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Joe Bitter writes: the Golden Goose has flown

Well, the golden goose has fucked off. The puzzles work is no more. For the past ten years I have been earning extra from the Daily Mail by ‘placing their puzzles’, and it has been very handy money helping to ensure the bills were paid, especially when I started and the ‘casual rates’ at the Mail were still at Victorian levels.

Although I worked at the Mail for 28 years, I was never ‘on staff’ but ‘a casual’, one ‘employed by the day’. The ‘casual rate’ went up at some point by for many years was whittled away by inflation and by the time I began dong the puzzles - and thus earning the extra money - it was getting quite hard making ends meet, what with the extra expense of shelling out quite a bit to travel to and stay in London for four days a week.

Most recently, given the pitiful salary the Mail has taken to paying its junior employees, I was doing rather well compared to them, though not as well as several of those who were ‘on staff’ and in the case of one had been since the dawn of time. For many years staff received a percentage raise each year and that had a cumulative effect, year in, year out, so that salaries were, for many, quiet handsome. In fact for many years the ‘national papers’ were extremely generous employees, especially compared with their penny-pinching cousins in the ‘provincial press’.

(Around the time my son was born in 1999 and under pressure from my wife to ‘get a local job’, I worked as a sub-editor at the Plymouth Evening Herald and although I was paid peanuts, I was still the highest paid sub except for the chief sub and his deputy. There were two girls there who had been taken on from art school, and so were about 22/23 who were paid an abysmal £6,000 a year, but with the promise that the amount ‘would be reviewed after six months’. The promise was kept, the amount they were paid was reviewed and it was decided ‘not to pay them any more because they had never been reporters’.

It’s that kind of shit behaviour which gives newspapers a bad name. I’ve even heard the argument put forward that wages are low in the provinces ‘because working as journalist is a vocation’. The thing is when you are young, keen and impressionable and, for some odd reason, working as a reporter/for a newspaper/call it what you will is seen as the acme of a glamorous job, you can easily be persuaded to accept crap wages. A part of that hoary old ploy is the phrase ‘breaking into journalism’ which implies it is a difficult thing to do but you, my son/girl, had the wherewithal to achieve it. Congratulations, you are now part of an elite band of idiots who will now work for peanuts because what you do is ‘a vocation’. Every heard of anyone ‘breaking into accountancy’ or ‘breaking into civil engineering’? No, thought not. But don’t listen to me, I’m mad old Pat, the indiscreet cunt, a bit of a loose cannon. But back to the puzzles.

I shan’t give the amounts, but a few months ago and out of curiosity I went online to the thisismoney inflation calculator to find out what the weekly fee for doing the puzzles I had agreed with the managing editor in spring 2009 was worth now. And I was astonished - under the circumstances a very apt word - to discover its value had fallen by 25%. So I emailed the managing editor and told him so and informed him I would be charging a new few, the sum we had agreed with inflation taken into account. A day or two later he responded saying he ‘would look into it’, but then I heard nothing more. I waited for two weeks, delaying submitting my latest invoice (charging the new amount) but when I hadn’t heard anything, I submitted it and it was paid. I assumed the new fee had been accepted.

The work is not at all hard, but a bit fiddly - files have to be processed so that they are optimal for printing etc - and since I started I have done a little often (and very soon discovered the benefits of being organised) and this helped me stay on top of it. So last week as usual I logged on remotely (i.e. over the internet) to my PC at work every day to get a little bit more done. Everything was fine until the Wednesday morning when I was informed ‘your primary account has been disabled’.

I rang the IT Helpdesk but they were oddly unhelpful. I must have rung for or five times (and was simply left hanging on once or twice) when suddenly I got a call from the managing editor who had rung to give me ‘a double apology’. The first was that someone ‘had jumped the gun’ and ordered my account to be disabled prematurely so that I had not received his email asking me to call him. The second apology was for the fact that ‘doing the puzzles’ was being taken back in-house.

I assume that he expects this to be cheaper but I can’t see the chief sub and her desk being particularly happy about the new arrangement, especially when they find out all the backroom work that has to be done. Because I worked ahead, several weeks worth of puzzle pages were partly completed by by the middle of July the full extent of the task will become apparent and by the end of July when a new batch of puzzles arrive to be processed it will become even more apparent.

I must confess that it did occur to me that all this might happen once I charged a new fee to reflect how inflation had devalued the sum I was being paid weekly and wondered whether I should do so or just take it on the chin and settle for, in real terms, getting less money. Well, I decided not to. I’m not a serf and have always been bad at tugging my forelock and expressing gratitude for the scraps I am allowed from the rich man’s table and despite the inconvenience - to put it mildly - of my annual income being pretty much slashed by a third, I decided that I had no choice.

Perhaps I should have negotiated a little but even that would have been pretty much like tugging a forelock because Alex, the managing editor, would most certainly have done his best to minimise the rise to take account of inflation. So I would still have been settling for a pay cut. And who in his right mind does that?

The managing editor has held out the possibility that the new arrangement, in his words, might ‘crash and burn’ and that he might at some point be back in touch with me to get me to do it again, and as I say I don’t think the chief features sub will have been too happy being landed with the work, but to be frank I’m not holding my breath. And possibly, being such cheapskates, they might find some other sucker to do the work for less (the name Roger Wilkinson occurs to me, Pete).

Still, it was good while it lasted and life down here on the farm - so to speak - is not expensive: as long as we have enough twigs for the kitchen fire, enough candles to see us through the winter (once it arrives), frost doesn’t hit the

vegetable patch and Denzil doesn’t blow himself up making the potato spirit (he’s come close to that several times) life is tolerable even without the extra gelt I got from ‘doing the puzzles’.

To be the whole ‘penny-wise, pound-foolish’ mentality of the nationals into context, the Mail will think nothing of paying some rancid old cunt (like Richard Littlejohn) a million a year to, as the phrase does, fart on paper. Michael Gove’s wifey Sarah Vine is another Mail columnist who will be rolling in it and although the rates they pay ‘name contributors’ has come down a little in these past few years, it will still be around a grand for 1,000 words, though that figure is an estimate. Yet agreeing to my fee rise would only have cost the Mail another £2,600 a year.

Bitter? Me?

. . .

I have now also started a daily diary which will be easier to write because I shan’t fanny around with discretion. But that one is not public, and anyway as general reading is concerned and as it is just be a record of what I have done during the day it will be dull, dull, dull for the general reader.

Oh, and just for the crack. . .

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