How the Journalists’ Charity saved me in the pandemic – by Al Booth

16 February, 2022

For many journalists and their families, the arrival of the pandemic in March 2020 changed everything. Work disappeared, income evaporated, and the future looked bleak. But when it seemed there was nowhere else to turn, the Journalists’ Charity has offered hope.

During the last 2 years the charity has given financial assistance to journalists of all ages and from all sectors and backgrounds. We offered emergency support from day 1, and continue to provide assistance to those impacted by the pandemic.

Here’s Al’s story, as featured in Press Gazette…

I’d worked in radio for some 22 years when, in mid April 2020, my job as a presenter on BBC Radio Nottingham, was cut as a result of pandemic lockdown.

With a partner, a three year-old son and a two-year-old baby daughter at home  I became one of three million who fell between the gap of not qualifying for furlough, nor the self-employment help offered by the UK government. (Since August 2017, my main source of income was as a PAYE freelancer at the BBC and for all I was freelance, tax and contributions were taken at source.)

Despite the sudden lack of work, the memories I have of those early days in lockdown are ones of feeling extremely fortunate. We were in a global pandemic and people were losing loved ones daily, yet here was I with my new-born baby, my toddler son, and my fiancée all playing together daily in the sunny garden of our suburban semi. I also had a full month’s wages to live off and, well, this pandemic thing would probably all blow over in a couple of weeks anyway, so that payment would easily be enough to see us through.

In that April – the same month of my last BBC shift – a page was set up on Facebook. BBC PAYE Freelancers Group was started by fellow BBC freelancers Matt Walker, Ian A Williams, and Simon Hancock to give a voice to people finding themselves in the same situation. (At the time of writing this in February 2022, the group has 789 members.)

The following month they sent a letter to Lord Hall, then director general of the BBC, asking for help. It was signed by 157 BBC PAYE freelancers (myself included). Both the letter and the DG’s reply, in which he stated the BBC was doing “all we can to support the freelance community” was published in Press Gazette in May 2020.

As the days and weeks went by, the money dwindled away and the hope of receiving any more shifts with the BBC faded.

The outwardly carefree days of splashing in the paddling pool with the family were being replaced with panic and desperation behind the eyes. We had been granted payment holidays with our mortgage, our council tax, our phone bills… This gave us some relief, but without knowing when or where I would work again, it merely slowed the pace of my anxiety, rather than eradicate it.

And yet, the bigger picture: my little family and our relatives and friends were managing to stay well. We were very fortunate in that sense.

Like a lot of people, I applied for other jobs. I applied to be a postal worker, a warehouse operator at a local horse food storage place, and a delivery driver for various supermarkets. Nothing came off. Like many others without any income, I was now desperate, and it was affecting my own mental health. (I was already on anti-depressants in the best of times, so my dosage was upped.)

Since joining the Beeb, I’d always felt a sense of pride in being able to tell people what I did. I was a broadcast journalist with the BBC. I’d interviewed politicians and activists. I’d covered elections and court cases. I’d squirted milk directly from a cow’s udder into my mouth on Pancake Day for entertainment purposes. Yes, I was a true journalist.

Except now, I was the one being interviewed, by the people at the Universal Credit office.

My partner was brilliant and pointed out that there’s no shame in needing help. Especially because, as had been mentioned once or twice during that first year: times were unprecedented.

In July 2020, the BBC announced that it would help its PAYE freelancers after all.

“We will mirror the furlough scheme for this group from BBC funds by paying their average earnings (calculated over the 12 months prior to Covid) for March to May (capped at £2,500).”

When I read the news I realised I had worked during those 12 months prior to Covid. I qualified.

I called HR as soon as my son decided he’d had enough bouncing.

For reasons I’m still unsure of, I didn’t receive a reply or call back from the HR department. Nothing changed.

Then came October when Carol, who I’d worked with during my time at BBC East Midlands Today, posted in the Facebook group:

Hi All. I don’t know if this is of any help. I’ve only just found out about it.”

I had never heard of the Journalists’ Charity. My first thought was, as hard as it had been to swallow my pride and concede I needed to get Universal Credit to help with bills, reaching out to a charity was almost an admission of failure.

By the way, it’s not. And that’s very apparent by the way the Journalists’ Charity communicate with you.

As before, my partner assured me this wasn’t a sign that my career was behind me. It was, in fact, something I needed to do because our mortgage holiday had ended.

I looked at the page:

“To be eligible for financial help…  journalism should have been your main source of income for at least two continuous years out of the last five years or for seve years in total (if not current).”

Journalism had been my main source of income for at least two of the last five years. I qualified!

The application was straightforward with just a few details needed about my career in journalism, who I was responsible for; nothing that meant I couldn’t fill it in immediately.

Jo from the grants office emailed me almost immediately to let me know my application would be put forward in the Trustees Meeting, taking place a week later on 11 November.

On the same afternoon of the meeting, I received an email from Jo. My application had been approved and I’d been granted £980. (£500 for living costs and £480 to help with utility arrears.) That was now a fortune to us. It wasn’t just the money though. We’d been in the second lockdown for a week and I was offered advice about what to do in terms of further payment holidays and general help.

A month later, ahead of Christmas, I was awarded another grant. Instead of festive nights out and the usual over-the-top Christmas, we paid for heating, and the mortgage, and to keep the phone connected.

We could also buy the kids some little things – mostly second-hand – to excitedly unwrap on Christmas morning.

As well as the financial help and guidance, Jo emailed to say she was sending us a hamper of festive food to help us enjoy our Christmas day. I felt like Bob Cratchit. (Fittingly, given that the charity was founded by Charles Dickens in 1864.)

The Journalists’ Charity were amazing for me and my family. At no point did they make me feel small, or like a nuisance. Their help took away the panic and helped me breathe.

In February 2021, I went back to the BBC as a PAYE freelancer for a few shifts here and there.

What I’d seen through the Facebook group was how people were diversifying. Some people had gone into podcast production and that really spoke to me.

Last August I landed my first podcast producer contract. At the same time, I was offered more BBC freelance shifts, but only four between then and Christmas. I was determined that Christmas 2021 wasn’t going to be like the last. In fact, I decided that our lives couldn’t be like the last year or so; I decided to leave the BBC.

Now I present on Notts TV across Nottinghamshire, I produce podcasts for production houses, and I narrate and produce content for Blinkist.

Without the help, advice, and reassurance of the Journalists’ Charity, I honestly don’t know what I’d be doing. To be honest, I don’t like to think about it too much. Nor do I need to, thanks to the love and support of family, friends, and the Journalists’ Charity.

If I can offer any advice, it’s take a deep breath, swallow that pride, and contact them. It could be one of the best things you ever do.