The ‘Robin Hood’ freelance scam and freelance journalism today

9 Feb

Greg Dawson, PCG's Press & Public Relations Officer

I am always stunned at the sheer length and ambition of elaborate scams when they come to light when the perpetuator is inevitably caught.

However, rifling through a copy of the Independent yesterday morning for once a scam struck a different note, for the first time, I almost understood how someone had managed it.

I am referring to the amazing story of Lee Horton, former sports editor of the People Newspaper.

Lee allegedly relieved the People newspaper of £370,000 through creating numerous false freelance contributors and siphoned 1,690 payments of hundreds of pounds into 12 accounts over a period of 8 years.

To top it all he actually gave the money to charities, his daughter’s school and took colleagues on morale boosting trips not banking it himself – making it almost a Robin Hood tax on a once lavish media house. I almost started to like him…almost….

However this scam again devalues the reputations of legitimate freelance journalists who are some of the hardest workers I know and my support of course lies with them.

Tax fraud is no joke and heaven knows enough have been falsely accused of it as HMRC struggle to find a way to address the issue, Lee of course has been caught and brought to justice for his crime.

For full details of the story visit the Independent article.

Having said this please allow me to explore the methodology of this supposed crime committed by abusing the freelance sector.

Having worked in PR for a number of years the inner workings of newspapers and their use of freelance contributors have always fascinated me.

Many times I have called up for a ‘Jonny Cash’ or ‘Rupert Ruperson’ who have written a fabulous article on a subject relevant to one of my clients – only to find they have no contact details, not even an email……

On closer inspection (many a journalist has jokingly let me in on the secret over a quiet pint) the majority of these were staffers or freelancers writing anonymously.

They, of course, were attempting to avoid annoying enquiries such as mine and fair play to them, BUT suddenly this scam starts to sound a little plausible.

You can almost hear the cogs in Horton’s head turning as he realised the possibilities. How could anyone find out? Who would check if the name was real as long as the payments were not excessive? Newspapers cannot after all keep track of the hundreds of contributions each day from external sources – its part and parcel of the industry..Or at least it was…

I know from experience they face one of the most hostile sales environments at times, particularly in recent years as Newspaper staff have been heavily cut and freelancers axed which makes me wonder:

In the ‘good old days’ of Newspaper journalism Lee Horton’s scam might never have been discovered – budgets were big, editors had autonomy and freelancers and freelance commissions were a plenty. Only recently, as money has become tight and circulations are falling would this be a cost worth investigating.

In recent years phoning newspapers has become less fun, calls are answered by stressed editors lacking team members and sadly informing me that person or team has “been let go.” Fees for contractors have gone down as have the number of jobs.

Media freelancing is at times a very extreme form of what we consider traditional contracting; you work on a story by story basis sometimes hitting 5 or 6 different outlets in one day, pitching daily for the next piece of work. Once achieved – they then hit the classic and horribly frustrating freelance problem of no payment until publishing – which can be months or years.

The problem runs even deeper in travel writing particularly where quality professional freelancers cannot get assignments as amateur enthusiasts offer content for free as a spare time hobby.

Travel writing is a crowded market with many amateurs keen to take advantage of international visits but unwittingly undercutting professional freelancers.

Scams such as the above will not help law abiding editors to get involved in billing and working with contractors and may discourage them from hiring them for risk of investigation – a sad consequence of this Robin Hoodesque attempt.

However as with any sector contractors are involved in at the moment we at PCG see that green shoots are there.

Freelance journalists have looked beyond traditional Newspapers and are diversifying and coming back stronger. They are now supplying content more and more to free papers, magazines, developing their social media presence, becoming industry commentators, embracing online and even launching their own websites using their expertise in new ways . One example is 101 Holidays by travel writers Mark Hodson and David Wickers – an example of freelancers working together to grow their businesses.

The outlook has to be positive and what we have seen is a natural shift in power as the media environment changes – freelancers are poised to capitalise on this and are at the forefront of innovation in journalism.

This means that whatever damage cases such as Lee’s have (and will) cause freelance journalism, the trade will continue to evolve and diversify finding new areas and ways to present content – an area I find very exciting and good luck to you all…

Returning to the case in question, the difference between Lee and a ‘Robin Hood’ character is that Robin Hood was a champion of the poor supposedly robbing only from the rich.

Lee on the other hand has allegedly robbed from what could be called the rich (at one time), but also may have damaged the reputation of the everyday contractor and potentially taken funds away from hard working journalists who were budgeted by ‘The People Newspaper’ to receive commissions. I very much doubt he would be so popular with his peers down at the press club at Soho House as Robin would have been in Sherwood – apart from maybe those he apparantly took on a golfing holiday to boost morale…..

Signed

T Cruise

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2 Responses to “The ‘Robin Hood’ freelance scam and freelance journalism today”

  1. Mal February 10, 2011 at 9:26 pm #

    Maybe I’m being stupid, but how did he exactly work this scam? Freelance contributors surely get paid on an article-by-article basis, so did he actually write the articles himself? Clearly he was working in a full-time role, so I guess he must have been getting paid his staff salary plus freelance contributions.

    If so, did they did they not notice he wasn’t getting many bylines himself?

    • insidepcg February 11, 2011 at 12:34 pm #

      Hi Mal,

      A fair question – my understanding of this is that Horton knew the limits of the scam and how far he could push the envelope from experience.

      He was aware that payments of £500 and over would be checked by those higher up so he kept all payments below this figure meaning over 8 years he paid himself 1,690 times.

      As you say this is on top of his salary so to achieve this he moved the money around 12 different accounts.

      It is reported that all the stories were non-existent so this would answer your further questions – he fabricated the whole thing and so did not need to provide further work himself.

      From here I would join the dots and say that with the position of editor in certain papers (I cannot vouch for the People) it is common to not have many bylines (or at least it was) and instead to add editorial comment and then task out all articles to freelancers and reporting staff.

      I would also (again joining dots) imagine tools such as Press Association News feeds etc could make this easier as a constant stream of content is coming in.

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