Why Interns Shouldn't Work For Free

01 August 2012 by

Following this week's debate into interning, Guardian columnist Zoe Williams tells us why she thinks interns shouldn't work for free...

I took a press trip once with an editor from a bridal magazine; it was years ago, before interning was so normal it had turned into a verb, before the financial crash and before record unemployment. It was possibly before the internet, but at the very least, before Ipads. Over a conversation one evening, the editor seemed vaguely affronted that anybody would expect to begin their careers with a paid job. ‘We all worked for free,’ she said, as though that sealed it. At that point, I hadn’t given the matter much thought, so I surprised even myself with the vehemence of my response: “I don’t mind”, I said “if the bridal magazine market is dominated by rich people, but I really mind if the rest of the media is”. 

In my mind, it is fine for people to work for free, except that it means you’ll get all your employees from a very specific pool. They will have to have parents or at least very good friends who live in London, who’ll let them live rent free, and bankroll their food, their travel, their trips to Topshop. So why has it become normal for journalism interns to work for free? 

I would really mind if television and publishing operated like that. And I would be seriously worried if politics worked like that. It would be more than unfair on people who weren’t moneyed, locked out forever of professions that might be passionate about. It would also totally skew the culture, giving us a surreal landscape in which the dominant narrative, along with all the important decisions, were being made by people from a very narrow and probably quite resented band of society.

The problem is, it’s already happened; Westminster imported the intern culture wholesale from Washington, and it is showing already that politicians are all from the same class. A side-issue is that we’ve taken America’s culture of working for free, but not their skills at negotiation – so even the privileged few who can afford to do a non-paying job will often find themselves with nothing to show for it, not even an interview, at the end of it. There are no vacancies; there’s just an ever-replenishing queue of fresh interns.

Until something changes, this is how it is. And nobody wins from a system like this, except the employer, but weren’t they winning already?

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