Freelancers debate: can the Covid crisis create change?

Audience questions at ScreenSkills conference in March 2020 © ScreenSkills/ Victoria Horsfield

The potential for the Covid-19 pandemic to be a catalyst for change in the way the television industry works with freelancers was explored in a passionate debate with more than 550 screen professionals.

Hosted by ScreenSkills with Broadcast, the far-ranging discussion looked at long-standing issues over recruitment, training, working patterns, situation in the nations and regions and pay and whether the current crisis makes it more or less likely things will change.

ScreenSkills CEO Seetha Kumar explained why it felt important to give freelancers a voice as she opened the debate.  “Since the crisis hit, we at ScreenSkills have been doing what we can to support the freelance workforce and help them stay connected through a programme of events and training,” she said. “This crisis has inevitably brought to the fore broader questions about the place of freelancers in our wonderful industry that we know people want to raise. That is why we felt this debate is timely.”

Chris Curtis, editor of Broadcast, then moderated the discussion which asked whether the current crisis would cause “an exodus of freelancers,” and the response of broadcasters and indie bosses to the challenges faced by the freelance community.

Acknowledging the importance of the freelance workforce for UK screen, David Pembrey, BBC Content chief operating officer, said the crisis had exacerbated issues that were already there. Kelly Webb-Lamb, deputy director of programmes at Channel 4, highlighted the impact on commissioning budgets from falling advertising revenue but that she hoped the crisis would create positive change.  “The best way to support the freelance community now is to continue to develop and commission.”

Asked whether it was possible for indies to offer more freelancers contracts, Christine Healy, head of production at New Pictures and chair of the HETV Skills Council, said it was not that indies did not want to take on staff, but rather that economics and practicalities made this difficult. She highlighted other ways in which support was available. “We [the HETV Skills Council] are constantly looking how we can support freelancers,” she said.

Freelancers Jane Merkin (Dangerous Borders, Carry on Brussels), Elliott Swinburn (Love and Hate Crime), Geri O’Donohoe (Celebs Go Dating, Sink or Swim for Stand Up To Cancer) said many issues that have been highlighted by the Covid crisis were not new ones and discussed desires for better working conditions and greater pay rate transparency. “I love being a freelancer,” Jane Merkin said. “If contracts improve then the question of being staff will be less important,” adding: “The conversation doesn’t end here.”

There was widespread agreement that these unprecedented times should be used by the industry to tackle these challenges collectively and the costs of the crisis should not fall on the shoulders of freelancers alone. A full report on the debate can be accessed here.

Back to news