Freelancers have been referred to as the UK’s “hidden workforce”, and with good reason. Few people have a full understanding of just how reliant many industries are on freelance and contract workers.
Without self-employed locum doctors the NHS would collapse in hours. Without a flexible IT workforce the City of London, and the UK’s financial infrastructure, would creak to an awkward halt. The industry that would suffer most might well be journalism, though. According to the National Union of Journalists around a third of their membership are freelance, and a small army of beat reporters, photographers and expert commentators all contribute to newsgathering organisations around the world.
One of the biggest news stories of 2015 – the FIFA scandal – was primarily the work of a small group of freelancers who together (despite being thousands of miles apart and perhaps having never spoken to one another) investigated, broke, and reported the story from beginning to end – if it has indeed ended.
The architect of Sepp Blatter’s downfall was a truculent investigative reporter by the name of Andrew Jennings. Having previously investigated corruption at the International Olympic Committee, Jennings turned his gaze to FIFA in 2006 with the publication of FOUL! The Secret World of FIFA: Bribes, Vote-Rigging and Ticket Scandals and an accompanying episode of BBC Panorama entitled The Beautiful Bung: Corruption and the World Cup.
Jennings followed up with further Panorama investigations 2007 and 2010, and another book in 2014 focusing specifically on the misdeeds of Sepp Blatter.
When the FBI descended on the Hotel Baur au Lac in Zürich to arrest seven FIFA officials in May this year Jennings was asleep at home. He stayed in bed despite his phone exploding with emails and phonecalls. “Whatever is happening at six in the morning is still going to be there at lunch time, isn’t it?”, he told the Washington Post. Not doing much to shed the pyjama-working freelancer stereotype there, Andrew.
Pascal Mora, a freelance photographer based in Zürich was on the scene and captured the iconic image of the day, which was duly snapped up by the New York Times and used in news reports around the world.
— The New York Times (@nytimes) May 27, 2015
By mid-morning the world’s media had descended on FIFA’s headquarters in Zürich – or, at least, the freelance correspondents retained by the world’s media. Breaking international news is where networks of freelance reporters – stringers, as they’re called – allow networks like the BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera to be “on the spot” in minutes or hours. As the story rumbled on and more investigations were launched it became clear Sepp Blatter’s days were numbered. On 2nd June Jennings told the Washington Post Blatter was “a dead man walking”, and that evening FIFA’s embattled President called a short-notice press conference and announced he would resign. Only one problem though – the story was a week old and the news anchors and satellite trucks had long since departed to cover breaking stories elsewhere, leaving a handful of sports journalists and stringers to cover the latest twist in the FIFA saga.
Once again a freelance photographer was on hand to provide the defining image of the day, this time Valeriano Di Domenico working for Agence France-Presse.
Press handlers of high-profile public figures are usually careful about stage-managing public appearances to avoid embarrassing photos, the most well-known being the exit sign trap laid by canny photographers (or sometimes a failure to exit entirely).
After days of crisis FIFA’s PR team were caught napping, and as Blatter exited the stage Di Domenico captured the image that adorned many newspaper front pages the next day.
— Agence France-Presse (@AFP) June 2, 2015
The photo proved so iconic that the photographer blogged about it for AFP the following week. The biggest sporting scandal of recent years wouldn’t finish that cleanly, though. On 20th July, at a press conference to discuss the election of Blatter’s successor, comedian Simon Brodkin, best known for his Lee Nelson character, approached the FIFA delegation and handed Blatter a wad of cash “for North Korea 2026”. Blatter’s security pounced, but not before Brodkin threw a wad of cash in the air, showering Blatter with banknotes to the joy of the assembled photographers. Arnd Wiegmann of Reuters, Fabrice Coffrini of Getty and others captured what may prove to be the defining images of Blatter’s career.
Although the public may have learned about the unfolding scandal from their news anchor or publication of choice the legwork of investigation and reportage wasn’t theirs. This story, and many more, were made possible by often-unnoticed, flexible and supremely talented freelance journalists and photographers scattered around the globe.