A plea to journalists: don’t troll your interns

What is it with journalists having a go at interns lately? Brendan O’Neill did it in August for The Spectator, with an imbecilic ‘Why interns don’t deserve pay’ piece, and Ed Cumming has told interns in The Telegraph today that they “should stop complaining and work for free”.

Cumming, who studied English at Clare College, Cambridge, writes of aspiring student journalists: “There are no lengths to which I will not go to keep those prodigious little Oxbridge s**** off my turf”.

He also wrote for Varsity, a Cambridge student newspaper, but is nonetheless derogatory about interns “who drone on all week about their fine work for the satirical university paper”.

So it seems there is more than a little self-loathing going on here. It’s clear that Cumming, along with O’Neill, are trolling. But it takes some chutzpah to slam precisely the sort of intern that Cumming, by his own confession, was just a few years ago.

Once an intern is performing tasks that a paid staffer would otherwise have to do then he or she deserves to be paid. It is that simple, both morally and legally.

It’s difficult to find anything resembling a coherent argument for why interns should be grateful to work for free. Instead there are plenty of dubious assertions.

Take this. “I am always staggered by the number of interns who come to the Telegraph apparently with the expectation that at the end of the week they’ll be given a column with a fat salary and that will be that.”

That’s not true. Most newspaper interns, especially those who are new to the business, arrive with a shy and deferential attitude to their temporary colleagues. Big newsrooms are scary places and journalists, at first sight, are either fiercely intelligent or just plain fierce. Interns, few of whom are able to demand payment, do not demand columns.

If they do “go home at 4pm without suggesting an article”, then maybe that is because they lack initiative. As a serial intern myself I’ve met plenty of young people – typically the ones who have been set up on the internship by a close friend or relative – who don’t have the faintest clue.

In most cases however interns just don’t feel welcome in the office. That’s generally not the fault of journalists. They’re usually mad busy, especially as the peak intern season coincides with the summer break – when staff take their summer holidays leaving more work for the remaining staff to hoover up.

Of course the fact that there is more to do over the holiday season should represent an opportunity for interns to step in and prove themselves. But when aspiring journalists read the sort of derogatory drivel that Cumming posted today, they can be forgiven for hiding meekly in the corner.

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