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The Entertainment Industry’s Dark Underbelly: How TV and Film Freelancers Suffer in Silence

Most freelancers do not report abuse within the industry due to a fear of reputational damage, says the national secretary of the broadcasting and entertainment union

Photo: Love Strandell/Folio Images/Alamy

The Entertainment Industry’s Dark UnderbellyHow TV and Film Freelancers Suffer in Silence

Most freelancers do not report abuse within the industry due to a fear of reputational damage, says the national secretary of the broadcasting and entertainment union

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Freelancers in the entertainment industry are still subject to abuse, harassment and bullying – but are scared to speak out for fear of harming their careers, according to the leader of the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union (Bectu).

Each week, freelancers in the sector post anonymously using the hashtag #UnseenonScreen and a whistleblowing page – unscriptedbectu’s Instagram page – to share the conditions they face. 

One account from a freelancer, posted in April, said: “Some shows expect you to drop everything, days off, nights off, to be available to [stay] on location extra days, with no more than an hour or two’s notice… There’s no appreciation for it.” 

Spencer Macdonald, national secretary of the union, told Byline Times why it can be difficult to help freelancers when they complain about being abused, harassed and bullied – because they want to keep it off-the-record. This means that there is not much the union can do.

He said Bectu receives complaints on a daily basis, with the type of complaint ranging from verbal bullying to sexual assault. “I would say there isn’t a week which goes by where we don’t get a complaint,” Macdonald said. “We have had people report that they have been raped.”

Freelancers often find it difficult to report complaints of sexual assault as there is a fear of reputational damage, he said. When they do, it’s normally in confidence.

A woman, who chose to remain anonymous, detailed her experience of sexual assault while working for a television executive.

“One time, when I was reluctant to meet [the executive], he reminded me he’d helped me get my next job, so surely, I owed him a drink?” she wrote. “I was shy and young. I thought this was ‘networking’. He’d tell me we were friends and I believed him.”

After they had been drinking, they went back to her house for a cup of tea. “Suddenly, drunkenly, he crossed the room and wrestled me to the floor. I felt shocked but I was also numb to this by now.” 

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The woman said she never reported the incident due to the fear of being reported as a troublemaker.

“I find it quite painful when I do hear about people being raped and particularly where the individual doesn’t want to do anything about it,” Macdonald told Byline Times. Freelancers often “do not want to refer it over to the criminal authorities due to fear of being blackballed.”

According to Macdonald, only 10-20% of freelancers who make a complaint of harassment to the union or management take it forward. 

Last year’s Looking Glass survey – the third annual survey created by the Film and TV charity, focusing on mental health within the film and TV industry – found that only 11% believe that the industry is a mentally healthy place to work; while 83% said that its culture had a negative effect on their wellbeing. One in seven are still working 61+ hour weeks, compared to one in 50 in the general population.

On whether there has been an improvement in working conditions and the safety of freelancers in the industry in the past few years, he said: “I wouldn’t use the words better – they are going in the right direction. There is more of an appetite to address some of the issues.”

He believes people in the sector realise that more must be done to address the problems on production sets. 

“For a long time, there has been denial – [the view] that this is the industry and you just must suck it up. That attitude is slowly changing. The road to getting better conditions, better situations for addressing harassment, is becoming more important.”

Macdonald believes that the enthusiasm around addressing these issues, particularly when they are raised by scandals hitting the press, is not sustained.

“You need a commitment to look into it,” he said. “Organisations such as Times Up, the Film and TV charity, and BFI (British Film Institute) guidance definitely help. The problem is that you have BFI guidance, which is just telling what people to do, and Times Up which is just a campaign. 

“You need a strategy and outcome for where you actually want to get to, in order to solve this issue. There are steps for setting up a monitoring body with broadcasters who are involved, but that needs proper funding… and also needs to be independent.”


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Macdonald believes more of a union presence on production sets would help combat bullying: “We wouldn’t receive complaints where women are subjected to horrific language, pestered, and made to feel worthless. It is really difficult to get onto sets excuses such as ‘we have got sensitive scenes’ and ‘it’s just not convenient’ are what we hear from studios and production companies.”

Some steps forward have been made. “On sets, they have now got intimacy coordinators which have been introduced gradually in the last few years – I think that is a really positive move.” Macdonald believes the inclusion of welfare officers and bystander officers on production sets also help freelancers feel safer, as they have someone to go to if they experience verbal or physical bullying.

But there is still a long way to go. 

The ‘Bectu Vision – Flexible working’ initiative aims to improve the culture for freelancers through initiatives such as job-sharing, flexible working champions and shorter working hours.

“Crews are becoming less tolerant and bad behaviour is being called out quicker with all the campaigning by the unions and increased media awareness,” Macdonald told Byline Times. “We have witnessed all levels being the subject of harmful behaviour, but freelance trainees, assistants and junior grades are still the most vulnerable overall.”

Macdonald wants to achieve a situation where freelancers feel able to come forward to finally hold bullies accountable and not worry about jeopardising their careers.

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