—- By Christopher Johnson —
Many freelancers act like they are the only one in the world, and no other freelancer matters. Ultimately, we all lose from unethical behavior.
It’s increasingly common for a freelancer to rock into someone’s yard and eat the fruit off their trees. They don’t seem to care if the “string” belongs to someone else. It reminds me of when I covered union issues in Windsor and Detroit. The union workers on strike would howl at a scab laborer crossing a picket line. In journalism, the scab laborers are increasingly taking work for lower and lower wages, and sometimes even for free in exchange for “exposure”.
I’ve seen this happen with many of my clients, including some of the largest TV news networks in the world.
In one case, I had been reporting for a European network since July 2007 and was negotiating my status with a new set of top brass executives who perhaps didn’t realize my four years of service to the network. The producers and presenters all knew me dating back to 2007. They trusted my reporting, and they gave me more than 60 live hits on air in the first month after the March 11, 2011 disasters.
But while I was busting my butt for them, taking risks among the wreckage and corpses of the disaster zone, including areas in Fukushima near the stricken nuclear reactors, another freelancer tried to weasel his way into a gig he did not deserve rather than earning it based on talent, training and proven dedication to the network.
I saw this as shameful, not unlike how striking union workers would view scab laborers at a factory. This ultimately complicated my negotiations with the new executives at the network. The interloping freelancer took advantage of a fluid situation. He somehow convinced the executives that they needed him more than me, and he fabricated stories about me to tarnish my reputation with them. He was doing this while I was in the disaster zone of northeastern Japan, with no phone signal or electricity or ability to defend myself and state my case to the new executives.
It was a sleazy move, but it happens. I neglected to watch my back and look over my shoulder, in case somebody was lurking to steal my string. I figured that things were going great. I had no problem with any of the network’s producers. They were excellent and totally on top of the Japan story, as I was.
But while I was covering the TEPCO presser, I found out that the “other freelancer” somehow was claiming to be the network’s correspondent in Tokyo. I could not accept this, for any reason. I had every right to do whatever is necessary to protect a position that I have earned with the network, at great personal risk and sacrifice.
It’s not personal, it’s professional. I deserved this job, and I had staked my 25-year career on it. If I tried to steal someone’s string, which has earned them thousands of dollars over the years, I would expect them to fight me for it. Nobody would tolerate this in other industries. So why should I let someone else steal my work?
It’s a matter of ethics and professionalism. I’m a trained professional. I have been through a weeding out process, of four years at Canada’s top journalism school at Carleton University in Ottawa, and then some of the leading networks and newspapers in Canada, before coming to work as a professional journalist in Asia. I learned to speak and read Japanese beginning in 1989, and covered the Kobe earthquake and sarin gas attack for CBC TV in Canada and others in 1995. I have covered almost every major story in Asia and around the world since 1987, including the wars in Yugoslavia, East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq, for major media worldwide.
I have been with the European network from the beginning, and I took great risks to build up their business. I was the only foreign journalist in Lhasa the week of the riots in March 2008, and I broke the story worldwide on the network, beating BBC, CNN and everybody else. I also snuck inside Burma and reported on the crackdown on protesters, and Cyclone Nargis, for the network. Last year, I did a flurry of reports from the Asiaworks feedpoint and on the streets of Bangkok amid gunfire and explosions. I co-wrote and narrated a documentary for the network called “The Battle of Bangkok”, featuring the courageous work of Cyril Payen.
Immediately after the March 11 quake, I spent a great deal of time and effort trying to arrange logistics for Payen, one of the network’s top Francophone correspondents. I did more than 60 live TV reports for the network in the first month after the disaster — only to find my string stolen by the “other freelancer”.
After realizing that my string had been stolen, I contacted Loick Berrou, the very first producer who contacted me back in July 2007 and hired me as their Tokyo correspondent. They liked my work and I did perhaps 40 hits – about half live on camera (a special skill, which I learned in college and honed over years of major network experience in Canada and elsewhere). During that time, Loick asked me to find a good French correspondent for the network, since my French isn’t broadcast fluent enough, though I have French Canadian ancestry (mixed with Mohawk blood).
They tried a number of people who didn’t last more than a few months. So they sent a sei-shaiin staff correspondent from Seoul to Tokyo. She wanted to do English reports as well (extra cash of course). She knew little about Japan coming in, and never did learn the language or culture of complicity here. But, she’s confident on camera, she’s a full-time staffer sent from Paris, and she’s loyal to the network — that means a lot to producers who sweat over finding someone they can trust to file a breaking story without flaw. As for me, I’m a freelancer in Tokyo. So I had to wait for two years, though producers still called me sometimes in Tokyo to do live reports using the satellite feedpoints at Reuters and NHK in Tokyo.
A freelancer should never underestimate or fail to recognize the office politics and communication issues back at HQ of any network. Somehow, the reporter and her cameraman were sent to Tokyo and weren’t told I’m here. (Perhaps their producers didn’t communicate well with them, or didn’t like when the producers in Paris called me in Tokyo instead of her). After this reporter arrived in Tokyo, she thought that she had to find an English journo quickly. Somehow, in February of this year she ends up contacting the “scab freelancer”, the guy who would steal my string.
But he didn’t do any work for them. They didn’t know anything about his work. He had zero experience in live television. He wasn’t even a trained veteran print freelancer either. The producers in Europe had me listed as their correspondent, not “the scab”. There was nothing happening in Japan anyway in early 2011. So this problem didn’t arise until the monstrous quake hit on March 11.
When the quake hit, the producers and my colleague Cyril Payen in Bangkok immediately called me. They didn’t call the “other freelancer”. They only called me. That night, perhaps 3 or 4 am, after I had already done something like 8 reports that day, the network staffers called me, asking me to be exclusive to them, and go north with Payen and his crew, since I can speak and read Japanese and covered Kobe 95 (I was one of the first journos in, and stayed for 10 days). Thanks to my partner in Japan, I was already packed, and that day I had been arranging logistics for Payen (exchanging dozens of calls and emails between us). When most people were scared stiff, my partner had gone out to get food, water, maps and gear for the network’s crew. We did a lot of unpaid logistics work enabling Payen’s crew to do great work in the disaster zone.
I told the new top brass in Europe that I wanted my status set in stone, since I had been supplying the network for four years. They offered me – this is no shit – a per diem of 200 dollars to work exclusively for them up north.
I laughed, stayed positive, and reminded her about what freelancers made during the Battle of Baghdad, and what I earned in Lhasa and Bangkok with the network. I told her I was also getting calls non-stop from my longtime strings with CTV and others. We agreed that I could report for them and the others, so long as I didn’t report for their direct competitors Al Jazeera, BBC and CNN, due to their policy. I knew the excellent producers in Europe would call me, and they did, 60 times. I enjoy working with them more than anybody else in the world. I like them so much, I have risked arrest working illegally in Lhasa and Burma for them, and would do it again. Nobody was saying that I somehow have “a problem” with the network.
But I did have a problem with the “other freelancer”.
While I was doing 60 live hits, often in the middle of the night and in places like Kesennuma and Rikuzen-Takata, the “other freelancer” was actually working for my network’s main rival (a clear violation of company policy). His name is on Al Jazeera’s blog that day. Plus, he went bragging at the FCCJ (Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan) about his job as a driver for the Al Jazeera TV crew.
Not only that, he publicly disparaged the pro TV crew employing him –- instead of investigating things like how many thousands of innocent people died following state evacuation orders, or how many people froze to death or died of treatable illnesses while red-tape held up foreign and Japanese rescue crews, or how NHK and other cash cows chronically covered up truths and failed to prepare Japanese for the realities of living on dangerous faults.
I thought it was strange for him to publicly ridicule his TV crew — sort of like biting the hand that feeds you, or killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. I eventually googled some of his work. He hadn’t broken a single risky story in his life, but somehow he felt that he deserved to report for the hottest TV network in the world.
I didn’t have time to read every edition of the Hollywood Reporter, but his “ground-breaking coverage” tends to propagate stories such as “NHK World has a current potential worldwide audience of approximately 130 million, set to rise to 137 million by the end of the year.” I found that really hard to believe. “You really think 130 million people will watch that crap? How about 137 thousand, not million,” I said to myself. NHK pays a lot of our taxpayer money to propagate their Peter Pan version of events on satellite in various countries, but as Murray Johnson, one of the real pros there, once told me, his audience worldwide is “two cats and a dog.”
I couldn’t find any examples of the “other” freelancer’s report for the European network. So I assumed that the network was employing me as their sole English-language reporter in Japan. When Sarkozy came to visit Tokyo, the producers asked me if I could cover it. I told them I was in the disaster zone on the coast in Iwate, and might be out of phone range at that time, and they should consider a back-up plan, just to be safe. They asked if I knew anyone in Tokyo. I said that many pros were either in Tohoku, Kansai, or out of Japan, or working for the competition. Turns out they got the “other freelancer” to do one hit. (I heard his live hit, and to be honest, it wasn’t good. And why would it be? He didn’t have training and experience in TV, which is a special skill different than print. So they called me to take over for the rest of the day. Luckily I got into phone range and could do it.
Actually, I was hoping that over time this “other freelancer” would somehow get better on TV, as my potential replacement, since I often go away from Japan to do other stories in Asia for my strings. But on the day that they raised Fukushima to level 7, I saw him on air saying “it’s an exaggeration”.
I was thinking to myself: “Are you such an expert on nuclear science and radiation hazards that your opinion counts more than, say, what various scientists and doctors are saying? Or are you too lazy to actually interview anybody before going on air?” Nothing says “I’m an amateur” more than knee-jerk opinions like that.
He made me think about Iraq 2003. When we were sleeping under the mattresses in the Palestine Hotel in hellhole Baghdad, reporters embedded with the military would roll into town filing stories like “one week after Shock-and-Awe, life in Baghdad is going back to normal.” Every story for the next 7 years proved them wrong.
When you say stuff on air like “comparing Fukushima with Chernobyl is an exaggeration”, you lose credibility, and every story after that, inevitably confirming the worsening reality of Fukushima, makes a fool out of you. In print, you can generally get away with substandard work, especially if the editors in Boston or elsewhere are reworking your copy and adding from the wires. But on live TV, people can see through you and call your bluff. If you are not on top of the story, and you do not have all the facts and expert analysis balanced in your head, you end up spouting half-baked opinions that make a fool of you over time.
He was clearly an amateur, and the producers felt the same way. Even journalists covering the story couldn’t understand his disjointed drivel, as he tried to sound intelligent by using words like “methodologies” on a top story broadcast worldwide on a great network. It was simply bad TV reporting.
But for some reason, the executive producer wanted him. Was he working for free, for exposure?
When I finally got through to the executive producer, she told me that she already had given the string to the other guy. I tried to explain to her why there was a misunderstanding. I pointed to the dozens of reports I did for them since 2007, including breaking the Tibetan Uprising in Lhasa for them. I told her about my dedication to the network, and my pledge not to work for competing networks after the disaster.
As it turns out, she was from a family of military types, similar to my own upbringing. I’m all about sports and teamwork and out-working the competition. Yet I see increasing numbers of men seemingly with no sense of loyalty, duty and honour. They are the downfall of society, especially in Japan, where too many mother-con oyajis and gaijin have little or no respect for bushido.
My work in the disaster zones after 311 was a case in point. I worked my butt off investigating how a school principal followed official policy rather than instinct and common sense, and evacuees ended up dying in a flooded school gym rather than walking up the hill behind the school. It was a solid, balanced report. Though Japan was already out of the news cycle, it made front page in Washington, got picked up on USA Today as well.
Fred Varcoe, who was my editor at Number One Shimbun before some greedy amateurs ousted him there, posted it on his Facebook space. Instead of hustling to do their own investigative pieces, reporters such as Justin McCurry, Martyn Williams, Tony McNicol and other British journos slagged me online to the point where Varcoe asked them to stop the personal attacks. What kind of journalistic attitude is that? I have nothing against any of those people, and had zero working relationship with them. Yet they thought they can diss me in public?
I thought to myself: “If this is your journalism culture in the UK, I can understand why so many Brits queue up to immigrate to other countries.” The intrusion of the “scab freelancer” is a case in point. Instead of dealing with me face-to-face like a professional would, he goes behind my back and negotiates privately with my boss to steal my string. What kind of man does that?
The fact is, if the network mistakenly hired him in February, his duty after March 11 was to report for the network, not their competition. Instead, he went for a fast-buck as a driver for their rivals. And then, after a month, while I’ve been making the sacrifices, he considered himself rightly in line for the job.
Well, I did not blow off the network on March 11. I continued to serve all the same people I’ve been serving for years, and I did a lot of extra work – without pay – setting up gigs for my friends here too. I did probably more than a 100 print stories as well as the TV work, and I have donated my photos to fundraisers such as MTV and to charities doing exhibitions in Europe as well. My life is all about generosity and honest hard-work, and I am pushed right to the edge. But I was born for this and will die for it.
That’s why nothing infuriates me more than having a “scab wannabe freelancer” sneaking into my garden to harvest the vegetables I’ve been cultivating. The “other guy” is already a print freelancer for the Hollywood Reporter, CSM, Global Post and so on. That would be good enough for most people – and I know from long experience that greedy overstretched freelancers end up pissing off their employers and finding themselves with nothing.
Ultimately, it’s better for a freelancer to focus on righteousness and dedication to what you had BEFORE the disasters, and start busting open the truth here, as I’m trying to do. His editor Amelia in Boston worked in Japan before (with Yomiuri). She’s a good editor. He could go to town on CSM and try to build a career from there. Or, if he was really dedicated, he could make a blog like mine and push the window.
Yet he was greedy, and was seizing upon the disaster to build a career in TV. But not everybody has a TV personality. Many realize this when they practice speaking in the mirror or watching the replays. Live TV is not as easy as it seems. It’s a mix of hardcore journalism and facile entertainment, and not everybody has it. In my view, his FCCJ article disparaging TV journos seemed like he was telling himself that he doesn’t belong in TV-land.
He never should have put himself into a position of potential conflict with another reporter, especially somebody with vastly more experience. It’s simply a matter of honourable business practices. He was interfering with my freight-forwarding business, and it’s not in my interest to let anybody get away with that.
He did not earn the job with the network. I did, and everybody knows it (at least all the producers and presenters who know my work with them the past four years.) Yet “scab freelancers” can be stubborn and pretend that they somehow have a “right” to the job. Their actions end up poisoning the water in the well, and it ultimately taints what they’ve been cultivating with other strings.
The “other freelancer” simply did not earn the job with the European network. He took advantage of their organizational structure and confusion and tried to smear my rep with them to do himself a favor.
It’s as if shame, pride, loyalty, fairness are not issues for many freelancers. They don’t seem to realize how their “dirty play” eventually backfires on them.
It might work in the short-term, but it won’t work forever. It never does. Just ask all the “scabs” who are no longer in the business.
(words, images copyright Christopher Johnson Globalite Media, all rights reserved. Unauthorized use in any form is strictly prohibited. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org)