The other day Mumsnet asked whether I would talk to its audience about my Spectator pieces (here and here) on the universities’ plans to authorise the segregation of men and women on campuses.

Why not? I thought. Mumsnet has a large and interesting audience. More than five million people visit each month, and politicians beg to go on to a site that is a successful online publisher, rather than some cowboy outfit. As the Financial Times said in a profile of Mumsnet’s CEO Justine Roberts, ‘It is owned by the founders,  staff and a “couple of mates” – and so any pressure to make more money comes from within. Recently it has turned a profit – “a small one” – from advertising, sponsorship, market research, events and publishing – but Roberts evidently feels it can do better.’

OK, I said to Rowan Davies of Mumsnet, How should we go about this?

‘If at all possible, we’d like to do it next Wednesday (18th) at lunchtime,’ she replied. ‘The chats usually last an hour, with a half-hour or so beforehand to set up and get everything ready. We ask guests to come in to our offices in Kentish Town so that our editorial and tech staff can be on hand to help with any glitches.’

So that was 90 minutes’ work and about an hour’s journey time there and back.

‘What’s the fee?’ I asked.

Now all modern writers have to deal with publishers asking them to work for nothing. Arianna Huffington became fabulously rich on the backs of unpaid writers. If you want to take your novel to a book festival today, more often than not you are expected to work for free. Commissioning editors don’t quite put it that bluntly. They say they are giving writers valuable ‘exposure’, and that is recompense enough.

I thought I had heard it all. But Mumsnet offered a glimpse of a future in which writers, readers and any notion of honest journalism will be hammered even further.  Ms Davies replied:

‘Webchats are actually something Mumsnet often charges for, because they’re such an effective way of promoting things; they tend to get many thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of page views.  In other circumstances (as we were thinking here) we do them on a no-cost basis (on either side) because it’s an issue our audience is interested in, and people who want to campaign on something or drum up interest see it as an opportunity to get their message out.’

I’m sorry, Mumsnet charges writers and actors or their publishers and producers for the privilege of providing content for its website? I shouldn’t have been shocked. The logical next step after asking writers to write for nothing because they get valuable ‘exposure’ is to demand that they pay for their valuable exposure.

For a handful, the gamble of working for nothing or paying for the right to write may pay off. They could be the one in a 1,000 who becomes a superstar. Inevitably, the majority of those taking the risk will be the children of rich parents. Not all, I accept. You can work in a fulltime job and write in your spare time, as many novelists do, and newspapers don’t just recruit from the moneyed classes. But when I look at the young people starting out in journalism around me, they are overwhelmingly from the upper class or upper-middle class. Only they can take out loans for university and post-graduate degrees, and then work for years for little of nothing. I doubt that my younger self could afford to be a journalist today.

Readers suffer because British writing is no longer a meritocracy but becoming a vast system of vanity publishing. Editors are not nurturing talent, but looking for passengers who can pay their own way. As Julie Burchill says, ‘once rich daddies bought their daughters ponies now they buy them newspaper columns’. For all the babble about ‘diversity’, an ever-narrower class of people dominates journalism, broadcasting, drama and publishing.

Justine Roberts told me that she saw no ethical difficulties in breaking down the old barriers between advertising and editorial because she told her readers when she was charging for space. ‘These are known as sponsored web chats and sponsor is usually a corporate’. [My italics]

I have to say that when I visited her site it was not immediately clear to me what features Mumsnet was puffing because writers or publishers had paid Roberts to puff. Even if Mumsnet openly admitted that it was promoting a film or book, not because they thought it was worthwhile, but because Roberts had been paid to promote it, a deeper problem would remain. If it gives prominence to people who can afford to work for nothing or to pay for space, it will deny prominence to those who cannot. If others follow suit, and I am sure they will, writing in Britain will become a self-indulgent racket run by and for the wealthy.

There are many ways to react. The Hollywood scriptwriter Harlan Ellison’s response (above) to a film company that said he should sell his work for nothing because ‘everybody else is just, y’know, doing it for nothing’, is famous.

I said: Well everybody else may be an asshole, but I’m not. By what right would you call me and ask me to work for nothing? Do you get a pay check?

Well, yes.

I says: Does you boss get a pay check? Do you pay the telecine guy? Do you pay the cameraman? Do you pay the cutters? Do you pay the teamsters when they schlep your stuff on the trucks? … Would you go to a gas station and ask to give you free gas? Would you go to the doctor and have him take out your spleen for nothing? How dare you, call me and want me to work for nothing!

I prefer to say that I was going to paint the bathroom/ do the weekly shop/ sweep up the leaves in the garden. ‘Tell you what, you come round to my home and paint my bathroom/ do my weekly shop/ sweep up the leaves in my garden for nothing and I’ll work for you for nothing.’

I appreciate that this is easy to say but hard to do but more people must make a stand against publishers who aren’t so much cheapskates as ‘noskates’, if journalism and publishing are to remain open to all . Writers need to say that they are impoverishing our culture in every sense of that word, and to refuse to play the game.

For the record, I did not go on Mumsnet, and I will refuse to go on Mumsnet until it starts to treat its writers and readers fairly.

UPDATE: Mumsnet Talk has replied here.

Tags: Freedom of speech, Journalism, Mumsnet, publishing