The News Quiz is no sweatshop

Writers defend 'additional material' slot

Comedy writers have stepped forward to defend Radio 4’s News Quiz after it was accused of exploitation.

One experienced joke-writer last week described how he was offered £50 for two days’ work on the show, with no prospect of joining the regular team. He compared the deal to the government’s controversial workfare scheme, which gives major companies such as Tesco access to free labour.

But other writers – and the BBC itself – say the ‘trial writer’ scheme offers a genuinely valuable experience, especially as the show would function perfectly well without the 'additional material' input.

Andy Wolton, who writes chairman Sandi Toksvig’s script each week with Ben Partridge and three established freelancers, says he owes his job to schemes such as this.

‘The BBC is unique in actually caring about nurturing fresh talent,’ he said. ‘If this is under threat then it's a tragedy for those who want to write comedy for a living. Without the trial writer's slot and the large number of competitions the BBC run, I wouldn't have the job I have now.’

‘It's important to realise that unlike Tesco, the BBC is not filling a general position with cheap labour; the show could be made without the trial writer,so the BBC isn't saving money by using them. The BBC chose to add the position for the benefit of young writers.' 

Wolton, who once did the trial writer’s slot, said the position was not intended for old hands like the source of Chortle’s original story, who had 16 years of TV credits to his name.

‘It's like Richard Branson complaining that an apprenticeship scheme doesn't pay him as highly as Virgin,’ Wolton said. ‘The gig isn't for him; it's for young writers no one knows about who aren't going to be paid £400 a day at this point in their career. It's basically like an open spot for a fledgling comedian. Do we think promoters are also guilty of slave labour?’

Comedian Nadia Kamil – who also performed the ‘trial writer’ job – also pointed out that the slot was not for established names, and said she found the experience invaluable.

‘You gain a real experience of what it is like to work on a topical radio comedy show,’ she said in a Correspondence piece for Chortle today. ‘You write jokes, which presumably, is what you want to do. You don’t clean the BBC toilets or stack the BBC stationery cupboard.

‘You sit at a computer – or pen and paper, if you’re a dweeboid – and write jokes. You watch how the other writers write jokes. And you are paid your £50 expenses regardless of whether you write any jokes at all, let alone get them in the show. The job is totally disposable to The News Quiz itself. It only exists to provide a platform for new writers.’

The original complainant said he was offered just £50 expenses for two days work on the show, and said: ‘You’d be writing alongside writers in the writing room who are being paid a fee, perhaps getting several minutes of material on. But you’re still only getting expenses. That’s not right.'

Radio 4 say the £50 was a fee – not expenses – and said a production co-ordinator used the word in correspondence with the writer error.

A spokeswoman said that trial writers did not have to come into the London office for two full days and could easily work from home, although being in the writers’ room is an experience applicants would probably relish.

She added: ‘An additional material writer could never get “several minutes of a programme on air", as additional material writers do not write questions or answers but contribute stand alone jokes which Sandi uses ad-hoc. 

‘A really good additional material writer might get a minute on air.  £50 is roughly equivalent to a one minute commission on a Radio 4 comedy show, and is paid regardless of whether material gets on air.’

‘This is a low-risk, low stress, opportunity for a writer to get to know the show and for the show to get to know writers..’

Published: 11 Mar 2012

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