BBC director-general Tony Hall has written to more than 150 journalists and production staff who work for the corporation on PAYE contracts to insist he is doing “all we can to support the freelance community”.
BBC Sport assistant producer Matt Walker, BBC London and World Service journalist Ian Williams and Asian Network and World Service journalist Simon Hancock organised an open letter to Lord Hall signed by 157 PAYE contractors including at least 77 who work across news and sport.
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They told him they were “close to desperation” as they have slipped through the cracks of the Government’s coronavirus support schemes, with many of those affected “the most junior and financially vulnerable freelance workers in the broadcast industry”.
They wrote: “We must lobby hard to secure the much-needed support for PAYE freelancers at the BBC and beyond who are currently frozen out through no fault of their own, otherwise they face an extended period of unemployment and hardship.”
‘All my work’s completely gone’
Walker told Press Gazette: “All my work’s completely gone. Most of my work’s done at the BBC. Since about the second week of March, because what I do is so connected to the sporting calendar, everything has gone. There’s literally nothing.
“At the moment I’m not succeeding in getting Universal Credit – I’m having to turn to family and friends. My story’s very typical.”
A survey by the Women in Film and TV group showed 67 per cent of freelancers in the industry had been unable to access Government help since the start of the pandemic.
Freelancers are ineligible for the Government’s Self Employed Income Support Scheme if PAYE earnings make up more than 50% of their income.
Meanwhile the BBC has been unable to furlough them because it was advised by the Government that the public service side of the organisation is ineligible. Its commercial arm, BBC Studios, has used the scheme.
Many of the affected PAYE freelancers work on a regular basis for the BBC but their programmes have been suspended while the corporation focuses on maintaining a core news service throughout the pandemic.
Paul Siegert, national broadcasting organiser for the NUJ, told Press Gazette the issue affects up to 3,000 people at the BBC alone who are “working alongside people on staff contracts who are doing nothing differently from them and working the same hours”.
He added: “One group of people are being paid throughout this crisis whereas the freelance group isn’t being paid.”
Lord Hall’s response
In his letter, Lord Hall said: “We completely understand how difficult the situation is for all our freelancer colleagues, like you, during these extremely challenging times.
“Unfortunately the situation we find ourselves in with regard to the Job Retention Scheme is not a flexible one… We do however want to reassure you that we’re doing all we can to support the freelance community and we have put several measures in place.
“We hope some of these will be helpful to you although we completely understand that none of these create the security and certainty you had before the outbreak.”
BBC honoured freelances’ bookings up to the end of May, paying 100% of the rate or £3,000 per month, whichever was lower, but some contracts such as sport are often booked with less notice meaning this did not help everyone.
It has also teamed up with the other major broadcasters to ask the Government to extend the SEISS so PAYE freelancers can also apply, but there has been no response on this as yet.
The Treasury is suggesting those who are not eligible for the SEISS take advantage of welfare benefits, tax deferrals and mortgage holidays.
Lord Hall pointed the freelancers to sign up to the BBC Talent Cloud for any opportunities that do come up, but said the BBC has also set up a Covid-19 fund to give out loans as “we do understand that there will not be enough work to sustain all freelancers in this way”.
‘We don’t know when we are going to be working again’
But Walker, whose group has received support from Labour, the Lib Dems and industry unions, said: “Our problem is we don’t know when we are going to be working again and the longer we go without support the more in debt we’re going to be. Loans don’t feel like they are the answer.
“We can’t understand why we’re not being given parity with other taxpayers so we feel we are being unfortunately left out of this.
“And especially what opportunities are there going to be for freelancers after this? Are the creative industries going to have shrunk? Is the BBC going to be watching its budget as well? We feel like the Chancellor could be avoiding the issue somewhat.
“We’ve seen the Chancellor commenting on what the Government’s done so far, but we’ve sat here for two months feeling ignored because it’s certainly not been addressed despite our concerns.”
A BBC spokesperson said: “The BBC is hugely sympathetic to the situation in which freelancers find themselves.
“The Government has been clear that it does not expect their job retention scheme to be used by many public sector organisations, and the BBC was advised by the Government that the BBC Public Service was not eligible to apply. Unfortunately the BBC does not have any discretion in this.
“We have been trying to support freelancers through our own hardship fund, and contributions to each of the Film and TV Charity, the BFI and Radio Academy funds.
“We will continue to work with other broadcasters and producers across the industry to ask Government to extend the gross paid freelancer grant scheme so that PAYE freelances can also apply.”
The Treasury referred Press Gazette to its guidance for public service organisations on the furlough scheme and clarified what support is available for PAYE freelances.
Picture: David Parry/PA Wire