Victory for Sunday Times in row over 'exclusive' fee

A freelance who took The Sunday Times to the small claims court after the paper reduced her fee has lost her case.

The paper claims she sold it a story on an exclusive basis and the next day sold it to The Observer.  The court dismissed Emma Hartley’s claim for £500. The NUJ, which represented her, claimed that by reducing its fee The Sunday Times had acknowledged the story was not an exclusive.

Hartley offered a story about the publication of lesbian novellas written by Philip Larkin exclusively last April.

She originally agreed a fee of £1,200 but when The Sunday Times newsdesk discovered that some elements of the story were already in the public domain, this was reduced to £500.

Hartley agreed to the new fee, claims The Sunday Times, but the following day also sold the story to The Observer for £300. As a result, The Sunday Times paid Hartley only £250. She insisted on the agreed £500 and took her case to the small claims court.

In her statement to the court, Hartley said: "I had been forced to make the best out of a bad situation." Richard Caseby, managing editor of The Sunday Times, told Press Gazette the paper had vigorously defended the case even though the sum involved was small.

"There was an important principle at stake here. When a reporter agrees to an exclusive deal, we expect them to honour it – as I am sure any national newsdesk would agree.

"It beggars belief that someone who has sold a story behind our backs should then try to claim a full fee."

Caseby continued: "Hartley was poorly advised by the NUJ to mount such a flawed case against us.

"It should have encouraged her to apologise — not pursue legal action. Her claim for further payment had no foundation and was comprehensively dismissed by the judge.

"Needless to say, Hartley’s contributions will no longer be welcome here."

Hartley declined to comment but an NUJ spokesman said:  "When they cut the fee to £500, The Sunday Times was therefore saying the story was not an exclusive.

"The paper should have made sure before it entered into the commitment for the fee that they were getting what they thought they were getting."

The Sunday Times produced a tape-recorded transcription in court of the newspaper’s conversation with Hartley.

This was something of "a bombshell" to the union, said the spokesman.

John Toner, the NUJ’s freelance organiser, said: "The union is very concerned that freelances who are having what they think are confidential discussions with editors at The Sunday Times are, in fact, being tape recorded.  Freelances should be careful about this."

Jean Morgan

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