pick-up pictures, collects, or even set-up images ‘held’ by agencies for marketing reasons”. (Pick-up pictures and collects are images sourced from the public, whereas set up images are exclusive, posed pictures.)

A follow-up email from News UK’s contributions department asked Harris to sign a new self-billing agreement and warned him that until he agreed, News UK’s account with Cavendish would be “blocked” regardless of whether any payments were due to him.

‘There’s an element of tyranny in the way we are being treated’

The Sun currently pays from £100 for a page lead story and £20 for a news in brief, Harris said. The Sun website is said to pay £25 for words and from £10 for a picture.

He said it “also insists that only one payment will be made to freelances on a given story – regardless of it being used across multiple platforms”. The Times, he said, pays £22.50 for a nib, £117 for a page lead and from £54 for a picture used in print or £40 online for a pictured used online.

Harris said that last week he “ripped up” his decades-old Cavendish Press self-billing agreement with News UK after learning it was last renewed in 2011. He has also introduced a new set of rates he has calculated himself which he said is “more commensurate with 2024 rather than 1984”.

Going forward, Harris said he will invoice News UK titles for any Cavendish items published by them in print or online.

He said: “I’m afraid the time has come to make a stand against what frankly is the rank corporate greed of a major media organisation at the expense of its own contributors who give them invaluable content on a daily basis.

“In reality rates of pay to freelancers are almost on a Dickensian level let alone the 21st Century. UK press agencies must be the only industry in the world that has not had a pay rise in 40 years.

“The last review of rates by The Sun was way back in 2009 – and even then it was to impose a 10% cut on us. Sadly there’s an element of tyranny in the way we are being treated – even though our very existence can only benefit their daily news lists.

“Some agencies affected by this latest stealth rate cut on pictures by The Sun have for wholly understandable reasons been reticent to take matters further but given the ever-rising running costs of agencies and freelancers we need to help ensure our survival in today’s media market.  The billing model currently operated by News UK is uneconomic, outdated, unrealistic and unworkable.

“If the Sun and its associated News UK titles cannot adapt to the realities of UK inflation to help agencies they undoubtedly benefit from either rebellion or the death of freelance journalism will be the result.

“I would prefer rebellion myself, but whatever happens ultimately The Sun will be the biggest loser.”

Harris said he set up his new rates after speaking with a media lawyer in December about what action he could take against News UK over its rates of pay and billing system. Another unnamed NAPA agency boss is currently pursuing a copyright complaint and damages against two national newspaper titles over claims they plagiarised 100 of his stories from other publications.

The last correspondence Cavendish received from News UK in connection with Sun newspaper fees was in January 2009 when deputy managing editor Richard Barun wrote to Harris informing him of a 10% pay cut on all fees. He received a similar letter from then-managing editor of The Times Christopher McKane.

Harris has now written to Barun and his counterpart at The Times informing them of his move to invoice-only and urging them to lift the block on News UK’s account with Cavendish so he would not have to take out what he described as “further needless and time-consuming legal action for failure/refusal to pay for goods and services”.

In his letter Harris told Barun: “I’ve had no alternative to go to ‘invoice only’ with News UK, as regrettably your current payment rates to contributors are simply unrealistic given the economic trading conditions of 2024 and the fact costs have increased exponentially for us since your review and cutting of payments back in 2009.

He said his new rates were based on the current rates plus inflation since 2009.

The Sun has been contacted for comment.

Email pged@pressgazette.co.uk to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog

Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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