Getting the sack was a shock but not a surprise

20 October 2018

9:00 AM

20 October 2018

9:00 AM

It was a shock but not really a surprise. I came back from holiday at the beginning of August to find an item in the UK Press Gazette saying that Decca Aitkenhead had just been appointed chief interviewer at the Sunday Times, and an email from the Sunday Times magazine editor, Eleanor Mills, saying we needed to meet. It was not difficult to put two and two together.

Eleanor suggested we meet at the Flask in Highgate — which was kind because it’s near my home — and when I arrived she was already sitting there with a glass of red wine lined up for me. Such unprecedented thoughtfulness made me wonder for a mad moment if she was planning to offer me a rise instead of sacking me, but no. She announced within seconds that she had been ‘rethinking contracts’ and that mine was for the chop. But, she added, she would pay me till the end of September, which she seemed to think was generous and I thought was bloody mean, given that it was already August and I’d been at the Sunday Times for nine years. So then I drank up my wine and went home and read my contract (possibly for the first time) and found that the paper could indeed sack me at a month’s notice, and for no stated reason. This was ironic because my contract ran from October to October and I’d habitually spent every September worrying about whether they’d renew it and then going ‘Phew!’ in October thinking I was safe for another year. But actually I was never safe.

How do I feel? Well, naturally I feel bruised but, as I say, not really surprised. It had been more or less open warfare with Eleanor Mills ever since she arrived at the magazine three years ago (I got on fine with her predecessor, Sarah Baxter). It was hard to deal with an editor who didn’t seem to like reading — sending articles to her was like dropping stones down a well. And then there was the showdown over Katie Price, when Eleanor actually wrote a sentence starting ‘As a feminist’ into my article. I said she’d either got to take it out or change the byline and she took it out, but after that it was only a matter of time.

Because everyone was on holiday when I was sacked, I spent a couple of weeks just licking my wounds and wondering if I should sign up for pottery classes. But then journo friends started ringing to say they’d heard this rumour, so I put the news on Twitter. This was an entirely good move; I was overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of the response. I said in my tweet that I was looking for freelance work — ‘Interviewing a speciality but also up for travel freebies or anything that looks like fun.’ I assumed I’d get lots of interview offers, as that was what I was known for, but nary a one. Instead, I was deluged with travel commissions. I didn’t even know there were that many travel pages in the world, but apparently the young, having given up hope of ever buying a flat, spend all their disposable income on travelling. I immediately accepted a commission from the Financial Times to spend a weekend celebrating the champagne harvest in France, which cheered me up no end.

So now, at the age of 74, I am sailing the choppy waters of freelance journalism and realise how incredibly adrift I am. Many of the editors who contacted me asked me my rates. I didn’t actually know, because I hadn’t been a freelance since 1982 when I joined the staff of the Sunday Express, and I moved seamlessly from there to the Independent on Sunday, Vanity Fair, the Daily Telegraph, the Observer and finally the Sunday Times, under contract all the way. I remember someone in the 1990s asking what my rates were and I said £1 a word, but I only said it because Martin Amis did and it sounded good. (Does anyone get £1 a word nowadays? I know A.A. Gill did, and possibly Jeremy Clarkson, but it must be rare.) I consulted a very successful freelance friend, Tanya Gold, who said I should ask for 70p a word and settle for 60p. But in the first scary weeks I settled for almost anything, as I just wanted to see if I could still get any work at all. And there are some publications — hello Spectator! — who can get away with paying peanuts because they know writers want to come to their parties.

But discussing fees with editors was comparatively straightforward. What was really baffling was the number of people who rang and asked me to ‘join their platform’ or their website or their brand. They invariably mentioned the Huffington Post, but when I asked what they paid, they talked about ‘participation’, which seemed to mean nothing at all. Some of them wanted me to meet them for breakfast (out of the question) but several offered lunch and I’m always up for a good lunch. One charming man took me for lunch at Robin Birley’s private club 5 Hertford Street, which I was pleased to visit (lovely decor, mediocre food), but even after two hours I still didn’t understand what he wanted me to do, or what (if anything) he paid.

As a journalist, I am a dinosaur. I like reading words on paper. I like writing long interviews when everyone nowadays seems to want short. I hate dealing with PRs. I don’t follow any celebs on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram, because I don’t know who half of them are. One of the last interviews Eleanor asked me to do at the Sunday Times was with Nick Grimshaw, the Radio 1 DJ. I’d interviewed him before and knew he was a likable bloke, but I was rather baffled as to why Sunday Times readers were supposed to be interested in him. I was told the answer was ‘clicks’. Apparently he has a large Instagram and Twitter following among the under-thirties and the idea was that they would read the article and retweet it and the Sunday Times would accumulate more clicks. I’ve no idea whether this worked and frankly I don’t care. I can’t write for clicks. I need to know who I am writing for and why. But I mean to go on writing.

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